When it was first released, Alla Nazimova’s production of Salomé was a resounding flop, shunned as a salacious indulgence, overshadowed by the rumoured debauchery instigated by its creator and allegedly perpetuated throughout the largely non-hetero cast. Since then its been dubbed the ‘first art film’ with its eerie atmosphere, futuristic set and overall elegance making it a significant and historic piece – particularly in queer cinema. Indeed it is a piece that has a renewed and startling resonance with today’s #metoo movement, with the title figure objectified by male gaze of the desiring Herod and the righteous John the Baptist.
Less discussed is the original musical accompaniment to the Wilde adaption by Italian composer Ulderico Marcelli. His is a composition that subtly adds to the fraught and peculiar ambience of the film. But Opera North Projects’ commissioned new score, to be provided in the form of the psychfolk of Circuit Des Yeux, is a fascinating prospect.
I have previously described Haley Fohr’s Circuit Des Yeux project as having an overall effect that is ‘at points earth-shattering, almost paganistic in its mysticism’. Her recent album, Reaching for Indigo, is an intensely transcendent piece, focused on timbres and moods and reaching ecstatic highs and mournful lows.
Given the intense performance of Nazimova as Salomé, and the ethereal feel to the movie, Opera North’s commissioning Circuit Des Yeux to write and perform a new score makes a lot of sense. I recently spoke with Haley about the score, which is to be performed as part of the Leeds International Festival and at the Barbican in May 2018, as well as her recent album and tour.
Has ‘Reaching for Indigo’ changed for you emotionally or in meaning since you released it six months go?
CDY: The meaning hasn’t shifted for me, which is a new thing. We’ve been playing it front to back and it has this really fleshy and alive feel to it. I was talking to my bandmates about this and when we’re playing the album live it feels like a journey. Every time we play it it’s different and it feels fresh and not stale. It’s been 6 months that we’ve been doing the same songs in the same order but it’s unexplainable – I still feel inspired and as though I’m transcending something, opening a portal when I play this music.
One of your lyrics is “surrender surrender surrender” – does it feel as though you surrender yourself to something new each time you play?
CDY: Yes in a way. The idea of letting down your guard and facing fears is always prevalent in life.
I read that ‘The Story of the World Part II’, which is on the album, came from playing the previous album (‘In Plain Speech’) live. Has playing ‘Reaching for Indigo’ live given you new ideas for future projects?
CDY: It’s certainly an entryway into new ideas. I’ve always been attracted to larger and richer sounds like strings and the symphonic sounds of an orchestra. This is something I’ve never been able to afford and is something I’ve become obsessed with. So this was my unguarded and symphonic album and playing it live I’m learning a lot about the language of composition in a traditional sense. There are a lot of opportunities in the future for me to work with larger ensembles which is really feeding my brain in a new way, opening up new compositions which I’m really excited about.
For Salome will you be playing with a band or a bigger ensemble?
CDY: I’m utilizing the members of my band who are Whitney Johnson, Andrew Scott-Young, and Tyler Damon. They are much more trained in a professional manner than I am. I’ve used compositional software for the first time and it’s a thoroughly composed 12 piece score and performance. It includes upright bass, viola, vocals, drums, synths and some pre-recorded vocal parts. I’m really excited about it – it feels really grand and mature.
I also really enjoyed working off another piece of art. Creating art off of art really led me down a brightly lit path.
Is it a departure from the original musical accompaniment?
I have not heard any of the original productions so I can’t say. It is experimental in nature – there’s no lyrics or original songs per se, but there are vocal elements and experimental elements for sure.
Previously your sets have been dramatic with a sense of climax, and the original Salomé has also has an eerie atmosphere that builds to a climax of sorts. Is the performance going to go back to that sense of climax?
CDY: It was quite intuitive for me to write to this particular film because it’s one act and a single climax is a simple thing for me to identify with. I found a new narrative in watching the film and there are elements of conversation and pieces that focus on the dynamic of power exchange. It’s a bit more narrative than one single wave of sound.
I’ve written a statement about the piece, about what it means to me. Basically Opera North gave me the film without intertitles. They made a low-resolution version for me and I chose to work on it without any context of the conversation.
I’m familiar with the story – it’s an old one from the bible that has been recounted many times. But without the context of the conversation, I saw a new narrative emerge around the modern day woman, and the psyche of a modern woman in today’s world.
