Julia Holter’s mercurial career has taken her from traditional pop to chamber music, indie to electronica, the avant grade underground to the Top 20 and recently to film scores. Here, the Los Angeles-based composer has teamed up with the 36-strong Chorus of Opera North for the world premiere of her new live score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent movie masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Holter initially performed a live soundtrack to the film in LA in 2017. This Huddersfield Contemporary Music festival performance was delayed for two years by the pandemic, but Holter kept writing, completing most of this finished score this year.
The newly restored subtitled black and white film – telling the story of the French saint’s religious persecution and execution with a script derived from minutes of her 1431 trial – is shown above the stage. Holter, behind a keyboard, sits with the chorus and musicians. A sense that anything could happen is reinforced by the provision of earplugs, and signs reading “This performance will be loud”. It begins with a hush, as a mournful trumpet is gently augmented by a percussionist to create a funeral, death-march effect.
The film hinges on lingering closeups of actor Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who gives what the influential New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once said “may be the finest performance ever recorded on film”. Falconetti’s mesmerising array of facial expressions morph from outrage to defiance to tearful sorrow to terror as Joan faces her inquisitors and ultimately her fate. The score’s brilliance is in the way it clings to that face like a shadow: becalmed, even beautifully beatific, then raging in intensity. Joan’s slow walk to the trial in manacles is soundtracked by an eerie reverie of voices. A timpani rumbles like thunder as the voices around her rise in intensity.
It’s striking how much the film and events of 1431 speak to current issues. One of Joan’s trumped-up “crimes” is to wear men’s clothing. “When the mission of God is finished I will wear women’s clothes again,” she cries. The misogyny is exposed as cackling male judges relish rounding on a 19-year-old young woman, the foreboding music somewhere between Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Jerry Goldsmith’s Ave Satani from The Omen.
There are some wonderful individual moments. The tenors sound straight out of a medieval abbey, the chorus subtly shift from male to female voices, percussion tinkles ominously as Joan faces the torture chamber and a bell tolls as her fate is sealed. Finally, the reason for those earplugs becomes apparent. As Joan is burned at the stake, flames flicker around her to a crescendo of sound led by a piercing bagpipe. Somehow, there is beauty in the music just as there is ecstasy in Joan’s agony; Falconetti’s face captures the moment that death brings release and martyrdom. This is a powerfully spellbinding union of image and sound.
• The Passion of Joan of Arc is at the Barbican, London, on 25 November. Huddersfield Contemporary Music festival runs until 27 November.