Interview: Ela Orleans on Cowards Bend the Knee

In 2017, Ela Orleans debuted a brand-new live score for Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend The Knee for Matchbox Cineclub. Journalist Brian Beadie, who proposed the project, spoke to Orleans ahead of the performance.

Ela Orleans is best known as an exquisite lo-fi pop miniaturist. She works integrally with images, to the extent that a journalist described her work as ‘movies for ears’, a tagline she has willingly embraced. It’s a cliché to call a musician’s work soundtrack material, but Ela’s work is imbued with a deep love of cinema. When Scalarama asked me earlier in the year if I would like to programme a screening for the festival, my first thought (and best thought) was commissioning a new soundtrack from Ela, and pairing one of my favourite musicians with one of my favourite directors, Guy Maddin.

Growing up in Oświęcim (better known in the west as Auschwitz) during Communism, Ela was exposed both to Western and Communist cinema, Polish cinema going through a golden age during her childhood (she jokes that nothing noteworthy has happened in the country since 1986). The film scores of composers such as Krzystof Komeda are incredibly rich, drawing on a wide variety of musical traditions including jazz. There was a vital underground jazz scene, officially banned by the state although, as Ela notes, the state unbanned it when they recognised that it was the music of the American oppressed.

Oswieicm itself would be a site of much location filming, due to its still having the infamous concentration camp in town, now running as a museum. Ela reminisces about being on the set of a Spielberg film when she was a kid, and that you could tell when a film crew were shooting, because all the town drunks would get their heads shaved to obtain parts as extras.

After a spell in Glasgow playing in Hassle Hound with Tony Swain and Mark Vernon, she moved to Brooklyn to study composition. “My final work for the program was slaughtered by my tutor, who told me to get out of my box. The final word, however, belonged to David Shire [composer of The Taking of Pelham 123, The Conversation and, more recently, Zodiac], who said that he loved my box.”

Her own favourite soundtracks make for an interesting comparison; she equally loves the spare, minimalist soundtracks of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, citing the precision of the sound design on Le Samourai, and the operatic splendour of Morricone’s scores.

While Ela has composed new scores for film by directors such as Carl Dreyer and Frank Borzage (an obsession of Guy Maddin’s) she states, “This is the first time I feel that I am receiving full information on the aesthetic aspect of the score. The suggested inspiration is fantastically familiar, and I feel like my music found home with someone alive for a change and that I have freedom and a sense of direction at the same time.”

One of the reasons I wanted to pair Ela and Maddin was because I think they share a similar aesthetic, haunted by but not burdened by past forms. Ela agrees that, “The musical aesthetic of Guy Maddin is spookily parallel with my own. It’s not mainstream or techno or classical but old-time music which can be played with a rusty needle and it will still bring emotions. He doesn’t ask me to sound Lynchian, which is a bloody relief!”

“His enthusiasm for me scoring it is enormously encouraging, and I am over the moon. I feel like I found long lost family.”

Brian Beadie

Ela Orleans’ live score for Cowards Bend the Knee debuted at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, on Thursday, 21st September, 2017. By way of introduction Guy Maddin offered the following words: “This wild, gorgeous and almost insane new score by Ela Orleans has completely reinvented Cowards. She understood at musical levels the depths of shame, heights of hysteria, and quivering viscous ick I felt while shooting it; she drew out from the film every dark strand of soiled soul unravelling within and hung it in a new moonbeam for all the appalled to see.”

Cowards Bend The Knee with Live Score by Ela Orleans, poster by Marc Baines

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