The way she is perceived as a femme fatale is like an old trope – It’s pretty sexist. She’s this dangerous sexual figure, who’s seen as seducing everyone, but really what I see is a young woman utilizing the tools given by society and she’s trying to live her own world and be heard and not desired.
Throughout the film, the king desires her and wants her to dance for her, but there are other supporting roles with feeling for Salomé. When she speaks with John the Baptist she’s infatuated with him because he doesn’t want her, he sees her and he hears her, but he does not desire.
I’m 29 now so my youth feels like it’s fading, which is ok because I have knowledge, but going through my teens and early 20s I felt this pressure to submit to the male gaze, which is what Salome does in the film. She dances at the end and then asks for the head of John the Baptist, which is a striking act of anarchy really. Although King Herod kills her, she really takes her own life in this really visceral way.
I’ve requested for the screenings that there are no intertitles, and my soundtrack is the representation of Salomé and her struggle in this piece.
That all seems pertinent given everything that’s in the news at the moment. The power dynamic of Herod and the judgemental John – is it particularly vital that this screening is happening today?
CDY: Being frank, when someone offers a commission piece, it is such a gift – just for the stability. My initial reaction to the piece is that it’s a beautiful artefact of cinema; it’s one of the first art films. I didn’t expect to have this really powerful reaction to the story and to find it to be so contemporary.
I think about Oscar Wilde and his dying destitute for who he loved, and Nazimova who was also ridiculed for who she loved. I identify with it as a woman but I think it can be identifiable for anyone in the world who is struggling to be heard and who is choosing not to live in the heteronormative lifestyle.
As an American it’s really ugly over here. It’s really disheartening how people are really hungry for power and blind actions are flying right and left. I see all that in this film. It’s so contemporary, which is really eerie because the futuristic staging of it all is so prescient, and it’s almost 100 years old.
The original was very much Nazimova’s piece. She funded it and it’s almost got a DIY feel to it. Can you resonate with her as a person, as someone who takes such ownership of your own work?
CDY: Absolutely. She gave the ultimate sacrifice for this piece of art and it bought her down. Her rising trajectory plummeted with the piece of art she gave everything to.
I wonder two things about scoring it. Firstly, maybe it wasn’t received well because there was a missing part and part of me wonders if by me re-contextualising this piece perhaps I’m unlocking something. Or I’m submitting to this artistic curse that comes with this piece. I can’t help but notice that everyone involved in it ends up sacrificing so much for it to continue on. Time will tell but I’m excited to see how it all unfolds.
The piece also has this really psychedelic feel – is this something you draw on?
CDY: The pieces are definitely pretty untethered to anything on earth. They’re challenging and different to the rest of my discography and my other art. They’re equally inspired from the story and the visual element. The piece is amazing – the costumes and the set design are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
In terms of creating the piece, how much was it your own distinct response to it and how much was it a calculated accompaniment?
CDY: I’ve only done soundtracking once before and it was different. Then I was working with a director and he would say something like an emotion and I would write 2 or 3 pieces that conveyed that emotion and we’d stick it to the scene.
With this it was more a process of me watching the film and playing along to it and not editing it at all, and then later I’d go back to it and say this works and this didn’t work.
The compositional software was also new to me. In many ways it’s really innocent as I’m speaking in a language I don’t usually use, so it feels pure and almost childlike. I’m jumping into this new world and Salomé is my guide for all the compositions. I’m not sure the music would stand on its own apart from the film.
And you’ve previously spoken about how previous collaborations and projects have fed into your other personas. How much will working on Salomé feed back into the rest of your catalogue?
CDY: I find my catalogue to be a personal representation of my path from childhood to adulthood and my curiosity here on earth, dealing with internal dialogue too. For Salomé it feels a bit more outward, less internal, and recently I’ve been working outside of my internal inspiration, which I think is healthy. My other personas were an exercise in that as well, so in that way it’s really freeing and will hopefully lead to other insights that are outside of myself.
Circuit des Yeux performs her new soundtrack for Salomé in the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on Saturday 12 May. Tickets are priced at £13.00 each (concessions available), and are available from Opera North Box Office on 0844 848 2727 or online at operanorth.co.uk
Tickets for the performance in the Barbican’s Cinema 1 on Wednesday 16 May are priced at £15.00 each, and are available via barbican.org.uk / 020 7638 8891.