Interview: Grant Gee + James Leyland Kirby (The Caretaker) on W.G. Sebald + Hauntology

For a recent symposium on Hauntology, I gave a paper on the links between the philosophy of hauntological ideas with the work and W.G. Sebald.  The subject had been interesting me for a while, not least because the jump between the style of the former and the thematic ideas of the latter are the amalgamation that I’m currently aiming for in my own fiction writing.  To make this connection in the presentation, I used the example of the musical score in Grant Gee’s documentary, Patience (After Sebald) (2012) as a pivot for the analysis as well as overt reference to Hauntology’s key writer (in its guise within the arts), Mark Fisher.  To aid the research, I tracked down both Gee and the film’s composer, The Caretaker (James Leyland Kirby).  Both interviews are below, were conducted separately from each other, and are published in full.  A transcript of my paper is online here.

Thanks to Dr. Holly Rogers, Dr. Robert Macfarlane, Dr. Aimee Mollaghan, Grant Gee and James Leyland Kirby.

Grant Gee

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Celluloid Wicker Man: What was it that first drew you to want to make a film about Sebald’s work?

Grant: Reading the books for the first time – in a one-after-the-other fit of what Rick Moody in a Believer article about Sebald, called ‘textual compulsion’ – I had the feeling of a strong, strange, cinematic quality to a strand of Sebald’s imagery.  More so than even the photographs throughout the books, the written imagery just seemed to suggest grey, grainy, gently seething movie-camera images.  A bit like Béla Tarr’s shots.  Given the subject matter of the books, this seething weirdness was fascinating.  Then I was asked by producer, Gareth Evans, to propose an idea for a trans-media event called ‘The Re-Enchantment’; all about artistic examination of place, and the idea crystallised to use the route walked in The Rings of Saturn for the form of a film.

CWM: You’re noted for your work examining musicians.  Was there something musical (or similar to) the subjects of your previous work that you felt The Rings Of Saturn (and Sebald more generally) somehow fitted into? Or was it entirely its own thing?

G: Nothing directly musical but, given the subject of your conference (Hauntology in music and media at the Resident Edge Symposium), this may be of interest.  While shooting my previous film (a documentary about Joy Division) in 2006, a couple of the interviewees started talking about Hauntology (first time I’d heard the term) and directed me towards Mark Fisher’s K-Punk site.  And reading about Joy Division there certainly helped shape the relationship between music and place in that film. So when, three years later, I was in pre-production for Patience, it was encouraging to find that both Sebald and The Caretaker’s music were also deeply embedded in K-Punk.  It helped bridge my thoughts across the two projects and to connect and crystallise notions about music, memory and film.

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CWM: Did you have any initial conceptions about what the music needed to do/reflect in terms of Sebald’s writing and book and did this change during the process of making the film (especially after having recreated the walk in the Suffolk landscape)?

G: The decision to use The Caretaker’s music came instantly and very early in the project. Well before shooting, in fact.  As soon as I had envisioned a visual texture for the film which seemed appropriate for the subject (grey and granular with each shot feeling like it could just go on looping forever) then there was an obvious connection to the sound of The Caretaker records.  Grey, granular, trapped in historical loops.  So the walk through Suffolk and the filming there proceeded with those kind of sounds in mind.  The decision to suggest recordings of Die Winterreise as the source of the soundtrack came about because I’d read somewhere that Sebald loved Schubert’s lieder.  Then I thought I remembered reading that Die Winterreise was Beckett’s favourite music and that seemed to mean something too.  After the film was finished, someone told me that some of Die Winterreise was played at Sebald’s funeral though I don’t know if this is true.

CWM: How did you first come across The Caretaker’s music and what was the process of getting him on board?

G: My friend and editor Jerry Chater turned me onto James’ music.  He just had one of the records (Persistent Repetition of Phrases, I think) and told me he thought I’d like it.  As far as getting in touch with James, I can’t honestly remember how. I imagine I just sent him a mail via V/VM (the record label). I can’t even remember him saying ‘OK’ or agreeing to the project or us discussing it very much.  I went out to see him in Berlin and we had a chat and a few drinks and tt was all as easy as pie.  I sent him the Schubert files. He sent back some tracks. I suggested a few additions – more of that mood – he sent back some more tracks.  Unbelievably straightforward.

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CWM: What is it about Kirby’s music that meant it felt right for the film and what connections do you feel his score (and his music generally) has with Sebald’s work and your recreation of his images?

G: A thing which helped me connect nebulous feelings about Sebald’s work to the  look of the film and to James’ music was a bit of William Burroughs text (not sure where it’s from…maybe Minutes to Go).  Anyway it’s “Word falling/photo falling”.  Again, a decidedly ‘hauntological’ image. And, of course, Burroughs is part of the Joy Division story and round and round it goes…

James Leyland Kirby (The Caretaker)

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CWM: What was it that first led you to scoring Patience?

James: Grant Gee got in touch with me and proposed the idea that he’d love for me to score this film for him based around old recordings of Schubert he’d sourced.  It was great because Grant basically gave me free reign to just create atmospheres and tracks using this source material.  The work was done independently from his filming and both he and Jerry Chater, his editor, did a great job in syncing my work with theirs.

CWM: Had you had any interest in Sebald’s writing before Patience?  And did engaging with it for this project change or influence your practice after it?

J: When Grant approached me I wasn’t aware of Sebald’s written work but the first thing I did was purchase and read The Rings of Saturn to get some initial ideas for how my work could enhance Grant’s vision for the film.

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CWM: How did you approach the scoring of the film?  Did you react in different ways when considering the text of the book and photos/Grant’s moving recreations of them from the book?

J: After reading the book I could see why Grant approached me, certainly if you look at the graininess of the images in the book. There’s a specific quality to that which could be compared to some of The Caretaker work I’d done up to that point.  I wanted to stay true to the source material and looked for specific loops and also textures which I felt would work.  Like I said above, the great thing was I wasn’t scoring to picture.  I think too much of this happens and it becomes a cliché out there.  Grant trusted me to make work which would fit an aesthetic so I had complete freedom to do that which was very important to me.

CWM: Do you see any parallels between your music and Sebald’s writing, either thematically or otherwise?

J: I think memory of course is prevalent in Sebald’s works and it’s very important in my work as The Caretaker and is a fundamental consideration when I’m creating current works.  The breaking down of memory especially and degradation over time.

CWM: So memory plays a big role in both your music generally and Sebald’s writing as a whole but do you see any differences between both of your engagements with memory or your approach in questioning the role that memory plays in our lives?

J: I don’t really know that much about Sebald’s other works but should really explore them so can’t really comment on differences in approaches. What fascinates me are errors and also false memories and how memories change and are constantly rewritten over time.

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