When composing, I always like to work with interesting source material – if the input is rich enough, then the output, to a certain extent, takes care of itself. In this case, the 1959 film, Les Yeux Sans Visage, directed by Georges Franju, provided a rich backdrop from which to draw upon for new musical compositions. In this classic ‘film-noir’ horror movie, the evil Dr. Genessier and his sidekick, Louise, kidnap and torture young girls in order to perform face transplants to save Genessier’s disfigured daughter, Christiane. Through a series of dark misadventures and classic horror-tropes, the film comes to a bloody conclusion with the protagonists getting their ‘just deserts.’
I had a very clear idea of the instrumentation and sound-world that I wanted to use for the Sans Visage E.P. I had long been following the music of accordionist, Laurent Derache, Paris. I reached out to Laurent through social media and he agreed to record the project with me at ‘Studio La Tour,’ Bordeaux.
In an ideal world, I would choose to bring a group of musicians together in the room, to spend time playing together, exploring ideas as a unit and recording the music as a result of our collective consciousness. I have found, practically, that through all my various projects, this idealistic model has often been unachievable. The primary obstacle with a self-funded creative work is of course, the funds. The complexity of the compositions required a very skilled set of performers, in this case from three countries – I simply couldn’t afford to bring them to one place to realise the recording. So, we progressed in stages, I travelled to France in November 2019 to record the rhythm section parts and guide vocals. Then these roughs were sent to the musicians to work with, to build the character with a sense of the sound-world I was creating. Simon Goulding (UK) recorded new bass lines and passed the stems onto Paul Fawkus (Norway) to add the saxophones. Then I joined the French contingent, Manu Feramus, Paola Vera and Laurent Derache at Manu’s ‘Studio La Tour’ near Bordeaux to complete the sessions.
This suite was devised to explore improvisation at a deep level, incorporating complexity in the harmonic and rhythmic material. Derache played a pivotal role in informing the composition as he was already developing jazz repertoire for the accordion, promoting improvisation and the use of the accordion as the primary instrument in a variety of jazz settings. I wanted to create something in a punk jazz style and felt the darkness of the theme of this movie was ideal for this purpose. I drew upon my work with John Zorn as a model for the compositions in this project.
As a starting point, I decided on titles which I felt defined the arc of the plot. I then created three-line sketches which would be the source material for each composition. In my initial conception, composition was complete at the point where the sketches were finished and the transition to full score was a question of arranging, rather than composing. During my work on the Book of Angels, Cerberus projectBarnes, Phil, “The Spike Orchestra Cerberus Book of Angels Volume 26” All about Jazz, Dec 18 2015. Accessed Jan 12, 2017, my writing partner at the time, Sam Eastmond and myself, were sent hand-written sketches from Zorn which we were instructed to arrange for our ensemble, The Spike Orchestra, for inclusion in the Masada, book 2, The Book of Angels catalogue. I found that this way of working created a different perspective on the composition process and wanted to use the same model in my own work.
In the sketches there are ‘score starters’ for a total of seven movements and I went on to fully orchestrating five of these for the E.P. If there is an opportunity for a live performance, I will orchestrate the final two scores, extending the duration of the complete work. The titles were inspired by elements of the film or my responses to them. Villa du Dr. Genessier is on a signpost in the background when the villa is introduced, and Ma fille Bien Aimée is written on the order of service at the funeral of Christiane Genessier.Les Yeux Sans Visage. Directed by Georges Franju. (Champs-Elysées/Lux, 1959), film. Le Masque is simply my reference to the mask that the disfigured Christiane wears throughout the film and the two English titles, The Pearl Choker and Doves and Dogs are my own interpretations of two important plot devices.
This opens the suite with a high impact, fortissimo attack, with fast runs in of a crotchet setting, but with a disruption to its march-like groove at the 3 division. In the movie, the opening scene is of a car driving through torrential storms with a body in the back, which is dumped in the river. The Villa du Genessier is introduced in the movie with layers of horror tropes: driving rain, darkness and high trees surrounding the old villa. To depict this in music, I introduced the high, three-note line in the accordion at [A], starting on beat three to further obstruct audible beat divisions. The first theme from the sketch comes in at (B), in unison at the outset, then against a descending bass line, which is a feature of the whole piece. The transition to 3/4 leads to a sax solo, which is also underpinned by the same descending bass line. When the final theme (line 3 of the sketch) is introduced, it comes back in the accordion, with the sensibilities of the original D minor three-note gesture, a quiet, yet insistent single note melodic line which delivers a sense of foreboding, gradually drawing the ensemble together to the final breath.
