IT’S not every day you get to hear one of Scotland’s most exciting DJ/composers performing his soundtrack live with a string quintet to one of his favourite films, a 1926 classic version of Faust – the man who made a pact with the devil and had to pay with his soul?
DJ Alex Smoke performs the second live performance of his film score for Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Faust in Inverness tonight at 9pm in Eden Court Cinema with five string players from the Scottish Ensemble – also playing live as the film screens.
It potentially could have been a logistical nightmare, as Alex explained, to have the film running, the string players and the electronic music he plays live all running seamlessly together.
But he and the Scottish Ensemble players had faith, and it has all gone well.
And getting the chance to see one of his favourite films and play the music he has created specailly for what was originally the silent German movie from the maker of the classic Nosferatu, is an interesting way to get set for Alex’s move next week to live in Berlin!
Alex who has lived in London as well as his native Glasgow said: "I’m inbetween cities, technically.
"I have lots of friends in Berlin and find London a bit frenetic.
"My German’s terrible, though, so I’ll have to be a language pack.
"I don’t want to feel like a cultural parasite, so I will be trying to learn."
Alex had been commissioned before by Scottish Ensemble to create a piece for them.
So when he came up with his own score for the Faust film, he approached the Scottish Ensemble with the idea for a quintet of strings to appear on the soundtrack.
Not that he’d actually originally intended to perform it live!
"Working to a click track accurately live for that length of time – the film’s an hour and three quarters – is quite testing.
"Also I realise now that the parts I’d written for the cello and double bass are really physically demanding – because I wasn’t originally expecting it to be played live.
"Also, all the electronic elements that run alongside the ensemble playing, have to happen together.
"So I didn’t think it would be feasible to do – particularly as with an ensemble you get very little rehearsal time.
"Even though they are such incredibly gifted players – there’s no problem there at all.
"But when the rehearsal budgets are done, there is always a lot of pressure on rehearsal tim, particularly when the piece we’ll be playing lasts for an hour and three quarters!
"But it wasn’t as hard as I had imagined – they made it seem simple, put it that way!"
The film and live soundtrack has already been performed in Dundee, Inverness is the second or only two performances.
Alex – who trained as a cellist and spent some of his early years as a chorister at Durham Cathedral – combines his music writing with live appearances two weekends a month.
He is also a massive film buff and explained why he wanted to write the music for one of his favourite silent movies.
"Faust is one of the greats, an amazing film that hasn’t any sound at all which is a major part of any film you see.
"Murnau just has an incredible eye and the film is incredibly visually striking.
"And the story of Faust is one I love and is very relevant.
"As we said in the flyer about the event, Faust is also a story of our times.
"For me, it was a good one to do – my sound palette tends to be on the dark side, so it just works for me on lots of levels.
"I was shocked at how up-to-date some of the effects are in the film and how viusally striking it is.
"Murnau also did Nosferatu and there are some pretty scary amazing images in there again.
"Then, film-makers had to be very creative because there was so little in the way of technology – the mother of invention and all that.
"For me, Murnau’s Faust is a work of genius to be sure."
Fascinated by the idea of the Faustian pact – where Faust promised his soul to the devil in exchange for centuries of worldly riches and pleasures – Alex has added some ingenious twists to his music.
These days, the phrase "Faustian pact" more usually means where an amibtious person might abandon their integrity and compromise their principles for the sake of money or power.
Alex said: "With electronic music and sound design you have so many different ways of incorporating sound.
"Say for example you have a set of numbers, you can apply them to frequencies and then you can apply a special software program where you can can play around with sound.
"Audiences don’t know it’s there, but I know that it’s in there, I like that!"
Alongside nuclear launch codes in there, Alex has also got notorious former local Occultist Aleister Crowley included in his soundtrack.
Alex said: "There’s an old recording from early last century when sound recording was very rough, probably from a wax cylinder or something, of Aleister Crowley intoning and you can actually hear that."
Alex has also got a section featuring former prime minister Tony Blair addressing the Chilcot inquiry which looked at the UK’s role in the Iraq war.
"It was a text file from the official report and I got the computer to read it back in a voice free from emotion – then I mangled it.
"People won’t spot it, but it is weaving meaning into the soundtrack.
"When a film-maker makes a film, they might have a subtext in a film you know nothing about.
"In fact there’s a feature coming up in cinemas in about a week or so about The Shining and possible theories about what the director Stanley Kubrick might have woven into the film.
"So it’s adding that kind of element of mystery."
Alex will be playing live tonight, but not too much as the string players need to have the click track which keeps all the different elements in time.
He explained: "I do some limited work on the electronic side, but not too much because it is too risky to have too much running electronically because if the computer crashes you lose the click track and everything. And it’s more important to have the string quintet!"
For fans of Alex’s own work on his highly-rated albums, there is good news – a new album is planned for release, probably in January.
He said: "It should be a busy year.
"If you have lots of different things going on, it’s good.
"The secret of music as a career, I think, is to keep yourself entertained by doing lots of different things.
"If you are a creative person and you’re just churning out the same thing again and again, you have to have a massive ego if you think you have already reached the pinnacle!
"The more you do, the better."
Catch Faust tonight with live music from DJ Alex Smoke and the Scottish Ensemble at Eden Court Cinema at 9pm as part of Scottish Ensemble’s residency in Inverness this weekend.