Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast here to help inspire more people to discover and love the arts. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving once again into our archive, looking back to May 2018 and Sounds and Visions, curated by composer Max Richter, and artist Yulia Mahr, and with them I'm exploring the meeting point between sound, vision, literature, dance, and film.
Max Richter: You know, everything connects to everything I think, in terms of creativity.
Yulia Mahr: I love the fact that it's such an adventure. I love Max's curiosity and the fact that every everything is an experiment and journey.
BE: on the second of two podcasts. We speak to director Ari Folman.
Ari Folman: I think all films are very personal. And I think whatever you do in a film, you close a circle in your life.
BE: And musician and founder of the Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku.
Chi-chi Nwanoku: As I walked back to Waterloo station, I kind of looked to my right and to my left and then I and I said, ‘No, no, it's me. I've got to do something about that’.
BE: They’ll be speaking about the live score performance of animated documentary ‘Waltz with Bashir’. First, though, Max and Yulia continued our conversation.
MR: I mean, every project, every idea has its hinterland. And actually, you know, that's one of the most interesting things about it, you know, where's it come from? How is it joined up with other things? And yeah, both in the music programme and the film programme, you know, we've tried to, you know, draw out those lineages. I think Caterina Barbieri, I think, is a really interesting, sort of, quite tough-minded, sort of, analogue synth person, really, I’m really looking forward to that. Claire M Singer, organ music, that'll be interesting. I think Colin Stetson’s new project’ EX EYE’…
BE: Oh yeah.
MR: Which I…
BE: That’s gonna be loud.
MR: That is gonna be loud. That is going to be loud. I don't think they’ve played in the UK before, Roomful of Teeth haven't played in the UK before either, right?
YM: The first time the ‘Partita’s – I couldn’t believe it – it’s the first time the ‘Partita’s have been performed in the UK.
MR: So yeah, so lots of lots of new and or at least unknown things coming up, so, exciting.
BE: We've touched on synthesisers, obviously Kaitlyn, but there's also the Will Gregory and the Moog Ensemble. The ‘Switched-On Bach’ albums, I presume are quite important for you.
MR: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, I mean, I, look, you know, I'm, I'm a synthesiser junkie, I freely admit. And you know, I did it, I heard those records and I was just like, ‘Oh that’s amazing, it's crazy.’ I mean, they're sort of, they're kind of, in a way, like a lot of early electronic music, they sort of hover between incredible and kind of cheesy, you know, in the way that some of the Kraftwerk stuff is sort of deliberately sort of a bit clunky or funny. You know, there's always a slight sort of twinkle of humour about it, and I think some of the ‘Switched-On Bach’ is a bit like that as well. And I mean, apart from the fact that they, you know, they're amazingly played, very clever, huge amount of effort went into them. But yeah, I loved those records when I was a kid.
YM: You know that I programmed the ‘Powers of Ten’ because you liked it as a kid as well.
MR: Right? Okay.
YM: Thinking of you as a ten-year old, with your ‘Switched-On Bach’, it was also ‘Powers of Ten’.
MR: Right, well, that films amazing, but actually the score is utterly bizarre. It’s an Elmer Bernstein electronic score, wow, his only electronic score and you might think for a good reason, you know, because it's just like it's just like really… it’s a really strange score.
YM: You know though that Charles Eames said about the film that he wanted a ten-year old to be able to appreciate the film, and that made me think about you and how much you’d loved it, as a ten-year old
MR: Yeah, I did. [film clip]
BE: Do you see barriers, again, in regards to both your artwork? In regards to who should see them? I mean, there's an interesting concert at the end of the series where your [Barbican] Box I think, has been travelling around schools and that looks like, whether that, that will be the most revolutionary part of the festival?
MR: Well, I hope so. I mean, it's been really interesting that. So the Barbican Box project, of which this is the, sort of, latest iteration, is a wonderful idea where you basically get to make, to get a box and fill it with stuff which you think will catalyse, sort of, young people to make creative work, to make music. And so we just filled it with stuff. And the kids have come along with some amazing responses to that. Very personal, and… great, you know, so exciting. We're going to see all these performances, of their own work, made in response to this material we put in the box. So I mean, yeah, it's a thrill.
YM: And we're so excited about that bit, aren’t we? Because we both arrived in this country as children who didn't speak English and we both were fairly, sort of, ostracised at our respective schools because of that. I was nine I think when I, eight or nine, I came to this country and Max was a bit younger, but we both found refuge in our art teachers or music teachers, and who kind of allowed us to just survive, in a way, that experience.
And obviously, we've talked about that a lot in our, you know, conversations over the years, but what was so beautiful about this project in a way is it's talking about that too, you know, it's letting the kids tell their personal stories, some of which will have been similar to ours, or much more difficult stories, perhaps. Literally music and art saved me when I was a child and allowed me to survive, and I think that's the thing that's so rich and to read or to see art about other people's personal journeys.
