Drifters Reviewed

Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Beth Curran shares her experience ……

Back in the days when smoking a pipe was cool and blackberries and bluetooth actually meant an over fondness for fruit pies, came a film which would shape British cinema into what it is today. For those with an interest in film, I am sure Drifters is a title you will be familiar with. For those not in the know, it is the first film directed by John Grierson, who is considered the leading figure behind the documentary movement. Released in 1929, Drifters follows the average work day of a group of North Sea fishermen.  At a time when Hollywood fiction ruled, this film, and others to succeed it would shape the documentary movement and bring a new lease of life to British cinema in general. Never before had the life of the ordinary man seemed a worthy and heroic subject matter for film – hence its importance back then and how its legacy remains today.

Hopefully that brings you up to speed. But you may be starting to wonder why I am discussing a film which was made over 80 years ago with you now? Well, I will explain why and this is a story that involves, believe it or not, a beatboxer.

When I first heard that Cornerhouse were putting on a cinema showing of Drifters I didn’t think anything of it, it was not until I read on to discover that Jason Singh was producing a live score on top that I became quite intrigued.  If you haven’t heard of Jason Singh before I suggest you check him out. As a ‘human beatboxer, vocal sculptor and sound artist’ this man basically produces the most incredible sounds and beats you have ever heard, and from his voice alone – pretty impressive stuff. The closest I can come to producing any kind of beat with my voice is if I repeat ‘beans and mashed potato’ over and over really fast, but alas, even then I get tongue tied.

After sitting down in the cinema and a quick introduction from Jason on how the film had impacted him and how excited he was to work on this project, we begin.  Haunting echoes and drones fill the room and gradually the film slowly comes to life. With the help of a computer looping system which resembled the helm of a spaceship, Jason created a multi layered soundscape which could rival that of a recorded film soundtrack. Greeted by the sounds of seagulls, chugging of boats, slapping of fish, and of course, some beatboxing, I was subjected to a wealth of different tones and effects, all of which harmonised well together. The part I found most impressive about Jason’s performance was his ability to recreate sounds to mimic real life. When we saw a ship sailing on screen, the noise of sea and wind seemed so authentic it was difficult to comprehend that the sounds were being created live by someone’s voice alone.

After the performance we all went upstairs to the Cornerhouse Annexe for some drinks and to discuss the performance. Jason talked us through the type of equipment he used to make the performance ‘ableton live, space echo, bass synth…’ my mind started to spin. It is certainly a talent which very few possess. I got the sense that to him improvising is the most exciting part of the performance, making it a new experience every time, for us and for him.

In my opinion, Singh’s score complimented Grierson’s visual to great effect, bringing new life to this classic documentary. If you did miss it, I suggest you keep an eye out for Jason’s future projects.  I’m not going to lie, Drifters is not a film for everyone. It wouldn’t really satisfy the appetite of young film-goers today. There are no gun fights, CGI, blue creatures from other worlds… but it is certainly an important film for its time, and with Jason’s beautifully crafted soundtrack on top it certainly made for a really memorable and other worldly experience to watch.

Fellow Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Richard Greenwood was also impressed…

“Stunning”, “unbelievable”, “fantastic” and “how the blooming nora did he make that bell sound?” all floated across the Annexe like a herring trawler across the North Sea, following Jason Singh’s vocal score to 1929 classic, silent documentary, Drifters.

The project, three years in the making and part of The Cornerhouse’s Micro Commisions scheme, opened with Jason introducing himself and strangely revealing himself as a vegetarian. You wouldn’t have thought a film about men who daily kill thousands of fish would have been top of a vegetarian’s films to score, right?

However, it worked beautifully. The film became much more alive, squeals reflected the herrings struggle and opened the piece up to an emotion in which filmmaker John Grierson had probably never intended… fish sympathy.

For the daily routines of the fishermen, it was much the same. The crashing of the waves against the vessel, beatboxing building the sort of tension you get in an action movie, the pictures told the story of the fishermen’s fight against the elements but the score really gave it so much power. And then there was the bell, how the blooming nora did he make that bell sound? That bell sound that makes it oh so clear it’s part of routine and the fishermen’s brave battle continues again, tomorrow.

An incredible piece of work from Jason Singh, who afterwards seemed very keen on touring the live score. If it does happen, just quite simply, go.