In the movie, Dr. Genessier and his sidekick, Louise, kidnap girls who look like the doctor’s disfigured daughter, Christiane Genessier, to transplant their faces. The setting of the piece is at Christiane’s funeral. The high bass in the opening is ethereal and reverent, yet also has tension in this tessitura. The addition of the accordion at [A] connotes Parisian street music, not only securing the French setting, but also signalling where Louise finds her next victim, Edna Grüber, so there is an element of portent. In the previous scene, Dr. Genessier is called to the mortuary to identify what they think is his daughter’s body, with the policeman warning him that the girl’s face is damaged and so to be prepared for a shock. I used a fragment of the French script to create lyrics in this movement: ‘Le visage, est endommagé.’ However, we (the viewer) know that the real victim is Simone Tessot. The ‘jump cuts’ I use throughout [A] and [B] function as the truth that screams through the sombre funerial setting. The switch to piano at [B] connotes the French salon, as the girl, Christiane, roams the house, wearing her mask, finding no mirrors. The compression of the piano part between the cuts increases tension as the plot becomes clearer. The heavy rock style groove under the solo releases this tension, allowing the reality of the story to come through. In the recording session I suggested that Derache try opening the accordion solo in a low register. This tessitura is less frequently used in soloing, and I felt it gave gravity to the opening of the solo which reflected the arc of the story in the film. The piano coming through at [D] under the vocal solo is a re-iteration of the despair and confusion of Christiane, locked in the villa, a prisoner both within her home and behind her mask.
I used perfect fifths as the foundation for thematic material in this movement. The open fifths on electric piano portray the emptiness of Christiane, who wanders the halls of the villa alone, reminiscing about her fiancé, who visits the villa, but who she is only able to watch in silence, hidden from view. The brief 6/8 interlude reflects moments of nostalgia, but the unsettled, hypnotic 11/8 theme quickly returns. On the second pass, the saxophones add a dream-like quality, with small lilting movements over breathy long notes which increase the feeling of being trapped, but without tension – as if in suspension.
The tension builds very gradually from the second pass at [B] with the addition of the voice and further at b.45 with the chromatic line on the tenor saxophone. The use of the 8/4 time signature makes the transition from the quaver pulse through to the 4/4 in the solos with eight crotchet groupings, marked with a heavier accent on beat one and a clear eight-beat pattern on the bass guitar. Furthermore, the repetition of the eight-beat gesture served to bookend the solos. The limited harmonic movement in the solos expresses the feeling of being trapped, whilst allowing the soloists free expression without the confines of multiple harmonic shifts.
This movement is the ‘villain’s theme’ depicting Genessier’s sidekick, Louise. I used an English title as choker has the double meaning here: the demise of Louise is brought about, via a scalpel through the aforementioned choker, by Christiane, who ultimately brings the wicked ways of Louise and then her father, Dr. Genessier, to an end. In the original movie soundtrack, there is a four-bar leitmotif for Louise in the form of a lithe 3/4 jazz waltz with an oompah bass. I transcribed this motif, then composed a four-bar question phrase that preceded the transcription to embed the original theme in a different setting. I also truncated the original theme, taking only two bars for this composition, adding a new two bar ending in the interests of originality. I developed the material by adding a secondary theme in the piano and electric piano, creating a louche jazz waltz, which I instructed the musicians to play with a light sense of pantomime. This theme continued through the alto saxophone solo at [B], allowing it to be fully presented before the ‘jump cut’ at [D]. The 7/8 motif also takes a small chromatic gesture from the first theme, but with a hard attack and a unison build to the fast groove at [E]. The combination of the irregular time signature with shifting accents provided by the backings, I added to represent an element of cruelty, which I felt depicted the Louise character. I chose the accordion to solo in this section as I wanted to bring back the French connotation of the instrument that I had used earlier, but with the energy and attack of this fast 7/8. A return to the original material presented the two sides of the character: the respectable French Madame and cold-hearted killer.
This marks the bloody conclusion of the movie; Christiane, finally at her wits end with the evil ways of her father and Louise, releases first the captive girl, and then the animals that were experimented on at the Villa du Dr. Genessier. This results in the death of Dr. Genessier, chased out by the birds then mauled by the dogs. The slow, lilting 10/8 groove captures the confusion and giddiness as Grüber awakes from a near-miss with the scalpel and Christiane decides to let the girl go free and to bring an end to the horror. The intense, repeating attacks at [B] mark the opening of the cages and the saxophone figures, the release of the animals. The voices are as the voices of the girls in the movie, Christiane, Grüber, Tessot. The solos are harmonically simplistic to suit the punk element of the punk jazz setting and further, there is limited harmonic rhythm imposed through chord changes. Instead, the rhythmic impetus comes from the percussive semiquaver hits in the ensemble, building to a driving groove in the backings from [F], which, with the addition of the voice joining the accordion here, enables an improvised collaboration between the soloists. The sound-world for the suite is fully established by this point and the musicians work together to create a high energy, ‘grindcore’Urban Dictionary,“Grindcore,” accessed September 04, 2020. style through [H] and [I], returning to scored material at [J] as a resolution, intended here as a ‘sigh of relief,’ with the demise of Dr. Genessier and the ‘freedom’ of Christiane.
Saxophones: Paul Fawkus
Accordion: Laurent Derache
Voice & Electric Piano: Paola Vera
Electric Bass: Simon Goulding
Drum Kit, Recording: Manu Feramus
Voice, Piano, Composition: Nikki Franklin