Brighton: Symphony of a City


EXTRACT: please note that a DVD of whole film will be available later this year

Authors: Lizzie Thynne (Film Director); Ed Hughes (Composer); Catalina Balan (Associate Producer); Phil Reynolds (Editor); The Orchestra of Sound and Light
Format: City Symphony
Duration: 48”
Published: February 2017

Shortlisted for the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Practice Research Award 2017.

Research Statement

Viewing Context
Reviewers might wish to focus on:

a) how the project re-interprets its model, the silent film classic, Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) in the context of a very different contemporary city in the post-modern era

b) how the textures, tones and content of the music and montage work to choreograph and comment on moments of everyday life, past and present and construct a portrait of place

c) the ways in which the ‘symphonic’ is conceived in both musical and filmic terms

Brighton: Symphony of a City was originally commissioned by the Brighton Festival as a live music event with a full orchestra bringing together professionals from the Orchestra of Sound and Light and talented young musicians from Brighton and the region.

The version submitted here is with Hughes’ own studio recording made later by the Orchestra of Sound and Light. Since the music is so central to the conception of the project, it is best viewed with good speakers and with the image at maximum resolution (1080p) and size available i.e. on the big screen with a good sound system. It is available as a pro res file for projection.

Research Questions
The project originated in discussions between myself, Lizzie Thynne, and my colleague the composer, Ed Hughes, in connection with Hughes’ interest in the future of the symphony and my own long standing use of the silent film Berlin: Symphony of a City (Ruttmann, 1927) in teaching around the ‘poetic’ tradition of documentary film-making. We were then each commissioned by the Brighton Festival to make Brighton: Symphony of a City for the 50th edition of the Brighton Festival.

We wanted to explore the following:

– What form might a modern ‘city symphony’ take as both film and music and how might it echo and re-interpret earlier work in the genre, specifically Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttmann, 1927) so as to comment on urban spaces and identities in a contemporary setting?

– What might be understood as ‘symphonic’ in the relation of film and music and in their respective elements?

– To what extent is to possible to re-discover and re-animate a genre from silent cinema – the ‘city symphony’ and what implication does this have for current documentary practices?

These questions are pertinent in relation to a consideration of how these two key media of the 20th century – symphonic music and cinema – might be reconnected to foreground the sensual, structural and gestural properties of documentary and the ways in which these convey not only meaning but also emotion and sensation without the much more common use of narrative and speech.

Hughes and I had collaborated previously on a smaller scale on two previous projects: my film, Playing a Part: The Story of Claude Cahun (2004) where Hughes contributed some of the original music and on Voices in Movement, (2014) a short, soundled piece which experiments with combining oral histories (from Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, 2013), sound, music and fragments of ‘found footage’ to associatively connect individual stories and explore, not only their narrative, but also their sensory and aural properties. We are both interested in the visual and material textures of archive film and photography and how this can be reinterpreted and re-contextualized through montage and music to create meanings for the present (see for instance Thynne’s Playing a Part (2005), short films for Sisterhood and After and Hughes’ Dark Formations (2012), which interprets Imperial War Museum photos of the WW2 battle in the air and numerous scores for classic silent films such as for Joris Ivens’ Regen (Rain, 1929), Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Melies’ Voyage a la Lune (1902).

The key reference point for the film was one particular city symphony, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). This was chosen partly because it has been at the centre of debates about the ‘poetic’ versus the ‘political’ in documentary film, and because of its particular uses of montage to represent the social life of the Weimar Republic, whose liberalism teetering on the brink of repression also seemed to resonate with aspects of the identity of Brighton and of the current rise of the right globally. The virtuoso graphic and rhythmic editing of Ruttmann’s film meant that critics of the period, notably Grierson, saw it as overly concerned with ‘innovative visual effects’ at the expense of the social revelation which the Grierson school in particular were establishing as the proper domain of the ‘documentary’ (Beattie 2008: 38). Likewise, Strathausen sees Ruttmann as presenting ‘a mere surface network of rhythmic changes that need to be enjoyed visually rather than analysed cognitively’ (2003: 27) as if these two things are necessarily incompatible. These criticisms highlight a false dichotomy between aesthetics and politics and a dogmatic reading of Ruttmann, which our film, in part, seeks to counter, by showing how the potential of non-narrative and associative juxtapositions of people and objects in an urban space can provide both a sensory experience of place and include social comment, including through my allusions to the original film. So for example, as Beattie (2008) notes, Berlin emphasizes the presence of women, including as flaneuse, on the streets and in the workplaces of the city and highlights their role as not only objects of Ruttmann’s and other men’s gazes, but as equally subject to the stressful regimes of mechanized urban life and as consumers. In my film, I comment on the assumption, by some critics, that women strolling the streets of Berlin are prostitutes, particularly in one scene where a woman deliberately turns to meet eyes of a man through a shop window. We re-stage this scene using two women to highlight and question the perception of the original and the diverse character of public space in Brighton in the 21st century.

