Gary Raymond casts a critical eye over a performance by the experimental music act and audio-visual project I Speak Machine at the Chapter Arts Centre.
The renaissance of both artful horror movies and serious electronic music in the last decade has thrown up a slew of great moments, and many of them have happened side by side (most notably in the soundtracks of the likes of Jonathan Snipes and Disasterpeace to movies such as Starry Eyes and It Follows). In fact, as pop music continues to chew on its own tail, creating era upon era of smothering blandness out of harmonious wastelands and claustrophobically over-produced elevator soundscapes, it’s quite likely that in a hundred year’s time it is Kraftwerk and not The Beatles who are remembered as the most important band of the post Elvis-on-Ed-Sullivan era. In this regard, Tara Busch, the musical department of this project (to put it in probably all too simplistic terms), brings a beautiful and horrific intensity to the table. I Speak Machine matches Busch’s synth symphonies to Maf Lewis’ punchy, playful, adoring horror movie shorts for a live experience – Busch performs live to Lewis’ projected films – that understands absolutely the joy of fear, of being terrified in a full, dark movie theatre. And Lewis is passionate about the live element – these movies are not to be watched on laptops, they are to be experienced on the correct stage, and that stage has Busch, fenced in by her equipment in the bottom left hand corner of your eyeline, conducting the audience’s heart rate.
And the symbiosis of the two departments of I Speak Machine is essential, for both parts are less alone. But this is not to denigrate either. Lewis and Busch work together entirely – this is not a system where Lewis emails his finished film to Busch and she starts exploring musical ideas. Both are in on the development of each film from the initial idea. Music and story grow together. First film on show here, for instance, is the truly terrifying Gagglebox, a 3-minute short that originated from a dream Busch had.
Busch is a self-confessed synth-nerd, and her expertise and passion come through the music. Her voice is chillingly sublime – particularly throughout the longest movie of the evening, The Silence. Much of the power comes from her score – it drives deep down and then begins to cut. There may be a great deal to be said about how film-makers have often found the manipulative power of music an easy-out when met with a bad script or a poor performance, but in the realm of horror this point is rather moot. The visceral power of horror is about attacking the senses, and Busch is front and centre of this; her vision is epic despite its economy, it is grand – it is the horror opera of bands like Libra and Goblin mixed with the propulsive ferocity of Fabio Frizzi, not to mention the distinctive atmospherics of a bit of John Carpenter. Busch is the archetypal student of her trade – of both the tools and the masters who went before; and it’s difficult to imagine her being born to do anything else.
(A word too should go to the only non-soundtrack moment of the evening; a darkly stunning version of ‘Sound of Silence’ – quite simply the greatest cover version of any Simon and Garfunkel song that has ever been done).
The movies themselves are distinct, they have a signature, and are evidently made with the love that marks out the most notable auteurs of the horror genre. As has already been noted, Gagglebox is a significant punch to the solar plexus, and a great opener. The Silence is a claustrophobic exploration of a
modern world in which nothing ever stops and no-one ever sleeps. The ‘chase sequence’ that makes up much of the second half is nigh on unbearable, as Busch’s synths press down on you and Lewis’ editing spins you around. And in the end it is quite likely that is in the editing booth where Lewis’ talent is most obvious. The Silence, at the final stretch, fails to hold together entirely, and leaves more questions than a full vision really should. It is an occasion when the experience inside the film, tough as it is, does not extend beyond the frame – the mark of great horror. Finally, some much appreciated gore in Zombies 1985, a joyous, hilarious and grim homage to the most tried and tested of horror’s .
What I Speak Machine offer is something quite different to other live-music-cinema projects – a live experience that comes to you from inception to stage as one flowing symbiotic creation. The three films on show here suggest Maf Lewis has a corker up his sleeve, and when that time comes he is in partnership with a composer and performer who has every right to be sat at the high table.
To find out more about upcoming performances at the Chapter Arts Centre visit their website.
To find out more about I Speak Machine visit their website.
Gary Raymond is an editor and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.