It’s gig time again. The holiday lull that follows the festival season has ended. The unseasonably hot weather in London is disguising Autumn around the corner. The concert calendar is filling up.
Mogwai have been performing the live score to “Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise” around the world including Hiroshima. The Hiroshima performance was preceded by a speech to explain the context and images and it was well received. Cousins has also screened the film in Chernobyl, where the film was welcomed in presenting the local area now as a natural environment rather than just a disaster area. The film is by Mark Cousins, who produced the rather wonderful but totally exhaustive “Story Of Film”, all 900 minutes of it. “Atomic” contains only archive footage looking at how humanity took the atomic theory and used it for good and evil during the 20th century.
Mogwai have performed soundtracks before. I saw them perform “Zidane” at the Barbican and their soundtrack to the French drama “Les Revenants” was integral to the series. Introduced by Stuart Cosgrove, Cousins and Mogwai got together for a chat and starting linking in music to images rather than producing a full soundtrack in one go. The music was intended not to be bombastic and it isn’t.
So how did it work in a live setting? My first observation was that this was very much an evening when the film took centre stage. Mogwai walked on and off the stage unannounced and for the vast majority of the performance were seated and in darkness. With the exception of a wave of gratitude from Stuart Braithwaite at the end of the gig, there was no interaction with the audience.
I’m not quite sure what to take away from the film. Having lived through some of the nuclear age, I recall spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction. In the light of terrorist attacks in recent years, it feels somewhat that one threat has been replaced with another. I would also imagine that most of the audience appreciated the yin and yang of radiation, both causing and curing illness.
Aside from the footage of the physical impact of radiation, the most affecting images were the personal ones, especially the mother at Chernobyl waiting for her son to return and the fishermen who were still working in the surrounding rivers, ignoring the threat of radioactivity. It was also interesting to see the composition of the crowds in the first Aldermaston CND marches in the fifties and sixties, not just the beatniks that some may assume were the anti-nuclear protestors but a diverse working class contingent, with pensioners, Sikhs and children. This Guardian article from 1958 gives a good idea of the cross-section.
I was at the earlier of the two showings and there was, for me, issues with the sound. Mogwai were customarily loud but there was also a shrillness, an excess of treble. The speech track to the film was often amplified to a greater level than the band. With the difference in intensity and volume of Mogwai’s soundtrack, it often felt jarring.
The performance lasted just 75 minutes – no encores, no non-soundtrack material. It felt though that this was neither Cousins’ or Mogwai’s best work. Not awful by any stretch of the imagination but not something that will live long. The imagery was bracing but it didn’t feel like a narrative that was compelling. It feels like a furrow that has been ploughed and it is time to move on. Mogwai are back in the studio recording at present and I look forward to hearing what they come back with.