Paul Risker chats with Sophie Solomon, Artistic Director of the Jewish Music Institute…
Violinist, composer, songwriter, and Artistic Director Sophie Solomon arrived at this year’s UKJFF to perform a live musical accompaniment to the 1925 silent film His People. She has played an important role in the collaboration between the two artistic organisations, which made the event a possibility. Solomon’s directorship of the JMI only commenced fully in January of this year, despite JMI making the announcement in November of last year. “Since taking on the role of Artistic Director of the Jewish Music Institute, I met up with the UK Jewish Film Festival team to talk about possible collaborations; the idea of a live soundtrack seemed like a really exciting one and when the UKJF’s Michael Etherton suggested it, I jumped at the chance.”
More than eighty years after the release of His People, the film was celebrated once again though this time by a modern audience, just as the audiences back in 1925 would have experienced it with live musical accompaniment. The screening served to return cinema to its roots. I was intrigued as to how Sophie would define the experience; whether His People was a film she was familiar with prior to the collaborative project, or whether this collaboration was a journey of discovery; filmically as well as musically. “It was a really amazing journey of discover – His People is a beautiful film showing the amazing, bustling atmosphere of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, and it is very inspiring as a blank canvas. It was an improvised soundtrack so we wanted to have as much freedom as possible to create the music and the atmosphere on the night. Having said that we did have something of a road map, a plan of moods and themes that would work with particular moments and particular characters in the film but we also had a lot of freedom and space for it to go where it wouldn’t naturally go on the night. We had some lovely unpredictable moments! It was great fun and a very inspiring evening.”
Live musical accompaniment is becoming increasingly popular. Birmingham Symphony Hall screens a classic horror film accompanied with live score for Halloween every year. Philip Glass performed his new score for Dracula with the Kronos Quartet as part of the Birmingham International Concert Season, and Michael Nyman conducted his new score for Battleship Potemkin to open this year’s BICS. It is a type of event or performance that musicians seem to be embracing, and offers the audience a unique experience, adding to their cinematic discovery or rather rediscovery. “I think as a musician it’s really interesting because it’s a particular type of musical experience – reacting to visual experience. It’s quite different from writing a song or a piece of music that stands on its own. It’s a different approach; you tune into the filmmakers’ ideas as well as your own. My sense is that for an audience it’s an invigorating experience to discover silent films and rediscover old classics.”
As Sophie aforementioned, the performance was improvised on the night of the screening at the UKJFF, and as such it differs from these other performances. The improvisation led to some unpredictable moments that only added to the experience. She explained in more detail the reasons for this creative choice, as well as the benefits and challenges. “I just thought it would be an interesting musical experiment! Being in the moment, letting the magic happen in response to the film and dealing with the audience’s response to the film created feelings in us as musicians which then influenced the way we played. It really was a fantastic event!”
Early in her career Sophie had the opportunity to meet the legendary Russian violinst Yehudi Menuhin and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. I asked her to forgive me for taking a moment to ask about a point of specific interest to me; specifically her memories of meeting these two iconic individuals, and the impact they had on her career. “I was about four years old when my grandfather, who was a huge classical music lover, took me to see Menuhin perform in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall (now the Bridgewater Hall). We went backstage after the concert to meet him and I remember I was wearing a pretty blue hat! Menuhin was terribly sweet and charming like a lovely old man, rather like my grandfather in fact. I remember the concert so well; it’s a very Proustian memory – I remember the concert hall, the plush red velvet seats and curtains and the stage seemed so high because I was so small! It was really amazing watching him perform. I was already playing violin at that stage – I’d been playing since I was two and a half – and seeing someone get up on stage and play in such a captivating way was really inspiring. It left a lasting impression; in fact I remember my grandfather cried he was so moved. As a young violinist meeting such inspiring performers made a huge impression on me. I was always drawn to Menuhin in particular because I really liked the fact he wasn’t only interested in classical music but that he also embarked on other projects such as jazz with Stephane Grappelli and I always knew that when I was studying violin it opened my mind to those possibilities.”
From aged two to five, Sophie learned to play the violin by ear, and it was not until the age of seven that she began learning to read music. I was intrigued as to how this approach to learning in her early years must have shaped her approach to music as a soloist, songwriter, composer and artistic director, placing for her at least a particular value on an instinctual approach to music. “Yes, I studied the Suzuki method so I learned solely by ear. My parents were passionate music lovers and they were very encouraging. Learning by ear for the first five years meant that playing music was practically pre-linguistic so I learned to play the violin as much as I learned to speak. Subsequently when I play the violin I don’t have to think about what I’m doing and when it comes to playing folk music or improvising or anything that isn’t music on a score, obviously having that very natural connection and ability to feel what’s the right thing to play is very valuable.”
Thanks to Sophie Solomon for taking the time for this interview.
Paul Risker is a freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth, Scream The Horror Magazine and The London Film Review.