BE: That possibly unifies a lot of artists on this, on the weekend, in the sense that you don't necessarily need all this information about them. You just need to walk into the concert and you will soon get a reaction to what they're producing.
MR: Yeah, I mean, that's the wonderful thing, isn't it about creative work, it has a kind of a directness, it's a one to one conversation. And, you know, if people come in, you know, without preconceptions, you get these wonderful surprises, don't you? And I think there's something, there's something very kind of authentic and fundamental about, about sort of, that creative response, that creative conversation, which is, yeah, I mean, it's one of the sort of richest experiences we can have as human beings.
BE: I wanted to mention ‘Waltz with Bashir’, you've obviously done a lot of, now, film music and film associations.
MR: Yeah. I mean I, at that time, I hadn't scored any films. And this was really a sort of cold call from Ari [Folman]. You know, he sent me an email, ‘I've written’, you know, ‘I've written this film, I've been listening to your music, now you've got to score the film’. But they sent me, Ari sent me a trailer, which he'd cut together of about 90 seconds of animation and I was just floored you know, I thought it was spectacular. And obviously you know then I invested in reading the script and coming to an understanding of the themes and of the storytelling language. I just thought it was really a masterpiece and you know, obviously something I wanted to do.
BE: Director of ‘Waltz with Bashir’, Ari Folman.
Ari Folman: I think all films are very personal and I think whatever you do in a film, you close a circle in your life. Even, it can be very much related to you, like this film is like autobiography, okay, so it's about me, but this is a rare example. It's like how many films are told like this one? It's always personal, any kind of filmmaking is personal, in my opinion.
AF: I, when I ever do movies, I always try to open my mind as much as I can and not come with the concept, not go in like with strict ideas of what I want to do. So basically, I advertise on the internet that I'm looking for stories. This was, there were stories from the first Lebanon War, because since then there was another one. And from the first three months, and I got a response from more than 400 ex-soldiers, and I got some unbelievable stories. It took a year to record and hear everybody and then I just, I thought that the only way to deal with it was to do it on a very personal level. And I eliminated like 95% of the material, just to stay with the people that gave me one strict story to deal with. I always knew it was going to be animated anyhow. Before I started I already took the decision it was going to be animated.
BE: The animation you mentioned there, what does that bring?
AF: The animation gives you a great opportunity to deal with the subject of memory. Of dreams and dimensions; conscious, subconscious; loss, fears; and still stay focused. I'm sure that we wouldn't be sitting here talking if it wasn't an animated movie. It will never grab the attention. And it was just a good language, I think to treat the subject like this. First, we thought about the colours that will dictate the entire movie. And we decided it's going to be orange and dark colours and black, from the, what we call the super scene, which is the dream about Beirut. And this dictated the entire atmosphere of the movie. From there on, you know, it was just making the movie, but we knew the feeling very early, from a very early stage.
AF: It’s the most simple software that you can find, especially back then. It's like, it's Flash, you know, every kid could download it and do his tricks on it. And we manage with six animators and basically one designer to make a feature film that went all the way to the American Oscars. So, I think we were on the wave of an invention because we come from a society in a country where there is no tradition at all of animation, nothing. And we were like pioneers, and it's good because we don't have a path to follow at all. And you feel very, very free to do all the tests you want to do.
BE: I need to move on to the music. What brought Max Richter into the picture?
AF: Well, I wrote this script… it's like, unbelievable, but I wrote it in four days. I went to Haifa in the Galilee and I had the research and I knew what I wanted to do, and I wrote the script. During that period of time, that few days, I don't know why, but I listened only to a couple of Max Richter, the albums I had back then. It was 2004, I think it was, ‘The Blue Notebook’ and ‘Memoryhouse’. Basically, he was writing the score for the screenplay, although he never knew it, right? because I was deeply influenced from this. When I finished it, I looked looked for him on the internet. He had a website that I wrote in this very short letter, that I'm an Israeli filmmaker, and I told him the story, probably sounds really, really stupid. And I told him since you conducted the music for the for the script, maybe you want to write the music for the entire movie. And he said something, ‘Yeah, why not?’ So I said, ‘Okay, can we meet?’ He said, ‘Yeah, come over, I’m in Edinburgh’. And we never spoke, by the way, never by the phone, nothing. I took a plane and I went to Edinburgh and we met and this was the first time we met. We set a few days, with the animatics, the video boards, there was no animation, back then. And it was like, very easy. It was like love from first sight, like really easy. He did the sketches in two, three weeks. He recorded it, like at the end of the process and it was like a really fantastic collaboration for me.
