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The Nine Muses by John Akomfrah

By Nicolas Soames

1 November 2010

Our recordings of the classics pop up all over the place. Excerpts from our collection of Poets of the Great War have been heard on a TV documentary to accompany harrowing scenes from the trenches; Michael Sheen’s recording of Romeo and Juliet has been used to accompany a cartoon film of the play; sections of other plays and books, as well as more poetry, appear on other media, from films to radio to live theatre, even to installations! And not just English-language productions either, but even Korean, Spanish or German!

Generally, I know about it: the producers of these independent productions come and ask permission! Very occasionally something slips through and I encounter it by happenstance, though on the whole producers are careful. Recently I have even been asked to give permission for the covers of CD recordings to appear in a film set.

It is not always clear from these early permission requests how the recordings are going to be used. But I have never been more surprised than I was the other day, when I went to the London Film Festival for the UK premiere of The Nine Muses, directed by John Akomfrah. The theme of the 90-minute film (documentary? Reflection? Art house film?) is immigration – journey, displacement – especially black and Asian immigration into the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. Heavy? Bleak? Not a bit of it. The power of the work lies in the unexpected but imaginative confluence of images and sounds which merge archive footage with icy landscape and a variety of words and music.

The opening scenes are of an icy Alaskan landscape, with snowy mountains, and cold, bare trees. White everywhere, cold everywhere… black, leafless trees, and sometimes a black road running through the centre of the shot with snow banked on either side. Sound effects of wind or a car. Perhaps a hint of an electronic score. It is so icy, a faint blue tinge seems to overhang it all.

The scene shifts. We see a black man walking down a street of a 1950s England industrial town, wrapped, inadequately one feels, in a thin coat against the drab, damp weather and carrying a suitcase: cold and bare and friendless in a different way. Street sounds. Suddenly, the voice of Anton Lesser emerges, telling Homer’s story of Odysseus trying to get home, encountering the Cyclops and other strange terrors… the dangers of the Sirens, the Circe’s Island… and then we hear Schubert’s Der Leiermann (‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’) from the end of another journey, Die Winterreise (‘The Winter Journey’).

And so on. There is no obvious narrative yet the collage tells an unmistakeable story. The voice of Dermot Crowley begins Beckett’s Molloy: ‘I am in my mother’s room’. The experience of solitariness emerges. Solitude leads to memories: more from Beckett, this time Sean Barrett reading from The Unnamable, and memories of childhood from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Jim Norton’s unmatched reading.

Then, there is the white Alaskan landscape again, with the snow leading down to water. Again, white and bleak. But there is a man standing and looking across the landscape; although we only see him from the back, he is wearing a windproof jacket which is bright yellow. This splash of colour in a black and white landscape has a tumultuous effect, like a sudden crescendo in a soft adagio.

There are other snatches of music: Leontyne Price singing a negro spiritual; the unmistakable voice of Paul Robeson; Indian classical music; a moment of uplift from Parsifal. And more poetry: Teresa Gallagher reading an Emily Dickinson poem; Anton Lesser again, this time from the opening section of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The archive footage is extraordinary. Black and Asian people working before great furnaces with billowing fire, pouring molten metal in an environment of furious heat; Asian children in a 1950s playground, smiling and laughing; a family crowded round a very basic kitchen with Formica on the table. Suddenly, the face of Enoch Powell, warning about the future to come: is this the famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech? Not sure.

And back to The Odyssey, with Odysseus still heading for Ithaca.

I found The Nine Muses totally compelling, totally absorbing. I was drawn into it even more closely by the way the soundtrack interweaves music and words seamlessly as an integrated medium. What’s more, hearing all these recordings of classic literature (essentially white and Western of course) become integrated into a broader world perspective by the central topic of the film made me look afresh at that literature, and look beneath the cultural surface to the central myths. It has been my world for the past 16 years of working on the Naxos AudioBooks catalogue. How affecting, therefore, to see it from a totally different point of view.

In a talk afterwards, John Akomfrah commented on the mythology of immigration, of journey from and journey to. He focussed on a particular moment and place of immigration in his film, but it is essentially a timeless reflection.

Who knows whether it will be given a wider distribution in the cinema circuit in the UK (probably not, given the commercial constraints) or whether it will ever appear on DVD. But I hope it does. This thoughtful, beautifully paced, essentially compassionate film deserves a worldwide audience. At the very least it would serve our future generations if it were shown to all pupils before they leave school, allowing each individual, intuitively, to better understand the past and the future.

Nicolas Soames

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