David Bridie: Divine Wisdom

March 27, 2019
Celebrated Aussie composer and performer David Bridie returns with his new solo album The Wisdom Line, which comes accompanied by a suite of fascinating short films.

David Bridie is a quiet Australian musical powerhouse, a composer and musician whose resume cuts keenly through a wide range of genres and styles. He was a key figure in the pioneering groups Not Drowning Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake, and has released five creatively envelope pushing solo albums. He has also contributed to over 100 film and television soundtracks, with notable and breathtaking scores for the likes of In A Savage Land, My Brother Jack and The Myth Of Fingerprints. This month, Bridie releases his sixth solo album, The Wisdom Line, a lush and densely layered piece of work. “I wanted to make an album with depth and sonic quality,” he tells FilmInk. Continuing Bridie’s skillful melding of the aural and the visual, the album is also accompanied by eleven short films, each one connected to a song from the album. Hailing from Slovenia, America and Australia, the richly varied collection of on-the-rise and veteran filmmakers apply their own ideas and sense of style to Bridie’s impassioned music. The result is a magical collision of sound and vision, which Bridie will also be taking out on tour across Australia.

David Bridie at work

How did you get into composing for the screen? “In 1983, guitarist John Phillips and I started a band called Not Drowning Waving. Our 1984 debut album Another Pond contained many instrumentals, some slow piano and textured guitar, others with analogue synth, found soundscapes and percussion. We’d been inspired by the likes of Robert Wyatt, Kaul Schutze, Laurie Anderson, Cluster, Brian Eno, Ros Bandt, some of the M squared and Clifton Hill group of music makers who were a few years ahead of us. Friends at film schools asked to use some of these instrumentals as score. We were quite open about the idea that we thought our career would be multi-faceted, and soundtrack work was one of our interests because we didn’t romanticise the idea of playing on the rock circuit the whole time.”

What were some of the first films that you worked on? “The very first films were Spaventapasseri directed by Luigi Acquisto, Living Rooms and Bodyworks directed by David Caesar, and Duwai Bilong Ninigos and Super 8 Soldiers by Mark Worth, who projected the background 16mm films for Not Drowning Waving gigs.”

Were there any soundtracks that you fell in love with when you were young? “I guess it depends on your definition of young…I do remember watching a Disney drama about kids being caught in a snow storm in Canada and they used the song ‘They Call The Wind Maria.’ I must have been about seven, but the songs, instrumentation and emotion had a really strong effect on me – the impending doom, and these big heavenly voices. When I was older I remember a documentary on Nicaragua called No Pasaran by David Bradbury which used Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ from Big Science…it was inspiring and very effective. Midnight Cowboy, Ry Cooder’s spacious guitar in Paris, Texas, Morricone’s The Mission, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to The Thin Red Line, Once Upon A Time In The West, Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack Passion – The Last Temptation Of Christ was as strong as any…there are so many.”

David Bridie with Not Drowning Waving.

What do you enjoy about composing for the screen? “I enjoy the collaborative side, the discussions and friendships with the director and editor who you inevitably work very closely with. I like the idea of working to a brief; it’s a bit like composing a concept album with every different job. I enjoy the change of working in an environment where the music is not the main focus, where music is related to playing a supportive role, and often is most successful if the audience doesn’t necessarily notice it. This of course is at total odds with a live gig performance or an album of songs. I think it was Phillip Glass who said – negatively I think – that when you’re a soundtrack composer, you’re in the director’s house, and not the composer’s house. I mostly like that aspect, although if you do a few in a row, I yearn to go back to making records and performing. I enjoy the freedom to experiment with instrumentation, work with musicians who you may otherwise not have worked with, composing a theme, and then having to come up with six variations of that melody or chord progression. I like the collaborative aspect of making films – that is, working with a team of 120 people. I love being exposed to wonderful stories, watching them repeatedly, and then thinking repeatedly about the subject matter. It’s a great way to spend a day soaking in the knowledge you gain from working closely on a documentary or film. I learnt about Bronislaw Malinowski’s anthropology in the Trobriand Islands from In A Savage Land, the machinations of the power struggle between Hawke and Keating from working on Labor In Power, similar from working on Kokoda, John Curtin, the Japanese invasion of Rabaul, the photography of Donald Thomson, the trauma of Black Saturday, the paintings of John Russell. I have a keen interest. I also have a strong commitment to the social justice causes of West Papua, Timor Leste, Bougainville and Kanaky through my work with the Wantok Musik Foundation, so when I am able to contribute to a documentary that is elucidating these situations, I enter into it wholeheartedly.”

How does it differ from your own music that you perform live? “They are very different disciplines. Songs have very different structures to a film cue, and the subject matter is my own in a song or piece that I perform live or put on a record. Having said that, the two disciplines do inform each other.”

