Geoff Smith: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Salome

Geoff Smith is a Brighton-based composer and musician who is one of the world’s leading exponents of the hammer dulcimer. This ancient instrument consists of a solid wooden board across which strings are stretched; the player hits the strings with small wooden hammers, producing a lovely, bell-like timbre. In the late 80s and early 90s Smith fronted Attacco Decente, a hard-hitting outfit who made two albums of impassioned, utterly modern folk music. Situated among a battery of equally unusual percussion instruments, and Mark Allen’s rich acoustic guitar work, Smith’s dulcimer formed the bedrock for devastating, harmony-drenched songs that spoke with equal directness of personal will and political commitment. One of the most sharply innovative and creative bands of their time, Attacco never received anything like the recognition they deserved.

Since Attacco split, Smith has continued to explore the possibilities of the hammer dulcimer, and to make some fairly important discoveries of his own, of which more later. These two discs present the audio side of two recent audio-visual projects.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is Smith’s new score to the silent horror film of the same name. Made by the German Robert Wiene in 1919, the film is a classic of cinematic Expressionism. It tells the story of a fairground barker, the eponymous Caligari, who exhibits a sleepwalker that is suspected of murder. The convoluted plot, however, is far less notable than the extraordinary sets and cinematography. The film’s crazed rooms and impossible angles all contribute to its vertiginous, nocturnal state.

In early 2003, Smith embarked on a tour of cinemas around the UK, performing the Caligari score live as the film played above him. Smith uses three dulcimers – chromatic, diatonic and his own customised microtonal model. To watch this live, with little twinkling lights illuminating the instruments as Smith played along with the film’s unearthly scenes from the darkness, was a transfixing spectacle.

Taken on its own, the score is a challenging but rewarding listen. Corresponding to the six acts of the film, its six movements modulate from slow, deliberate exposition to furious outbursts of virtuoso riffing. Smith uses many of the tropes of the classic horror soundtrack – the spine-tingling descending run, the unresolved minor chords that hint at unease and foreboding – but refuses cliché through the constant ebb and flow of pace and rhythm. A delicate melodic motif is introduced halfway through the first movement and recurs at intervals, lending a conceptual unity to the composition that is bolstered elsewhere by tender, wordless vocals. Smith explores the properties of each dulcimer in turn, with the sonorous tones of the chromatic and diatonic models giving way in the fifth movement to the more exotic, Eastern-influenced sounds made possible by the unique tuning mechanism he has developed for the microtonal model. Throughout the piece, Smith ratchets up the tension with sustained melodic inventiveness, releasing silvery clouds of sound that float ominously around the soundworld and then disperse.

Smith demonstrates a more focused side to his craft on Salome, a collection of five instrumental pieces and two songs. This music was used as the accompaniment to a production of Dance of the Seven Veils by the Japanese dancer Shakti, although the album comes across perfectly well as a piece of work in its own right. Bookending the set are ‘Persona’ and ‘Stream of Consciousness’, the only two pieces composed especially for the production; both hammer away at the listener’s nerve endings, creating dreamlike moods through insistent repetition. The songs ‘Mystery of Innocence’ and ‘Sweet Love’ are affecting, but frustratingly slight compared with the heightened erotic and social charge of Smith’s songs for Attacco Decente. The album’s twin highlights, ‘Child Soldier’ and ‘Ferocious Tenderness’, see Smith unleashing the full power of his astonishing virtuosity on the dulcimer, which is however devoid of unnecessary flourish or show. Instead Smith offers a concentrated and sumptuous formalism, with the teeming chimes of the dulcimer rounding out a succession of exquisitely turned atmospheres.

Smith recently announced a major discovery: a device that applies his patented microtonal tuning mechanism to the piano. This has revolutionary implications for the theory and practice of piano playing. Essentially, it enables the piano’s normal equal-tempered tuning to be adjusted at will, opening up the instrument – previously hampered by Western tuning convention – to the microtones situated between the piano’s 88 keys. The pianist will then be able to play music based on unusual and Eastern tunings, providing this most tradition-based of instruments with an entirely new soundworld.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)

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