Steven Severin’s Music for Silents

In January 2003, Steven Severin received an email that redefined his post-Siouxsie and the Banshees creative direction, and lead him to pursue a solo career writing film and television soundtracks. For twenty years, from 1976 to 1996, Severin had played bass in the band which he and Sioux co-founded, and for which they co-wrote the songs. In 2002, they reformed for The Seven Year Itch tour which, Severin says, “went terribly wrong” and was “ill fated and turbulent”. In October of 2002, Severin had married Arban Orneleas, a Texan born multimedia artist, and in the aftermath of the tour, with Arban pregnant with their son Cage, the two “took time out” over Christmas, whilst Severin considered what he wanted to do next. The email resolved his deliberations with a request for him to provide the soundtrack to a British, independent, supernatural thriller, London Voodoo. “I did the whole the score,” he says, “and really loved it, and realised that’s what I wanted to do”.

London Voodoo took Severin on a further journey of filmic discovery when it was entered into the circuit of film festivals represented by the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation (EFFFF). Fantastic Film covers the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and animation, and the EFFFF cover a network of 20 film festivals, in 16 countries across Europe, with affiliate members in Asia and North America. He was so inspired by the event and the people that he met, that he started attending other EFFFF festivals, and began to formulate the idea for his first solo show, Music for Silents.

To compose music for a silent film had been a long held desire for Severin, though he had never been sure which one until he “stumbled across” The Seashell and The Clergyman (1928), which is widely considered to be the first surrealist film. Directed by Germaine Dulac, from an original scenario by Antonin Artaud, the film follows the erotic hallucinations of a priest lusting after the wife of a general. The film is 32 minutes long, which Severin felt would be the ideal length for the first act of a two act show. Over the course of a year, through attending the EFFFF festivals, he chose six modern short films for a contrasting 30 minute second act.

Music for Silents is full of contrasts, juxtapositions, and the shake-up of preconceptions. Severin’s stage persona could not be more different than with Siouxsie and the Banshees. He enters in near darkness, and takes his seat at his computer, side on to the audience. During the first act, he is lit only by the light of the mouse, the glow of his laptop’s Apple logo, and the silvery monochrome of the film. Occasionally, lighter frames afford an Hitchcockian glimpse as Severin’s silhouette is cast on the screen. “I just didn’t want any light on me and I don’t look at the audience,” he says, “I am looking at the screen, making it run in sync, playing with things, and bringing in other bits as I see fit.”

The fact that Severin’s appearance is shrouded has lead to problems, particularly at a performance of the show in Italy. “I had a couple of people leave because they were absolutely convinced that it wasn’t me. They were obviously Banshee fans or Cure fans and wanted to see me play bass; they probably thought I had a band. But they started watching the film, saw me in the darkness, and went to the promoter and said ‘it’s not him, I want my money back’.” Though Severin says he is far happier in his new performance persona and does not miss the “physical effort that goes into playing in a band”. He elaborates, by saying that he did not like “trying to play the bass covered in sweat [though] in contrast that would have been something that Siouxsie really got off on, she loved the sweat and toil of the performance, and she still does”.

Severin created an intermission to heighten the juxtaposition of the two acts and to play with the audience’s preconceptions. He chose to put The Seashell and The Clergyman first because although an audience would feel it was a big departure from what they are used to seeing him do, after ten minutes they would relax into the knowledge that they knew what was happening, as he says, “OK we’re getting a black and white silent film, it’s a surrealist rarity, and Steven’s playing an accompanying soundtrack”. The second act blows this out of the water, and takes its inspiration from Severin’s favourite rock gigs, which have been, he says, “the ones when I have been absolutely terrified from a mixture of the material, the volume, and the atmosphere in the audience of not knowing quite what’s going to happen, because the performance is so incendiary it might make the audience do something.” He says that gigs like that are very rare, and those that he chiefly thinks of are “Throbbing Gristle at the YMCA in the early 80s, the Swans when they were so blisteringly loud you were practically liquefied into the sound, and some of the early Banshees gigs where there was an incredible atmosphere of tension and potential violence”. With this in mind, he thought that if the second act of Music for Silents was loud enough it was “going to really scare some people, going to scare their imagination to death”. After being starved of colour in the first act, the audience are pulled in by the vivid hues of the second act’s films, whilst being simultaneously repelled by their violence and menace and unnerved by the fact that after each film the volume increases.

It is an extraordinary cinematic experience to find that the soundtrack is pummelling one’s ribcage, pulsing through one’s veins, and by the final film making the walls of the venue feel as though they are beating, and with every pulsation pulling the viewer inexorably, like it or not, into the film. In such a situation the audience tries to read the music to work out what is about to happen and whether they are being prepared for something awful. But a key facet of Severin’s soundtracks is that he does not give “any signposts”. He explains that when he first started playing in a band, the first thing he thought was that “there are so many clichés in music, and surely the first thing you do is throw them all away and see what you’ve got left, that’s how I  approached learning to play the bass and learning to write songs”. Similarly, when he began to get into film music, he was once again “appalled because there were so many clichés”. To avoid this, from the outset he told himself, “right, that’s the first thing you don’t do, you don’t signpost anything, and in that way you can really try to find other ways of building the tension; the more you signpost, the more they can relax and then the whole effect is gone”.

The audience members who left the performance in Italy not believing that it was actually Steven Severin, missed the point that in many ways Music for Silents is far more a Severin stripped bare than he has ever presented on stage before, and therefore far closer to the real Severin. From the age of 17, firstly as a member of Sex Pistols cohort The Bromley Contingent, and then for 21 years (1976-1996 and 2002) as a member of Siouxsie and the Banshees, his persona was part of the careful construct of gang façades. Now, at the age of 53, this quietly spoken and reflective man, is saying, albeit from the shadows, look this is the sort of thing that has interested me all along, and directly sharing his inspirations with the audience. It is also a Severin who is truly happy to have found his metier. “What I really like about film is that you’re making somebody else’s ideas come to life,” he says, “It’s really liberating; some people are very straight thinking, they have to have their complete vision, but I love being given a palette, and being told, OK you mix it up, you do what you want, but it’s got to be within this set of rules.”

Watch an interview with Steven Severin on the Plectrum Broadcast player.

Music For Silents is on a continuing, intermittent tour; current confirmed dates:
20 November 2008  Club Fleda: New New! Festival, Brno, Czech Republic
22 November 2008  Kino Ebensee, Ebensee am Traunsee, Austria
23 November 2008  Rhiz Musikbar, Vienna, Austria
11 December 2008  Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh, Scotland

For future dates check the links below.

The Ascent of Money
Channel 4, 17 November – 22 December 2008
Six part documentary series with soundtrack composed by Steven Severin.

Steven Severin
European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation (EFFFF)


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