MR: It was interesting because obviously I'd never really had any intention of working in film. So I had –not at all – and so I had no idea how to do it really. So, it was an interesting sort of lab process, you know, me sort of basically finding out how to write music for a film by writing music for a film. And it was a wonderful sort of collaborative journey actually.
YM: Didn't you get, didn't Ari come over? You guys spent four days talking about Bob Dylan that was the sum-total of the spotting session, which is never, nowadays spotting sessions don’t happen like that, do they?
MR: It was, I mean, Ari is a cool guy, you know, and we just yeah, we went out and you know, had some beer and we were just sort of chatting and then that was it, you know. It was it was great.
BE: And interesting because the Chineke! Orchestra will be performing that as well.
MR: I mean, I became aware of Chineke! I guess a couple years ago, something like that, when they started, and I mean, they're a fantastic orchestra and, you know, just, you know, really first division band on that score. It should be really interesting.
BE: Next I spoke to Chi-chi Nwanoku. Chi-chi Nwanoku: It comes from the east of Nigeria, the southeast of Nigeria, the Igbo people. It's an Igbo word, the Igbo people in their language, the word ‘chi’ means God or guardian, and they believe that every single person on the earth has their own unique Guardian that guides you from your cradle to the coffin. ‘Neke’ means the creation of all good things. Even the rain, the trees, the grass, and all diverse aspects. And therefore, ‘Chi-neke’ together kind of means the spirit of all good creation. And it's used often in the Igbo language as a real exclamation of something amazing. When something alarming or amazing happens. Or sort of a gasp of excitement, they might say ‘Chi-neke!’, and that's why I've always had the explanation mark after the word, to sort of lift it.
BE: Was there one particular moment where you decided you needed to form this orchestra? Or was it a feeling, something that grew inside you?
CN: A bit of both? For the answer to that question. Of course, I'd been aware that I operated as a sort of single entity as far as ethnicity was concerned in classical music and in orchestras, throughout my entire career. I was going to hear the Kinshasa Orchestra from the Congo, playing at the Africa Utopia Festival at the Royal Festival Hall in September 2014. As I walked back to Waterloo station at afterwards, I kind of looked to my right and to my left, and then I and I said, ‘No, no, it's me. I've got to do something about that.’ The Monday morning, I was on the phone to everyone: Southbank, Barbican, government, British Council, Conservatoires UK; and I just announced that I was going to create an organisation that actually tackled this issue of the lack of visibility of people of black and minority ethnic in our sector of the creative industries. And that's, so Chineke! Really, literally, went off in my head at that concert.
CN: One of the things that several people have said to me, how did you recruit? Well, I got to know people, you know, some of the people in the orchestra are international soloists, you know, like Ty Murray, who's leading – in fact, she led the first concert – she's leading ‘Waltz with Bashir’ as well. I knew of her, she's American, and she now lives in Berlin. So, I had one or two people that I kind of knew, but they didn't live in England, I hadn't ever played with them before. I recognised right from the start that the Chineke! Orchestra, the professional orchestra, was going to do something right at the very beginning, which would kind of challenge the status quo. And at the same time, immediately change perceptions of whoever comes to hear the concert, will see the concert as well, won’t have seen an orchestra looking like this before.
You know, there were 62 musicians in our very first concert, and we represented 31 nationalities, and it looks largely People of Colour, it’s majority people of colour; but you know, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Caribbean islands, African countries, I'm Nigerian/Irish, you know, born in England, and so, there's so many combinations amongst us. So many mixtures, no one section, or even no one stand is from the same ethnic background. With Chineke!, from our very first concert, we knew we'd sold out, but I didn't know who was going to be in the audience and walking out onto the stage for the first time in my life, playing Beethoven and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Brahms, we were faced with a packed out hall, of an audience that looks like the community that we live in.
MR: I think they again, obviously, sort of embody this idea of creativity and this being a social project. Those two things sort of going hand in hand and I guess we felt this was an ideal opportunity to give them a different kind of platform, you know? Because they've done a lot of traditional repertoire and they've sort of played proms and stuff like that. So this was a way to, yeah, connect them into, you know, a different kind of situation, and also, I mean, for us, it's wonderful to have, you know, a really first division band on that score. It’s going to be really interesting.
YM: I think it's going to be, because they're not the original band, it's going to be so interesting to see what they bring to the score because obviously, it's going to sound very different from the original band, who were kind of quite under your instruction at the time, and you were quite on it, and now you're going to be sitting in the audience just watching the band take over and…
MR: Well, yeah. I mean, you say original band, but I mean, they're almost, I mean, there were five instrumentalists on the score for ‘Waltz with Bashir’, because there was no money, it was like no money at all. So it's basically just me sweating with the samplers for like months on end trying to make this, trying to make it sound like I’m about 80 players. So yeah, so I mean, it’s always really nice.
YM: They’re up against the machines!
