by Juleana Enright
When Zeitgeist Arts approached Zoo Animal to write an original score for the silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, there wasn’t any discord over what they wanted to create. Despite a recent shift in members, the local minimal garage trio – fronted by Holly Newsom – has been well known as one of the most beloved and talented bands to grace the local scene. The film needed a band that understood the film’s vacillating intensity; it is at times both spare and also expansively artful, much like the band itself. But don’t let Zoo Animal’s apropos sound fool you into thinking composing a score was a breeze for them. “The movie was the most intimidating thing I’ve ever done,” admitted Newsom.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, it’s no surprise what happens. Joan of Arc burns…to death…at the stake. Despite knowing the ending, the film’s overall agony and despair is something that one is not capable of preparing for, nor is Zoo Animal’s soundtrack depicting of Joan’s “voyage vets la mort” predictable.
After presenting their live score for the first time to a Duluth audience earlier this spring, Zoo Animal returns to Minneapolis November 7 and 8 to prep a performance for local fans. Yesterday, I got a sneak peek of the screening and – without giving away too many of the specific details – I can say without a doubt that it is a must-experience event. It’s terrifically inspiring, emotionally devastating and stunningly introspective.
Describing how the project went from Duluth to Minneapolis, Newsom explains, “We heard from a lot of folks in Minneapolis when they saw us promoting the show in Duluth. Lots of people saying they would love to see it. We hadn’t planned to bring it down, but since there was interest and it is something we worked hard on and are proud of, we thought we should perform it here. It is such a great film, too, I was glad to be a part of people learning about such an amazing piece of art. We were actually asked by Zeitgeist Arts in Duluth to write a score for the film. When I watched it, I was blown away. It was an honor to have been thought of to perform with it, so we were glad to get to work on it. It’s also such a powerful story. One person up against a slew of religious folk, who later became a saint, pretty powerful ideas.”
Starting with the film’s beginning frames, the band (featuring Newsom and members Joshua Caro and Josiah Quick) manage to capture the film’s power and tension using a whirlwind of drony repetition with an ongoing theme of circular patterns. From the initial trial scene, where Joan is ridiculed and relentlessly catechized, the band introduces us to a slow, haunting rhythm, a steady reprise that reoccurs throughout the film. It is a murky and subaqueous sound, an audio mimeo for Joan’s glassy gaze. Newsom explains that the repetition is intentional. “(The film) is so intense we didn’t want it to be cheesy, that’s why at parts it feels like it’s lacking emotion. We wanted to magnify the frames so the audience almost forgets that we’re playing.”
Really, it is next to impossible to forget or find yourself distracted by them. On stage, Zoo Animal produces a sympathetic choir of corresponding audio – tick-tock-esque guitar strumming and clashing drum beats during a torture scene, a slow, soothing yet mournful melody during Joan’s moments of confusion, self-doubt and duality. With no sheet music to follow, the band uses improvised transitions and visual cues from the film to create their sound, making no single performance exactly alike. Though witness the performances back-to-back and Newsom herself assure us that one wouldn’t be able to detect any overwhelming variations.
This concept of pairing local bands with silent films is something that appears to be popping up a lot recently. We’ve seen it two years in a row during the Walker’s Music & Movies series as Dark Dark Dark accompanied the classic noir Spies and when Brute Heart lent their dark art rock flair to aide in the spookiness of eerie German horror, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. When asked about the influx and why fans are into it Newsom says, “For me, being able to punctuate a film with music is a pretty neat idea. Especially older silent films, to bring in the perspective of modern music, gives it some sort of relevancy to today. I think the viewers feel the same way. It’s also interesting to hear these familiar bands play unfamiliar music in a different way than we’re used to it. It is fun to stretch our creativity both as performers and viewers/listeners.”
Though they are happy with the final outcome of the score, don’t expect the band to go on tour with the project, or even get your hands on a formal recording (although band manager Flip Arkulary, plans to record the Cedar performances). “This isn’t something I want people to listen to alone,” Newsom explains. She has a point. After a cacophony of thunderous tribal drumming for what seemed like thirty minutes, the screen goes black and the film ends. I can still feel the drum vibrato reverberating throughout my body. The room is silent, heavy. A faint clap is heard from the back of the room and the rest of us tentatively follow suit. It’s unclear whether applause is the appropriate response. I feel more like sobbing or rising from my folding chair and immediately finding a caliginous corner to contemplate the meaning of life. Our introspection looms soberly between us as we internally process the graphic despair we’ve just witnessed.
The band retreats from the stage, sits and we slowly start to ask questions, grounding ourselves in reality again. They go from being an invisible tour de force to a timid trio seeming as moved by their performance as we are. It definitely feels like a Zoo Animal show – minimal, ephemeral, ethereal – a public experience conveying an intimate emotion, a band conveying a passion.
Catch a performance of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with a live score from Zoo Animal at the Cedar, 416 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis, on Wednesday, November 7th and Thursday November 8th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $11. For more info, visit the Cedar Cultural Center’s website or the Facebook invite.