Sunderland, 1914. Fumy, industrial Sunderland. A world of “shipyards and coalmines; glassworks and papermills; breweries and engineering works … where football reigned,” Kate Adie intones over synth blips and swooshes. “Then, all of a sudden, the world began to roar.”
For the first London showing of Asunder, we’re at the Milton Court Concert Hall, part of the Barbican Centre, whose surrounding brutalist landscape could well have seemed like a vision of the far future to the Britons in the film. Part of the same 14-18 NOW series which gave us Paul Cummins’ poppies and Jeremy Deller’s vivid we’re here because we’re here, it’s a documentary assemblage produced by the artist Esther Johnson, in collaboration with the writer – and Saint Etienne member – Bob Stanley.
Using archive video and audio – together with some modern shots – the film looks at the Great War’s effect – in particular the battle of the Somme – on the people of Sunderland. Eschewing unimaginable statistics and horrifying depictions for a tighter focus on a few individuals, the stories – while often tragic – are told, in Adie’s narration and Alun Armstrong’s contemporary accounts from the pages of the Sunderland Echo, with the same ear for quotidian detail, and the same occasional snatches of humour, that have made so much of Stanley’s previous film work – particularly 2013’s poetic How We Used to Live – such a joy.
Performed at the premiere last July with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, there’s a more compact ensemble providing a live soundtrack tonight, consisting of its composers – Sunderland’s Field Music and Newcastle electronic duo Warm Digits – along with a string quartet.
The acts have worked together before, on a session for Radio 3’s Late Junction, which saw Field Music’s genial, precision-tooled pop taken down some rather more improvisatory autobahns. The Brewis brothers have also previously written and performed a new score to Drifters (1929), John Grierson’s social realist portrayal of herring fishing off the north-eastern coast.
Intended by Warm Digits’ Andrew Hodson and Peter Brewis of Field Music to evoke music of the period – fed by a diet of Stravinsky and Debussy, employing woodwind over brass – the score also sidesteps horror and portent. Like Johnson and Stanley’s narrative, the music seems to revel in alternative viewpoints and in minutiae, appropriately enough for the Brewis brothers, with barely a note out of place across their catalogue to date.
There’s the recurring main theme on Sarah Hayes’ flute, flipping between wistful and unresolved, hopeful feels, or the busy, chattering cello bulletin under the introduction of some of Asunder’s key characters. These include Bella Reay, star player with women’s factory team Blyth Spartans Munitionettes; Lizzie Holmes, the first woman in Horden, County Durham to wear trousers; accounts clerk and conscientious objector Norman Gaudie; or 19 year old Robert Hepple, executed for desertion seven months after serving at the Somme.
Warm Digits’ influence is clearly felt, too, in the occasional touches of synth, or in the industrious, almost motorik hum that underpins factory footage of shipwrights or women knocking detonating caps into rows of bombs. And, almost best of all, there’s a brief appearance from Sunderland’s Cornshed Sisters – including Field Music’s Liz Corney, and Marie Nixon, once of the glorious Kenickie – whose close-harmony rendition of the trad. arr. The Rigs of Sunderland Fair is a moment of quiet, bucolic respite.
Esther Johnson has said of the project that she wanted to reveal ‘stories that weren’t so well documented’, rooting through archives in search of “attempts at finding normality within that very abnormal circumstance of war”. She calls these “moments of magic”, and Asunder, thanks in no small part to the roles played by Field Music and Warm Digits, conjures them beautifully, in words, image, and sound.
For more information, or to find out about further screenings, visit the website here.