This was one of those nights that everyone in the audience will remember for as long as they live. While they struggle to find appropriate words to sum up the experience, they’ll probably mutter something like: “Well, you had to be there.”
Watershed had curated a spectacular night of one-off commissions where, in their own words, “world renowned” musicians and film-makers would collaborate on a series of projects that would draw on the film archive of the General Post Office and Bristol’s rich history. And it was going to happen inside an extraordinary space – a long deserted section of one of the city’s most historic buildings.
First impressions when entering the Passenger Shed at Bristol Temple Meads was that it is simply enormoous – in fact so huge it was difficult to estimate how many people were in it. Someone at Watershed will know by now, but it could just as easily have been 2,000 as 1,000. It’s a rugged, industrial building with a simple grace because its designers were striving purely for practicality. It just happened to turn out beautiful as well.
At one end was a bar, and at the other (something like 250 yards away) was a stage and in between a square of projection screens – four sides of what appeared to be gauze sheeting, each one measuring, at a guess, some 500 feet long by 100 feet high. This square was strung high above the audience, so we could get a 360 degree view of all four screens.
The programme was in three parts. First came a screening of Night Mail, the iconic 1936 documentary made by the GPO Film Unit. Projected on two of the four screens, this black and white film was directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright but their sterling work has become overshadowed through the years as the film has become more and more famous for its musical score written by Benjamin Britten and its poetic narration – with a rhythm that picks up the relentless beat of the steam train as it clatters on the line – written by WH Auden.
I thought I’d seen Night Mail but it still has the power to surprise, not only because it’s clearly an extraordinary (and early) example of three art forms coming together to create a collaboration that far exceeds a sum of its parts, but also because Auden’s famous poetic narrative only comes to the fore in the last third of the film.
What followed was a much shorter, but no less daring piece of film making from 1937. Trade Tattoo, directed by Len Lye and once again made for the General Post Office Film Unit. It features extraordinary colour animation to explore the rhythm of a typical British working day. It is so beautifully drawn – with images of envelopes flying on butterfly wings – that when the GPO’s public service message finally arrives it’s a bit of a disappointment to discover that all of this brilliance has been to tell us that the secret of staying in rhythm is to “post early”.
Part two of the night’s entertainment continued the theme with a brand new musical and visual performance by BEAM. The Ryhthm of Work-a-Day Britain was a partly written, partly freeform piece where a specially assembled band led by Scott Hendy of Malachai/Boca45 was joined on stage by Inkie who created live iPad art which was simultaneously projected onto the square of screens. One of the UK’s best known street artists, Inkie is also the curator of the city’s See No Evil weekend that this Friday night’s show kicked off.
Now the audience had begun to grasp just how effective the collaboration between music and projected images could be there was a noticeable shift of gear in the passenger shed. Everyone wanted to be inside that square of screens to get the best view of what was coming – and part three promised a lot.
Mail, Maps and Motion was the creation of a collaboration between guitarist Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Joanie Lemercier (of projection artists AntiVJ) and included a number of guest performers on synthesizers and electronic percussion , including Will Gregory of Goldfrapp
This finale began with a mysterious, almost ominous, electronic drone from the musicians who were almost obscured behind the gauze. Gradually, carefully, narrow parallel lines began to animate on the projection screens – train tracks perhaps – but then these designs began to take the form of architect’s drawings – apparently taken from Brunel’s original sketches.
The struts supporting the huge roof above us were picked out in this animation. The screens were showing us the bones of the very building we were in. As the music grew in intensity so the projected animations became more complex. First a clock-tower or street lamp was drawn out in technical detail before it exploded in a burst of light. Bursts of steam train smoke appeared and disappeared, there were lines of power cables and telegraph cables, and finally as all four screens began to synchronise we were suddenly surrounded by travelling cubes of light.
As they shot by us faster and faster we appeared to be accelerating into the music. And as the horizon shifted we – and this whole, huge passenger shed that held us – appeared to be lifting off. It was quite something.
And the soundtrack for these visuals was every bit as grand. Utley and his band produced ferocious slabs of music that was given a rhythm, though nothing like a regular one, from one of the performers beating out crashes of an industrial weight on a drum synthesizer – like the pounding of a steam hammer or the blows of a hammer on an anvil.
Just as Night Mail proved the power of a collaboration of music, rhythm and visual imagery, so Mail, Maps and Motion proved it again – 76 years later.