While it’s well established that a soundtrack can completely reshape the mood of a film, Christine Ott’s score for F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s 1931 silent film Tabu instigates a particularly profound atmospheric overhaul. Where the original was accompanied by a spritely and often bombastic orchestral affair, Christine’s spacious piano work gives rise to a contemplative air that was previously trampled by the stampede of brass and strings. The tempo and rhythm of her playing is largely dictated by the various forms of flowing water on screen: ripples, the waterfalls and the sea that surrounds the island of Bora Bora. Other pieces wield the strange tones of the Ondes Martenot – an electronic instrument invented in 1928, whose notes float and flicker like moths in the dark – as well as the beautiful hang contributions of Torsten Böttcher.
Having toured her score for Tabu as a ciné concert the past few years, Christine is now releasing the soundtrack as an album on Gizeh Records. It’s out now. Below, Christine and I discuss her first experiences with Tabu, the inspiration of water flow and her first meetings with Torsten Böttcher.
I understand that the film Tabu had quite a profound effect on you. When did you first see the film, and how did you come to the idea of developing a live soundtrack for it?
Yes, Tabu has and still have a profound effect on me. I was deeply moved and shattered by the fantastic and unusual love story and, at the same time, impressed by the beauty of the light. I saw the film first in 2012, and it was a special moment of my life for me. At this moment, my life looks like a sort of mirror of the film…a sort of “Paradise lost”.
I think my collaboration with the movie director Roland Edzard was also important. Roland asked me to compose on his movie La Fin Du Silence in 2011, which was quite new for me as a main composer. Previously I had worked as an interpreter or guest composer: for Tindersticks several times, or for Hugues Tabar Noval’s soundtrack Ou va la nuit. This collaboration confirmed my deep pleasure and ease in composing for images by myself.
On Roland’s movie, just a few pieces of music were kept for the score. I was not frustrated as everything was good with him. And it made sense for the movie, which was presented in 2011 at Cannes. So, I think I needed to recover this situation, this confrontation between me and a movie. Alone this time. So after several months I watched a lot of movies, and I fell in love with Tabu!
How did the writing and recording process work for your score?
From the moment I chose the film, everything went very quickly. I worked four days at the conservatory of Strasbourg where I currently work as a teacher. I installed all the stuff I imagined for the soundtrack: the Ondes Martenot, the piano, all percussions I thought would work for all the sound effects. A good sound engineer agreed to accompany me in this residency and to record everything.
Of course, I had analysed the scenario before, and thought about a plan for working. The original idea was to first record my improvisations chapter by chapter. These improvisations were totally free and totally spontaneous, and it came so quickly and easily compared to the month I spent afterward notating all of the recordings! I have to say I’m not very good at transcription work. Finally I recorded all the ideas for the score in three days.
I had chosen to work as though it were an opera score, with leitmotivs for the main characters (Matahi, Reri, Hitu). I added another main theme, the one for the sea. In this movie, I feel the sea as a character in itself. The sea, or maybe the water in general…successively the waterfall, the run to the sea, to the boat, or the end tempest. I thought I would keep this work and that I would only play it as a live soundtrack.
Personally I’ve had some incredible experiences watching films with live scores (most notably: a Buster Keaton double-bill in an old goods shed with piano accompaniment, and L’Inferno in an abandoned factory with an electronic score). How do you find these experiences as a performer? Do you have any particularly fond memories of attending ciné-concerts as a spectator?
My experiences of cine-concert as a spectator are various. Many I can remember have been operas in fact. Strangely, my feeling about this artistic form is not necessary good, because this form can be quite easy and boring. You know, sometimes the instrumentation is effortless and without imagination. A guy is playing flute in the movie ? OK, let’s play flute. Other times, musicians do not sufficiently discern the differences between concert and ciné-concert, and their stage performance or the musical progression can burden the movie.
When the music is more subtle, I think it can be good, and sometimes better if you forget there are some players on stage. With Tabu, I take it as a compliment when people say, “At the beginning of the movie, I tried to watch what you’re doing on stage, your attitude, your playing style, especially on the Ondes Martenot, and finally I was carried away by the movie and the soundtrack and I forgot everything…”. That’s good to me.