David Bridie with My Friend The Chocolate Cake.

Do you have any favourites from the many soundtracks that you have written? “They’re all different but here’s a few. In A Savage Land, because of working with the traditional music of the Trobriands as well as having the budget to work with an orchestra, and because [director] Bill Bennett gave me a lot of freedom and believed in what the Melanesian content of the score could bring to the film. My Brother Jack – I collaborated with Helen Mountfort from My Friend The Chocolate Cake on this adaption of George Johnston’s book. Such a great Australian story. Proof, because it was with Not Drowning Waving, it was an early go at a feature film, and because John Phillips, Not Drowning Waving guitarist, is a genius. Satellite Boy, Catriona McKenzie’s film set in the Kimberly. Scoring to David Gulpilil, working with Wantok artists Frank Yamma and Jida Gulpilil, and scoring for that gobsmackingly beautiful landscape. The Myth of Fingerprints – Bart Freundlich’s film starring Julianne Moore, a sparse soundtrack with an interesting use of sound for this personal family drama.”

What are some of the recent highlights and why?a Bit Na Ta, a film and sound installation, of five projections with surround sound, that tells the story of the Tolai people of Rabaul PNG (Gunantuna) which was created with Wantok artist and longtime friend George Telek and cultural historian Gideon Kakabin. It exhibited at QAGOMA, the Bunjilaka section of The Melbourne Museum, and at The Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art in Taiwan. The Merger, last year’s feature film, which I worked on with my good friend Damian Callinan who wrote and performed in it. I also got to work with Farhad Bandesh, a refugee on Manus island, and Fablice Manirakiza, a Burundian musician, on this film about refugees saving the plight of a country football club. The score also involved putting together a band made up of many of the MFTCC members and playing lumpy New Wave post pop tunes. The two six-part series of Secret City, a top class political thriller, enabled me to create an edgy sound FX analogues synth score that I worked on with the wonderful Nao Anzai. It was gritty and creative.”

 

David Bridie

How did you get the idea to invite filmmakers to work with you on The Wisdom Line? “In the early days with Not Drowning Waving, we used to project films for our live shows. The Tabaran album that we recorded in PNG had a film made for each song, as did my solo record, Act Of Free Choice, so the idea is not new to me. Recently the live show for a Bit Na Ta that we performed at Womadelaide and for The Commonwealth Games in The Gold Coast had projected films from the installation. For The Wisdom Line album, the idea has always been to create an immersive live show. The songs have an atmosphere and spaciousness to them, and to project the films with the songs has always been the plan. The finished films are really strong, so we have been using them in their own right, releasing one film every month on the website and social media. We also have cinema screenings of the whole twelve films.”

Can you tell us a little about the filmmakers. They seem a very eclectic group. “Yes, eclectic and from different aspects of my life. They are all people that I respect and trust, who were available, and who would connect with the songs. Matej Kolmanko is a punk film and music artist from Murska Sabota in Slovenia, whose work I am a fan of and who I’ve gotten to know over the years. Andrew Wiseman is a filmmaker that I’ve worked with for over twenty years, and Uri Mizrahi is an editor who I’ve worked with on countless projects. Nicole Ma directed the wonderful Putuparri And The Rainmakers, and much of the footage that she has used in the ‘Permanent Water’ film clip is offcuts from that feature documentary. My manager and musician friend Amy Chapman worked on one film collaborating with performance artist Mira Oosterwhegal. Stephanie Gould is a New York based super 8 film maker. Simon Direen made a wonderful documentary called A Life Together about two rough sleepers in Melbourne. I gave him some music for it and he returned the favour on ‘The Low Bar.’”

David Bridie

Can you tell us a little about the new album – its themes and the production?The Wisdom Line is an ambition, an attempt to identify wisdom, to reach out to it, to sing about it. I wanted to make a beautiful but spacious album, simple piano songs with surrounding cluttering of wonderful guitar sounds, cello and violin and pump organ, ride cymbals, other embellishments. I wanted the album to contain a range of stories, some delivered with song, others by spoken word. I wanted to make an album with depth and sonic quality, hence I worked with producer Ian Caple because I love the sonic quality of all his records, especially the Tindersticks records, plus he produced my Act of Free Choice record. I wanted to make an album that reflected on our times, with simple stories and occasional big ones – beauty in the simple, Australia as a settler country with so much unfulfilled potential, with such amazing space and light and landscape, a land of big urban cities spread out over 100 miles, a country that detains asylum seekers on Melanesian prison islands whilst the Trumps and Italian Fascists clap us on saying we do nationalism the best. I wanted to make an album that you could listen to on a Sunday morning. I wanted to make an album that I would like and be proud of.”

The Wisdom Line is available now. To view all of the short films, click here. For details of David Bridie’s upcoming tour, click here.

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