Baker Scores Joan of Arc

Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral will improvise a new soundtrack to Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic silent film in the Ulster Hall on March 12

As day jobs go, Martin Baker’s would undoubtedly rank among the more onerous. Baker is Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in London, responsible especially for maintaining the standards of the choir, famed the world over for the expertise and sensitivity it brings to performing in an ecclesiastical context.

It’s pretty much a 24/7 occupation, yet later this month Baker will be moonlighting at the Ulster Hall in Belfast – accompanying a showing of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic 1928 silent movie – on the venue’s magnificent Mulholland organ.

It seems a world away from the cloistered sanctity of Westminster’s hallowed precincts. Is it, I wonder, a wrench for Baker to catapult himself into such a different musical environment? Evidently not.

'I think a service in a church, if one is an organist,' Baker explains, 'is a little bit like a movie. It has a structure – a beginning, a middle and an end – and the organist is often required to provide atmosphere music at certain key points.

'Some organists are happier doing this than others, and improvisation is something I have tended to specialise in. I think the skills that one has in trying to find absolutely the right mood for a church service can transfer very well to film.'

That's fortunate, for when the images of Dreyer's Joan of Arc begin appearing on the big screen at the Ulster Hall, Baker has no set, pre-ordained score to play from. It is totally up to him to decide what sounds he thinks will best match the action unravelling in the movie. Is the blank canvas not totally daunting?

'Well, I'm known in the organ world as an improviser, and I tend to make a feature of it not just in church but also in concert,' says Baker. 'My good friend Colm Carey, who is the city organist in Belfast, twisted my arm into doing Nosferatu at the Ulster Hall two years ago. Were it not for his encouragement I'd probably never have started.

'I've got the exact version of Joan of Arc which is going to be shown at the Ulster Hall. I try to get it into the subconscious, by just watching it without any sound at all, so I can simply take in the story and create my own sense of the tension, the drama, and the flow throughout the film.'

So when exactly does Baker start translating his impressions into the type of music he is going to play when the opening credits start rolling? 'Well, right now we're about two weeks away from it, and it's kind of an open book!' he chuckles. 'I've got various possible starting points in mind. I'm thinking about trying to set the atmosphere of the time.

'So music in the style of the early 15th century would work very well on an organ. And obviously Gregorian chant is something which would be really appropriate for this movie. But I think the general sound-world of the 20th and 21st centuries is also good. It doesn't have to be something from the period of the movie itself. I've got ideas in all of those areas at the moment.'

It is, as Baker himself puts it, 'kind of a huge melting-pot' of jumbled ingredients. In actually accompanying the film, much therefore depends on the inspiration of the moment, as Baker watches the moving pictures, then instantaneously hits the notes he thinks will illustrate them. The organist is happy with this arrangement.

'It's quite terrifying in a way, that I have to play for one hour and 14 minutes with no score. But I think one gets a better result. You have to do the homework. You have to do all the programming, but then just see what comes out spontaneously on the day. I'll have a kind of character list in front of me to guide me, and a situation list, of leitmotifs that you can associate with particular characters, moods or scenarios.

'And I would usually try to weave in other well-known music or melodies which might be familiar to people, with particular emotional attachments, that then become either consciously or subconsciously associated with the movie as they're watching and listening.'

What 'comes out', as Baker puts it, depends to a considerable extent on what the instrument you are playing on is actually capable of doing. In that respect Baker has no qualms whatsoever about the Ulster Hall's Mulholland Grand Organ, which he has previously played for both Murnau's Nosferatu and Eisenstein's epic Battleship Potemkin.

'It's a huge instrument,' he enthuses, 'and just when you think you can't go any further in terms of volume, there's this huge trumpet which comes on, on top of it. Most people are used to sitting in cinemas, hearing the Dolby whatever-it-is pump sound out all around them. And it's a very intense experience in modern cinema. The Mulholland organ, I think, has at least that sort of impact, and probably more, should I choose to go for it.'

Although sonically more that a match for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Baker feels that Joan of Arc, and silent films like it, are in other ways radically different.

'I think it requires more from the spectator. It requires you to respond. I don't think you can just sit there and let it all wash over you, and be entertained. Sometimes you get a screen-flash with some dialogue on it, so you can actually see what they're saying.

'But quite a lot of the time there is implied dialogue, and you can see lips moving. You have to work out what they're trying to say. I hate to put it this way, but I think it's cinema for more intelligent people. People who are already interested in getting into the movie, rather than just having the movie come to them.'

And what does Baker, after so many preparatory viewings, actually think of the film itself? 'When I watch Joan of Arc, I watch it with an increasing sense of horror and excruciating torment. Because you know what's going to happen, it's absolutely unavoidable. It's like nothing else I've ever seen, it draws you in, it's unstoppable.

'The challenge is going to be just getting that atmosphere right. But it's also huge fun, it's hugely liberating. One of the great things about improvising on the organ is that you can make sounds on a particular instrument that no other music that's written out will do. You're there in the moment, with that particular instrument, and you get a feeling from the audience as well, and the building. So it is hugely enjoyable.'

Martin Baker performs an improvised score for the film The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on Tuesday, March 12 from 7.30pm.