I’m always intrigued as to how a filmscore composer handles the negotiation between sound and image. Many of my favourite soundtracks demonstrate an understanding of where to drop back to give the visual element plenty of room, and when may be suitable to push to greater levels of intensity. How did you find the experience of finding this balance for Tabu?
I think this is important for the composer to understand the power of the images in order to not make it clumsy. It has to build a whole thing; the music has to not be preponderant, or and sometimes has to fit in with the dynamic of the show. As for Tabu, the last chapter is as a climax, and this is a part of the ciné-concert in which I like to play very strong, very punk, just as the movie and the story is!
The movie is the conductor! For the intentions, the energy, but also for the tempi to use, the dynamic. Then I think there are no rules. Each movie gives its own life to the composition.
Your piano playing has a fluid, cascading quality to it; the speed and volume is always in free-flow. Personally I hear a certain likeness to the emotive undulations of human speech and human movement. Are these written into the music, or is there room left for impulse to drive the tempo and intensity of the pieces?
Yes. This freedom and fluidity in playing piano is in fact very much linked to images, and very linked to the water themes. So the rhythm of my playing is set by the waterfalls, the waves, the water flow. But I didn’t note this in the score, except some particular ralenti or accelerando. It’s only given by the movie. The interpreter has to adapt his playing to the images.
You worked with hang-player Torsten Böttcher for this release. He puts in a beautiful performance on the 10-minute “Sorrow / Lover’s Dance”, which has this sense of “quiet viscera” to it. What was it like working with Torsten, and what made the hang such a suitable instrument for this work?
It was a beautiful meeting with Torsten, who seemed to “fall from the sky” to me. In fact I had almost all the musical framework for Tabu after the days of solo improvisation and composition except three chapters: the first apparition of Reri, in the middle of tropical plants, and the dances. When I met Torsten he was playing as a minstrel in the streets of Strasbourg. He was playing hang – you know, this melodic percussion that looks like a flying saucer. I listened to him and I immediately know his instrument would give the perfect colour to represent the beauty and gentleness of Reri. A very particular colour in fact.
I didn’t dare to speak to him immediately, and I continued down the street. But I got back on my feet. My shyness disappeared in front of my conviction in this instrument and more than this, Torsten’s interpretation would be perfect for the creation of Tabu. We spoke a little bit and exchanged emails. Then I asked him about this collaboration. He discovered my musical path on the net and told me he was ok with it. We recorded live as improvisations.
Since then, we have become good friends. We have since had the chance to create another work together, for the International Film Festival of La Rochelle, on the movie Nanook of the North.
So yes, the hang was great for the movie and for these scenes in particular, bringing some softness and sensuality to some scenes and an important rhythmic dimension to others. This warm colour mixed perfectly with the Bora Bora atmosphere.
I’ve heard another soundtrack for Tabu which is much more orchestral and bombastic. The film feels entirely different. Has producing your own score reframed your relationship with the film?
As I was searching for an existing movie to do a soundtrack on, I switched off the sounds and music in order to not be influenced. So it might sound strange, but as I had not seen Tabu before, I first watched it in silence. So there was nothing to redefine. It was easier for me. I built my relationship as I played on it. Then, I discovered after the original soundtrack. Ah! That’s quite different for sure!
Your other record this year, Only Silence Remains, also has a very prominent sense of narrative to it. Is there anything that draws you to music that drives (or is driven by) a narrative or a journey of some sort?
Yes of course. I’m very sensitive to conceiving an album as a journey more than a patchwork of pieces. I like the fact there is a thread, and that I can manage to tell a story through it, to give some emotions through all the release. In my own way. Even if it’s not necessarily coherent or clearly understandable.
Then I’m very sensitive to open my music to images, of dance, poetry, or to a text. And that both can feed into one another.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
Unfortunately not a lot these last months. I was quite under pressure with these releases and other stuff, so it’s been difficult to breathe and listen new sounds outside of my works and collaborations. But I did this 1h playlist a few months ago, with some favourites of mine at this time (with Low Roar, This Immortal Coil, Arvo Pärt, Jack the ripper or Björk’s storm…)
What else is on the horizon for you?
Some Tabu ciné-concerts. It would be great to play it in UK next year. I have some future releases planned or in mind too. A collaboration with Foudre! will be released on February, which is a great project. Then i’m working on two others personal discs, for which compositions are quite fixed; with my duo Snowdrops, and the follow-up of album to Only Silence Remains.