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'Bird of Paradise' - Film Debut

A few weeks ago, my close friend and musical extraordinaire Michael A Grant - famous for such blogs on my site as 'Miniatures' and for such mammoth tasks as arranging a Sibelius Symphony for piano - contacted me at the beginning of his film scoring debut as he was in need of a pianist to help bring some of it to life.

Naturally this was something I was more than happy to do for him and the film got completed and debuted at HOME, Manchester on Monday 17th June 2024.

Michael A Grant Levi Felix Holton Manchester Bird of Paradise HOME Jack Mitchell Smith Metropolitan University Filmmaker
L - R Michael A Grant, Levi Felix Holton (the film's director), myself

The Film

I wasn't told an awful lot about the film prior to being involved except that it was;

  • titled 'Bird of Paradise'

  • directed by a student from the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) as part of their filmmaking course,

  • a short film (9 minutes, approx.) and of a darker, surrealist nature (I was told to think David Lynch).

  • the music Michael was composing was quite avant-garde.

Following on from the latter point, I didn't necessarily appreciate this as I wasn't required to record piano for the whole soundtrack. Just two short pieces, the first of which Michael sent across straight away:

The Two Recordings

1- Disjointed Jazz

The first piece Michael sent across was of a jazzier nature, however I didn't appreciate this fully yet as - being the first musician to receive the part - I merely had a click track.

Recording Piano for the First Piece from 'Bird of Paradise' Jack Mitchell Smith
Recording Piano for the First Piece from 'Bird of Paradise'

In order to live up to the experimental nature of his creation, Michael wanted echoing piano chords that were created artificially. This involved me playing the piece through four times and sending him four tracks over. At his end, he created an echo effect by adjusting the volumes of each individual track and slightly offsetting them with one another.

Michael did send a MIDI interpretation of how the piece should sound in entirety, however I opted to just go straight into recording the chords.

2 - Flashing Lights

The second piece of music was sent a few weeks later and comprised mainly of open piano notes / chords.

Using very literal phraseology on his score to encourage a randomisation of rhythm as the open piano notes progress from long, ringing notes into more staggered asymmetry, my move to Congleton in the interim resulted in a potential problem: I had misplaced my (working) headphones. How could I hear the click and make sure this kept to time as, surely this would all need to sync up perfectly with the film?

As if by coincidence, Michael had developed a headphoneless approach for me to know when to change note / chord / rhythm! He send me a clip of the scene for which this was to accompany and superimposed a flashing light onto the screen each time there was a change. You've heard of graphic score - now get ready for graphic conducting!

And this was a very simple yet effective approach as it took no more than one take to get it right!

Again, Michael just wanted the dry track so that he could work his production magic on it!

HOME Film Debut

At 4:00 pm on Monday 17th June, the first of eight short films were performed, 'Bird of Paradise' being the penultimate.

And aside from what Michael had previously told me, I was in no way knowing of what to expect (although technically I had seen one scene ahead of time, but I was concentrating on the flashing lights then!)

I think David Lynch was about right as a likeness. Michael said, in fact, that he had been sent a scene from 'Eraserhead' (one of my favourite films - judge me how you will!) and was inspired by the screeching noises of that.

Whilst it is certainly difficult to sum up what the plot of 'Bird of Paradise' was about, it was an intriguing, artistic display of vision and sound. Surreal yet vibrant, disturbing yet beautiful. And although there is still an abstract mystery surrounding it, a very brief Q&A with the director - Levi Felix Holton - at the end, did seem to bring it together more;

he said that he focuses more on trying to pinpoint a certain snapshot of his own life and bringing his emotion(s) from that particular moment to life in his short films, rather than trying to focus on narrative and - whilst he didn't divulge any further as to what specifically this film was based around - it was clearly a deeply personal endeavour.

It has to be said, however, that all eight of the films were masterpieces in their own way. Regrettably, I couldn't stay for the second half, but the films I did see were:

  • The First Day

  • My Dad The Spaceman

  • Grappling With Indie Wrestling

  • Downpour

  • Something More Meaningful

  • It's Gonna Be Okay

  • Bird Of Paradise

  • First To Wake

The Music

To round off, of course, a word on the music. It was such a joy to hear how it all came together, and Michael's unusual approaches paid off.

With screechy sax-like leitmotifs and an almost unbearably long wait for the music to resolve into something that satisfied the ear rather than giving several interrupted musical 'snapshots' as it did for the first five minutes (which worked perfectly in punctuating the film), the score was a work of art in its own right. Mix with the fact that we were all hearing it for the first time on cinema speakers...! It couldn't have sounded better!

Find Out More

If you wish to read Michael's initial blog on creating this masterpiece, visit his website to do so!

You may just be able to catch a couple more showings at MMU's Degree Show.

Visit Levi Felix Holton's website to keep up to date with his work.


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