There is a sound to surfing, beyond the noise of breaking waves and settling sea spray. It is the soundtrack that surfers conjure in their minds when imagining waves, reliving memories or psyching themselves for a surf. These myriad soundtracks are rarely novel, and rarely are they composed for surfing – merely borrowed.
Translate breaks that mould. In fact, it shatters it like a stone hitting a frozen puddle. A multimedia project four years in the making, preceded by four years of award winning collaborations between British surf filmmaker Chris McClean and composer/musician CJ Mirra, it is a live audiovisual experience that has subsequently morphed into a film, then an accompanying soundtrack, then individual track edits, and eventually, hopefully, back into a live experience to complete the circle.
Labeled loosely as a pan-European free-surfing experiment, the film project was conceived by Chris as a melancholic celebration of European surfing in response to the 2016 vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Featuring some of the continent’s finest free surfers riding incredible waves, Chris shot footage that would form Translate’s chapters, that CJ then scored. It is a sensory translation of the wild North Atlantic ocean; it is deep, dark blue with explosions of white; it is at times bitterly cold; it is swirling; it smells like neoprene and campfire smoke.
“The idea for the project came together as the whole Brexit nightmare unfolded… as a love letter to Europe. I never believed Brexit would happen, and still can’t. Nowhere in the world can you cross so many borders freely and experience so many languages and cultures in such a small area, so the initial idea was to celebrate that. I wanted to create visual poetry that would transcend language so that viewers could take away their own assumptions and interpretations that are in no way less true than my own feelings about the film. I think that’s the difference between art and a documentary or a film with a defined story: the viewer plays as big a part as the creator in understanding it.”
In the fall of 2019 Chris and CJ brought the audio and visual elements of Translate together live on stage at the London Surf Film Festival. Performing live, CJ and a band of musicians that included LeeAnn Curren improvised in response to the scenes as they unfolded on the cinema screen. Chris had sent CJ a rough edit of the visuals one week prior to the performance, but continued to edit the footage right up until the last day. LeeAnn Curren arrived in London two days before the festival to rehearse with CJ, and in the end CJ performed with his back largely to the audience, focusing on the enormous screen so that he could conduct as well as playing multiple instruments in response to what they were watching – including using a cello bow on a clothes-airer to create otherworldly sounds.
“The live audio visual experience is really the heart of the project, the film’s natural habitat. It is through performing live that the music really connects to the film especially through moments of improvisation and that extra energy that comes from playing with people.
There are the basic songs or compositions for each scene but then the plan was to rework them again and again with a band in a live environment. We really wanted to play with the various instruments and samples each time to reinterpret the main ideas in each live setting. The restrictions of this year mean that hasn’t really happened so the soundtrack that is coming out is quite a pure, instant reaction to the footage, recorded almost as it was being written.”
“It definitely took some encouragement from Chris to bring the clothes airer onto the stage. It’s a standard clothes horse that just sounds amazing when you bow it. I use a normal cello bow and bow it across the thinner rungs; I put a contact mic onto the base of the clothes horse and that’s what picks up the sound of the vibration directly from the metal. I think it sounds so great because the vibrations travel through the whole clothes horse, acting almost like a spring reverb – the whole thing just singing away. The contact mic then goes through some guitar pedals (an EH poly-chorus, a delay and a Hudson Broadcast) and then into a guitar amplifier. If you were to hear it on its own you’d never guess the source.”
Since that initial live gig, as the COVID pandemic put paid to planned live performances, visual artists Rebecca Smith and Rob Thorogood have reinterpreted Chris’ footage to create individual music videos for the hero tracks Translate and Sans Raison respectively.
“Chris’s film footage is incredibly powerful, but amazingly delicate and elegant. It encapsulates the beauty and interconnectedness of us with the natural world. I really wanted to reflect this in a very digital way. Much of my work juxtaposes these values with an overtly digital aesthetic. I played with creating wave studies from particles, taking the idea that one single point has a ripple effect out to others. This interconnectedness is something that really interests me and runs through the film, starting with the bird murmurations and close-ups of waves. The movement patterns are very similar, and I wanted the whole piece to be a study on these.
To create the piece, I decided to experiment with particle simulations, keeping the theme of interconnectedness, and idea that the movement of one particle would effect that of those around it. Ordinarily you would do this within an animation engine such as After Effects. However, this can be a really dry process. Instead I took a different approach, using a software called Resolume, which is used for live audio-visual performance. This way I could use physical controllers (faders and dials on a midi controller) to change how the particles are reacting, or which clip is playing. It provided a much more organic, physical relationship to making the piece, and allowed me to instantly connect and react to what I was hearing in the score. It also creates a really nice workflow for the creation of the extended Translate live performance.”
Rebecca Smith – Urban Projections
Chris also created a stand-alone edit for the cover of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s track Horses that appears on the Translate album.
“We shot this back in 2016 at San Bartolome de Pinares (a small village in the mountains northwest of Madrid, Spain) as they celebrated Las Luminarias in honour of San Anton, the patron saint of animals. It’s a Spanish purification festival in which horses are ridden through bonfires lit in the streets and it continues long into the night. The tradition, which is 500 years old, was originally intended to purify villagers from the plague and protect the animals for the year ahead.
As the sun set and piles of pines are set alight, dramatic scenes unfold. More and more horses and riders appear and gallop through the streets, billowing smoke fills the streets, flames lick the horses heels and sparks hang in the air. The more daring riders charge through the pyres at full pelt scattering glowing embers, cinders and ashes.
My eyes streamed, my coat still has the burn marks and the stench of smoke stayed in my nostrils for weeks. This feels like a stand-alone sequence within the film – it’s quite visceral other worldly. I knew that we had to cover this track as I watched the footage back on my return. And, four years later, the symbolism of shooting a festival to purify livestock and villagers from the plague and setting it to music with lyrics such as; I can smell the campfires burning/But I’ll go out walking on my own/By day and night the world keeps turning/Frightened people hiding in their homes. Is all kinda unnerving and comes back to the film’s central idea of relating to the strange(r) times we live in today.”
Chris and CJ plan to perform the TRANSLATE audio visual experience live again as soon as they are able, with Rebecca Smith joining them to add a layer of digital projections to the cinematic experience.