MR: It's always really nice to hear it. Well we played it live a couple of times and it's wonderful to hear it with real players, yeah.
YM: I was thinking about memories of what, especially for me, are being incredibly poor and having no money and trying to raise two kids on no money in a composer’s, you know, existence, in a Napster era. It was just, like, hellish, wasn't it?
BE: You are very fortunate that your music has caught on. That it is now, it's everywhere, to a certain extent, and which is a beautiful thing. But you have, like this festival, you have been given a platform, so you're not I presume you're not taking that for granted?
MR: No way. No, I mean, it's a huge privilege to be in the position I'm in, you know, I mean it's, to be able to pursue your enthusiasms and just sort of make work and have people hear it at all, to be honest, is incredible. And I sort of still kind of can't quite believe that that's going on. And I mean, I've sort of always felt a little bit there is a sort of, there's a kind of a psychological ecology or something, a principle? That, you might you might call it that, to do with, like, trying to put things out that you can stand behind from sort of every aspect, you know, not just the kind of musical aesthetic aspect, but maybe the sort of social political aspect as well. And that's informed a lot of the choices I've made in terms of you know, cinema projects, I mean, that you know, from ‘Waltz’ to sort of ‘Wadjda’ to ‘Lore’, all these sorts of projects, which have a kind of social dimension, ‘Miss Sloan’, you know, all these kinds of things. That's always part of it. But yeah, I mean, in general, it's always a kind of a bit of a miracle that people are listening to be honest.
MR: You know, we're always just listening to stuff and exploring. I mean, that's the great thing about, you know, working in some creative disciplines is that it's always just experiments, you know, you don't really know where you're going. I mean, that's the nice thing about it, though.
YM: You have quite an internal journey with music, don't you? It's really about, a lot of your music is about, your own life and your own journey and I mean, you have music going on your head the whole time. That's quite… we’ve programmed people who aren't like you.
MR: You know, everything connects to everything, I think in terms of creativity, and you know, these are all things that I'm enthusiastic about, or love, or I've always wanted to hear, or I'm curious about and I mean that sort of curiosity is really the thing that drives us I would say. You know about… and sort of making connections, you know. There all sorts of strands in in the festival, from, you know, the idea of, you know, the synthesiser which is a kind of a lab, to other stuff like, you know, there's a lot of Bach sort of hovering around one way or another, or we've got, you know, music and image collisions, you know, like, ‘Waltz With Bashir’ or what Clark has done for the Stan Brakhage [Dog Star Man]. There's all kinds of…
YM: Obviously, as artists, we're all living through this time, aren't we? This very taxing time, physically. And it's about what do you do about that? I mean, obviously, you can make art about these social situations which Max has been doing for twenty-odd years, but there's also living as an artist and kind of living what you believe in and I think everybody has to take that stand. You know, we believe in, in a society of acceptance and diversity as a fact, I mean, how can you even question it? And this festival is also about that somehow, it's also about, you know – like there are young people, there are older people , there are more established people, there are people coming up, you know, there are all sorts of connections and all sorts of variety.
BE: And are they on an equal level as well?
YM: Absolutely, because of course it should be on an equal level. I mean, that's what amazes me that people think that it shouldn't be on an equal level somehow. And I think traditionally all art forms, there's been a lot of kind of, ‘that's bad, that's good. That's bad, that's good,’ and a kind of differentiation: ‘I'm on this camp, and I'm on that camp’. And, well, maybe there was a space and time for that, I never really believed in that, but maybe there's a space and time for that, but now there isn't really, I mean, you have to really live with what you believe and as artists, and I think most artists do, but I believe in, you know, in equality and…
MR: You know, people don't encounter work via categories. I don't think anyone wants to think of themselves as limited, you know, ‘I only like this, or I only like that’. Or, you know, I mean, actually people just, you know, naturally sort of go beyond boundaries, they pursue their enthusiasms, they get into stuff that they love. And it's, you know, that's, you can't, like, prescribe that and I think that's, you know, one of the, sort of, points, I guess, the programme is making is it's very broad. It's very interdisciplinary. It's got a lot of, you know, sort of jumpy stuff in it, which hopefully will sort of provoke, you know, and I think that's part of it too.
BE: If you enjoyed this podcast do go back and listen to the first edition, which alongside the curators, I chatted with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Jlin.
Jlin: He thinks before he writes, if I had to say. Or I should say, he really thinks before he puts it out. I think it takes, it takes wisdom to write in that manner.
BE: I hope you enjoyed those interviews. So I've been living with Max's music for such a long time, it's hard to imagine a world without those violin melodies, organ arpeggios, or the slow reverberating bass drum sound. Back in the early 2000s, it made me realise there could be a new kind of classical music: one that was exhilarating, emotional and highly addictive.
I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of the podcast. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.