At the very end of December 1910, a new cinema opened in Manchester city centre at the junction of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street West. The Kinemacolor Place was a plush joint showing all the latest silent movies. It changed hands, and indeed names, many times over the decades but, apart from a brief interlude as a furniture showroom, it remained as a working cinema right up until earlier this year when its latest incarnation – Cornerhouse’s Cinema 1 – closed its doors for the last time.
So it’s a neat bit of synchronicity that a silent film screening helped to mark Cornerhouse’s regeneration into HOME last month, with the première of a brand new soundtrack to Pál Fejös 1928 feature Lonesome, written specially for the occasion by Robin Richards, best known as composer and bassist for North West band Dutch Uncles.
The band first came together more than ten years ago when Richards and a few of his school mates started playing music together. By the time Richards started a degree in music at the University of Salford, Dutch Uncles had already released their first album. In 2013, Richards performed his first solo neo-classical composition, Washington Trapeze, at Festival No.6, which brought him to the attention of the folks at HOME for their new ‘Music and Film’ strand. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, he explains: “Off the back of that, they thought that I would be good for this project and then we worked on it for several months in advance.”
So it was almost a year ago that the approach was made and Richards started on the road to Lonesome. In fact, the first task was to choose the film: it was always intended to be part of HOME’s grand opening weekend, with some thematic link to the weekend’s umbrella theme of ‘the funfair’. But at that stage Lonesome was only one of several silent films on the subject under consideration. Early contenders struck Richards as overly melodramatic, though. “Then when we watched Lonesome, I really liked the characters and the camera work,” he says.
It’s not a widely-seen film, but even after nearly 90 years, Lonesome is hugely charming. It concerns Jim and Mary, two lonely workers going about their lives in isolation. On a hot Summer day, they both head to the beach, which is where their paths cross. As the day goes on, romance starts to blossom between them, but it starts to seem as though circumstances are conspiring to keep them apart. Then again, they have more in common than they might imagine. Made on the cusp of the talkie age, the film features some very short scenes with recorded dialogue – but they’re relatively clunky moments compared to the sweet lyricism of the rest.
So early this year, with the film selected, and with Dutch Uncles’ fourth album O Shudder about to be released, Richards began work on his score, with the involvement of the Royal Northern College of Music. “I always said that I wanted to work with typical classical instruments, so a string quartet and piano and vibraphone. And I think HOME suggested student players from the RNCM. If we were working with professional players, they wouldn’t have been as much time for rehearsals, so we got students who were really keen to impress. They were great.”
There was a collaborative element to the project, too, involving four students from the RNCM composition department. “I designated them a scene each to score, with the brief of working with most themes that I’d already written. And I didn’t want to give them the most boring scenes. I wanted to give them quite interesting scenes to work with.”
For instance, having met with the students, Richards selected one who enjoyed working with atonal music to score one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, involving – yes – a malfunctioning rollercoaster. “Putting it all together was the tricky bit. But I think if people didn’t know my work before then they probably didn’t tell the difference.”
As the screenings approached, though, there were still things to iron out.
“The section in the middle that’s got all five composers’ sections one after each other did feel a bit disjointed” admits Richards. “I tweaked it, and also worked on segways between the scenes to make it as cohesive as possible. Then during the rehearsals, just actually hearing it come to life after hearing it as [composition software] Sibelius MIDI sounds for the past six months…it was great. And yeah, it did work. We did a full run-through before the first performance on Sunday, and after that it was kind of like – ah, I can do this. It’s all going to be fine.”
While studying at Salford, Richards developed a love of neo-classical music and composers like Igor Stravinsky and Michael Tippett. It’s not too hard to detect those influences on the striking arrangements and bold time signatures in Dutch Uncles’ music. Film soundtrack music itself, though, has never particularly fed into their work.
“I think there have been certain tracks that people have described as filmic in some way,” Richards suggests. “But it’s not like there’s any film composers in particular that have been been an influence when I’ve written music for the band. Even when I wrote music for this film, it wasn’t like John Barry or anyone was a huge influence. So much film music is predictable and formulaic at the moment that it’s when you get film scores written by composers who aren’t usually writing film music that it sticks out as something slightly more vibrant and exciting. I mean, Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood always sticks out for me as one that’s like, ‘Wow, that is different’.”
Richards’ score for Lonesome is a treat, full of promise, and the two HOME performances, with Richards himself providing live bass guitar, were much acclaimed. It’s refreshing to see a composer hit the ground running like this, and demonstrate an understanding of the principle that a soundtrack should serve and heighten the effects of a film, rather than distract from it.
And yet Richards has a highly distinctive style, very much recognisable from his work with Dutch Uncles. The rest of 2015 will see the band on tour, not least as support for the forthcoming Garbage reunion shows. They’re in the very early stages of writing their next album, too. On top of all that, Richards has a few other small solo endeavours in the pipeline.
“It’s great to know that in the next few months I’ve got the fifth album to write for the band, but also two or three other projects to be working on at the same time, because I’ve realised that I definitely prefer to be busy than not.”
For one thing, it’s very likely that further live performances of the Lonesome score will take place, though nothing official has been announced just yet. “HOME have even talked about touring it, taking to London or something, which would be amazing. But we’ll just have to wait and see. it would be a shame if it was only performed twice.” And in the long run, is this the sort of composing work he’d like to explore further? “Oh yeah, definitely. For sure. Doing this project has made me keen to do more.”
By Andy Murray
Photos by Chris Payne
A new album by Dutch Uncles, O Shudder, is available now and the band are on tour later this year.