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Original at Glasgow University

Brian Easdale

Brian Easdale was the only 'Archer' who joined the company after formative experiences in the British documentary movement. Easdale had gotten to know the members of the documentary movement in the the nineteen-thirties and once the Second World War began he was drafted into the newly formed Crown Film Unit, for whom he wrote music for propaganda and training shorts. During the war he was stationed in Calcutta where he studied Indian music and became friends with the author Rumer Godden. Remaining in India briefly at the end of the war Easdale read in the Indian edition of the Telegraph that the Archers were planning to film his friend's novel Black Narcissus. He judged that he was the man who could compose the music for it and travelled back to England immediately to arrange an appointment with Powell and Pressburger. The nunnery in the Himilayas
Black Narcissus, the nunnery in the Himilayas

On the Black Narcissus set
Powell and Pressburger on the Black Narcissus set
[That's not Emeric, it's "Uncle" Alfred Junge]
The Archers were at that time looking for a new composer, not to replace Allan Gray rather they wanted someone for this film with a knowledge of Indian music. Kevin Macdonald has said that "Consciously or not, it was another indication of the new 'art for art's sake' direction of their work. Music was no longer incidental, but formed the emotional core of their films". Easdale proved to his new producers that he was anxious to be inventive, writing, as a test of his ability, a two minute peice of music for Jean Simmons to dance to. He created a piece which almost entirely uses different kinds of drums.

Easdale began to be present at rough-cut screenings as the shooting progressed, taking notes on what the producers wanted. Before the filming was completed Easdale appeared on set with Michael Powell, each man holding a stop-watch and the ten minute score to the sequence they were shooting. This was the beginning of the development of the 'composed' film. They rehearsed the actors and crew to a piano track which Easdale had recorded. Powell has said. "I have never enjoyed myself myself so much in my life. for the first time I felt I had control of the film with the authority of the music. It was astonishing to everyone, but particularly, of course, to the camera crew that were able to compress or speed up the movement of the action just by saying: "No, that wasn't fast enough. We've only got seven seconds for that bit of action."

For a better understanding the composed film it is worth quoting Kevin Macdonald at length:

"A 'composed film' is one in which the entire soundtrack - usually a musical score - is recorded before a single foot of film is exposed. The film is then directed and shot to playbacik. It is a method which allows for complete pre-planning of every aspect of production, to achieve a single, intense, expressive end under the guidance of the music. It is music that carries the emotional meaning of the movie - watching a 'composed film' one is struck by how similar the experience is to listening to a full-scale orchestral work.

Already in Black Narcissus the visual aspects of the film were utterly controlled. A further step was to allow Brian Easdale to utterly supervise the entire soundtrack, not just the music, so that the sound effects became part of the score - less naturalistic than dramatic. the Archers were reacting against the static, talky naturalism of contemporary British films, trying to create a more cinematic and expressionist style, heavily influenced by music and the movies of the late silent period."

Easdale's greatest acheivement therefore was The Red Shoes which featured at its centre a seventeen minute ballet entirely composed by himself, shot and edited to his pre-recorded soundtrack. Easdale, aware of his own limitations after so much responsibility having been given to him was judicious in his approach the Red Shoes score. He asked his producers to approach Sir Thomas Beecham to conduct the orchestra when the score was recorded, believing that the film would be better served by his superior skills. So fruitful was this latest collaboration prove that the Archers were to repeat it a few years later when they filmed Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann as an entirely composed film.

Gauging Easdale's contribution to the Archers is no easy thing, however it is certain that his abilities as a first rate composer, and not just a pasticheuer were made available to the Archers at just the right time. The versality of his style, matching it to Indian arrangements or full classical orchestras and voices enabled music to be put at the heart of their films.

The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes.

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