During the lockdowns of the Covid-19 panic, the world saw the emergence of nature into previously human-dominated spaces, and people reported a new appreciation of the sounds of the natural world, unfettered by the sounds of the industrial world of planes and cars.
Fortunately, the pandemic is over, and lockdowns are (for now, and forever, I hope) a thing of the past. But while that trauma is gone, perhaps too is our appreciation that hidden alongside our modern world there still exists the world of nature, despite everything.
The Return of Us is a fantasy or fairy tale, set in mysterious woods, in which a young girl meets a gigantic forest Beast. But it is also very much set in the real world, in this troubled period - to be precise, one might say the glorious Spring of 2020. It asks a simple question about the cautious emergence of the natural world:
What will happen, when we return?
The Return of Us is presented as a film, with a separate set of audio-only recordings, and is an unusual combination and collaboration of art forms:
Choral music: 8 voices from the choir Kantos, singing in an essentially conventional way, recorded, then re-worked for the musical element of the work.
Vocal effects: the voices of Kantos, again, but not singing. All of the film's sound design was constructed through sounds made by the members of Kantos (for example, leaves rustling; twigs snapping; folds of clothing brushing together; footsteps). Mostly these were voice effects, but hands were also used (often to shape the sound from the mouth!)
Contrabass clarinet, performed by Sarah Watts. A combination of conventional playing with a variety of extended techniques (in which Sarah is one of the world's experts). This element of the work is the vocalisation of the character of The Beast. Ironically, Sarah also calls her contrabass clarinet her Beast!
The film itself was edited alongside the assembly or composition of the soundtrack, rather than the soundtrack added to a final cut of the film, and so the visuals and sound were combined in the composition process.
The giant "Beast" was designed and created by Andrew Kim and Sue Walpole of Thingumajig Theatre, and performed by Andrew Kim
The Return of Us was a collaboration with Radius Opera, Kantos (led by Ellie Slorach), Tim Benjamin, Sarah Watts, Andrew Kim, and Sue Walpole, with support from Arts Council England and the BFI.
I have been interested to write music for silent films, in which the music takes on the role of speech to tell the story. The Return of Us is, essentially, a silent film. No audio was recorded during filming, and the soundtrack is designed entirely to convey the story that lives in the pictures.
As a composer, combining both sound design and music for the sole soundtrack of a film feels very much in the spirit of the old world of a honky-tonk piano accompanying silent black-and-white footage. In this project, I went further, editing the film to suit the sound just as much as I assembled the sound to suit the picture.
We did bend the "rules" of a silent movie a little - at one point in the film, the young girl appears to sing a lullaby to The Beast (the Welsh song Suo-Gân), but the soundtrack is interwoven with her other-worldly voice, as if the trees themselves join in, as the wind in their leaves becomes music.
Photos and more info
More information, stills, and behind-the-scenes photos and notes can be found at the Radius Opera website.
Following appearances at a number of festivals, the film is now available to watch online:
Voices, contrabass clarinet
Request a score / parts
If you would like to see a score and/or require a set of parts for this music, please contact me.