Triumph of Arc

Inspired by a 15th-century saint and a 1928 silent film, Julia Holter performed medieval chants from the rooftop of a mall in downtown LA – and an opera company in West Yorkshire took notice

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“A totally random cool event, in downtown LA, on the rooftop of a mall,” seems like an unlikely place for an idea for this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival to be born. But it was there, in 2017, that American singer-songwriter, record producer, composer, artist and academic Julia Holter first put music to the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Five years later, Holter, who blends the avant-garde with pop accessibility, is on her way to Huddersfield where she’ll perform a full score live in the Town Hall, alongside 36 classical singers and her band – including her partner, Tashi Wada, on bagpipes.

“It’s gonna be really wild! There’s crazy stuff,” says Holter, explaining how the project is still evolving. She’s just been talking to Sarah Belle Reid, who plays trumpet and modular synthesiser. “She’s got electronics that she’s building – she’s going to be singing into the trumpet, which is new, blending with the chorus.”

In partnership with Opera North, HCMF, Barbican and Brudenell Social Club, this major commission is the latest in Opera North’s FILMusic series of live scores.

“I’m really excited to be in Huddersfield,” says Holter, perhaps surprisingly. But the fame of the city is wide in music circles and the University of Huddersfield is highly regarded for its research in experimental contemporary music. As well as releasing nine studio albums since 2007, Holter is also a professor of practice in songwriting at Occidental College in LA. “I’ve heard a lot about the music school and the festival. I’ve always wanted to go there.”

She says the 2017 performance in downtown LA was “really fun”, with a huge screen and a great sound, but the Huddersfield project is on another level.

“The scoring is pretty different. I would say that there’s some things I’d worked out [in 2017] but I’ve never written for a chorus before. So this was a huge amount of work,” she says. “It’s an hour and 20 minutes, and the first time we scored it in LA, it was just medieval chants, slightly adapted – I created harmonies below the chants and then arranged it a little bit.”

The LA score was a detailed, written description of what each player was supposed to do, colour coded so each person could see themselves on the score, she explains.

“It was mostly text with fragments of notation. This time it’s 50 pages of notation, so it’s changed from something that was descriptive, to a full score like you’d expect for this kind of choral work.”

Holter had never written for a chorus before, and says she worked it out in different parts by singing.

“I definitely started with some of the parts on a phone memo for writing the melody, and I just had to kind of imagine the chorus singing.”

The Carl Theodor Dreyer-directed silent film her music will accompany stars Renée Jeanne Falcoetti as Joan and was based on the record of the trial of the French patron saint, honoured as the defender of the nation. Holter is enamoured with both the film and its subject.

“The film is perfect. It was perfect for me – I loved it so much. I love medieval stuff and it’s forgiving because it’s so beautiful – visually there’s a lot of space and these intense close-ups and there’s something forgiving about the pacing.

“Joan of Arc is also a great subject for me. I’m not a religious person, but she’s got this intense persona and she’s very interesting.”

The performance will be, she adds, “a very intense and passionate experience, because this film is incredible.

“It’s gonna be great! Get ready. Buckle your seat belt.”

Julia Holter: The Passion of Joan of Arc is on 23 November, Huddersfield Town Hall. The performance is part of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, running 18-27 November ( 

Photo: Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc 

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