Earlier this year, when Zoo Animal performed their score for the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc at two back-to-back screenings in Duluth, bandleader Holly Newsom wasn’t sure quite what kind of reaction to expect.
“They all kind of left in a daze,” Newsom remembers, speaking recently at a press event where she had just finished performing the score with her Zoo Animal bandmates Josiah Quick and Josh Caro. “I mean, even today, I’m pretty sure you all just want to leave [once the screening was finished] and go think about everything in the world, because it’s so intense. That’s how I feel.”
Without giving too much away, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a slow-moving, minimalist, and at times tedious film that builds to a dramatic and gut-wrenching conclusion. For their score, Zoo Animal have composed a series of repetitive melodies and driving rhythms to accentuate the film; at times, their playing is so sparse and ambient that it becomes background noise, while at others they swell to such a clamoring cacophony that it shakes the walls of the Cedar Cultural Center.
Newsom doesn’t sing at all during the performance, instead alternating between guitar and the drum kit to create a purely instrumental soundtrack. “I did think about including vocals, but I thought that, because I have such a distinct voice, that it would just distract from it,” she says. “The narrative is so strong in the movie already that I didn’t want to take away from it.”
“The movie already makes you tense,” she continues. “And I don’t think we make you feel any less tense. But knowing that there’s an audience for that kind of music gave me the boldness to go ahead and do this. It’s not like I’m some sort of pioneer in this sort of intense, railroad train-feeling music; I think it just made what the film was about more in your face.”
Zoo Animal’s Joan of Arc score is similar in concept to another local band-and-silent film pairing that happened this year, but whereas Brute Heart brought in set designs, lighting specialists, and other theatrical elements to enhance their score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Zoo Animal have taken an entirely different approach. As Joan of Arc is screened center-stage, the trio of musicians in Zoo Animal assemble themselves in a line at stage left and play under minimal lighting. After the press preview event, Newsom even contemplated having the stage lights turned off altogether for their public performances so that the eye is only drawn to the movie screen.
Newsom says her main goal is to accentuate the film’s dramatic moments and let the storyline speak for itself, however disturbing the imagery and uncomfortably close camera angles may be.
“It’s so intense,” she says. “When I play Zoo Animal music I know it’s really intense, but I value bringing something out in public that maybe you only think about when you’re by yourself, so it almost makes you feel less alone. And the fact that this movie has so much despair in it, but we’re all sitting in the same room–it’s almost like you’re facing it together. I don’t even want someone to listen to this by themselves. Nope, too much despair. I’d rather us be together, and even though it’s awkward to look at each other after this intense experience, at least you’re with each other.”
Zoo Animal will perform their Joan of Arc score tonight and tomorrow night at the Cedar.