When Grierson met Jason Singh

This year the wonderful Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema featured a stunning new soundtrack to John Grierson’s Drifters by Jason Singh. Accompanied by members of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Jason fused electronic effects, clattering beats and his own voice to create a striking contemporary response to Grierson’s 1929 documentary about North Sea fishermen. The energy and power of the film was heightened by Singh’s beat-boxing, the engines of the fishing trawlers fueled by his propulsive beats. His performance responded beautifully to the changes in tempo and tone in the film, voice and effects demonstrating the power of the waves crashing off the rocks, then quietening to reflect the underwater images of the shoals of herring sought by the trawlermen and the seagulls flying above the boats. The performance ended with a memorable recreation of the sounds of the bustling fishmarket where the trawlermen’s catch was bought and sold. After the elemental sounds of the sea and the mechanical hum of the trawlers the babble of voices brought us back to land.

An underwater scene from John Grierson's 1929 documentary Drifters.
An underwater scene from John Grierson’s 1929 documentary Drifters.

Drifters was made at a turning point in the history of cinema when silent films were beginning to be replaced by the ‘talkies’ and the use of sound in films was becoming more common. Grierson was quick to realise the potential of sound and his archive includes a printed document distributed to cinemas providing a scene-by-scene musical accompaniment to the film. The recommendations are divided into two sections. The first provides popular tunes to be played by a cinema orchestra, while the second lists gramophone recordings of classical music for cinemas without musicians. These were to be played using “non-synchronous tables” (gramophones set up to play likes today’s DJ turntables). As the fishermen prepared their nets before casting them into the sea Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Part 1 was to be played. Later in the film the threat of the gathering storm clouds was accompanied by Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture. Grierson was keen to utilise the technological advances of this time to enhance his pioneering documentary – Jason Singh uses 21st century techniques and equipment to breathe new life into the film for contemporary audiences.

Suggested musical accompaniment for Drifters (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.1.3)
Suggested musical accompaniment for Drifters (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.1.3)
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