The renowned composer and performer, Paul Mercer is presently on European tour with his band, The Ghosts Project. His roots in phantom-evoking Atlanta, Georgia definitely inspire his music that crosses all imaginable boundaries. One thing’s for certain. Mercer’s compositions are as picturesque, haunting, gut wrenching and ambiguous as any written in this or earlier centuries. Completely lacking in formal training, Mercer is a self-taught entrepreneur who is most at home with the violin and viola. His eclectic, experimental work is improvisational, allowing the instruments their own voice while he tags along.
I caught up with Mercer to discuss his score for Dimitri Kirsanoff’s eery silent film, Ménilmontant (1926) in the brief interview that follows. Kirsanoff’s grisly murder-thriller is unique in that there are no intertitles—an ideal backdrop for Mercer’s potent score.
How long did it take you to compose the score for Ménilmontant?
Ménilmontant was the first silent film that I ever scored. I was working under an extreme time constraint, and had allocated one full day for the recording of the soundtrack and part of another to mix and master it.
Can you explain your artistic process for creating film scores?
My process for creating scores is a lot like automatic writing. I sit in front of the film, violin in hand— with tape running, and let the impressions hit me. This allows a sketch of sonic ideas that occur while viewing. I use this initial sketch as the backbone for all additional tracks that I layer in the same way— staring at the screen, and allowing the images to guide me.
Was there anything unusual about writing the Ménilmontant score?
I was completely unprepared for the emotional power of Ménilmontant, finding the film irresistible and hypnotic. From the shocking opening scene onward, I was immediately, sucked into principal actress Nadia Sibirskaia’s vulnerable, heartbreakingly expressive eyes and experienced with her, the melancholy of a long vanished world. In all honesty, the score wrote itself!
How many times did you view Ménilmontant before it became part of you and you could write?
I played through the film three times— once with an electronically dropped pitch. Then I added a few incidental touches of piano and percussion. Seven hours later, I was finished. It remains one of the most effortless acts of creation I have ever experienced! I attribute this to the power of the images Dmitri Kirsanoff produced in this unique masterpiece. Ménilmontant is definitely one of my favorite films of all time!
Paul Mercer’s scores for Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant and others in the set, may be found in Kino’s Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 30s.