The city symphony genre allows for an exploration of the everyday not driven so much by narrative but allowing for the serendipitous encounter with people and places which can reveal as much about a specific time and space as more conventional story-telling. Beattie (2008) citing Taussig, notes that ‘everyday experience, the ‘content’ of documentary includes ‘much that is not sense so much as sensuousness, an embodied and somewhat automatic “knowledge” that functions like a peripheral vision, not studied contemplation, a knowledge that is imageric and sensate rather than ideational’ Taussig (1992: 8)’. This concern chimes too with a current interest in the concept of ‘haptic visuality’ (Marks, 2002), which the combination of the sensory properties of music with images is particularly able to produce.

The day in the life structure, divided here into movements reflecting the pace and character of different moments of the day, as opposed to ‘Acts’, is also drawn from the city symphony genre, not only in Ruttmann but other examples such as A Propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930). The depiction of different daily activities – commuting, working, eating, playing – imitates Ruttmann, but at the same time highlights the differences of time and place, Berlin in the 20s and Brighton in 2016, a city dominated less by traditional forms of work but by leisure, services and digital/creative industries but with similar inequalities in wealth.

The project is inspired too by the idea that old forms and technologies such as ‘silent cinema’ are often not exhausted when new ones develop – in this case, the coming of sound. That development is later echoed in the way that the creative potential of post-produced sound in documentary (used for instance by the British Documentary movement) was downplayed with the arrival of portable sound recorders, heralding a certain norm of using sync.

Our methods derive from documentary cinema and classical music composition.

As noted above, the diurnal structure of the film is derived from other city symphonies to give shape to the diverse sequences of city life but is also formed, as they were, by the musical idea of the symphony as a work consisting of distinct movements played by a large range of instruments. The filmic interpretation of the ‘symphonic’ therefore is also composed of the many elements – diverse groups and places that constitute the city and the social and collective formation it represents.

Because of our working relationship with Screen Archive South East, and mutual interest in the tones, texture and perspectives of amateur and vintage film, we decided to include footage from this source. In addition, we wanted to evoke not only the present of Brighton, but how its history informs its’ current identities. We found a method of integrating the archive footage into the contemporary scenes by the use of screens, lenses and short dramatized sequences within the diegesis so as to preserve the dawn-to-dusk structure while allowing glimpses of the city’s past: for instance, in the station sequence, a clip of a steam train appears on the plasma screen which Southern rail passengers look up at as they anxiously await their connection; a modern flaneuse, who appears intermittently, walks by the pier and, on her mobile, glimpses a scene from 1951 the Father Neptune ritual, where crossed-dressed men dunk people in the sea This co-presence of different temporal frames in the film is also achieved through the music as Mervyn Cook notes ‘slowly moving harmonies are animated by more rapid figurations, a strategy that allows the music to operate on more than one temporal level simultaneously, the harmonic and thematic materials are generally simple and expressed with textural clarity and readily comprehensible contrapuntal techniques’ (Cook, 2016).

The archive sequences also reference the way that the city has been represented in amateur film, focussing mainly on holiday rather than work activities, and providing a contrast in colour and format to our original footage shot in the winter of 2016 which show the city ‘out of season’. The sea is, of course, central to Brighton’s landscape and Hughes’ music aims at cross rhythms, which gently pulsate like the natural phenomena of sea and light. The music is especially sensitive to movement within the film: ‘Watching the silent dancing [of the woman in the strip skirt] in the Father Neptune archive set off lilting rhythms in my own mind, and this in turn formed the basic material of this movement overall’; Hughes links this method to Hanns Eisler’s concept, expressed in his classic text with cultural theorist, Theodor Adorno (1947), of ‘how film music, which might initially be anchored in something definite, …then continues to create a musical life of its own – thus producing a kind of choreographic relationship between moving image and music that is more like dance, perhaps than normal film music effects’ (Hughes, 2016).

There are two results of this work: a 46-minute silent film, and a 46-minute full orchestral score. In combination the two pieces of work aim at producing a third and powerful effect. The contrasting tempos, themes, patterns and textures of the film and music deliberately map on to one another. However ‘mickey mousing’ is deliberately avoided. As such, the piece contributes to the rich artistic tradition where there is an equal connection between moving images and music, recalling some of the most aspirational work of the pre-sound cinema decades. Music is under-utilized as a form that can create new meaning through juxtaposition and association in way which goes beyond the reliance on speech in much current documentary output. It is unusual, too, for composers and film-makers to work in the two-way iterative process we employed on this project which involved responding to each other’s work in different ways at various points from the outset of the production.

We hope that this project will provoke further explorations of the links and synergies between classical, and indeed other music, and the moving image, including archive, in a more complex and critical way than often occurs when music is added in a purely illustrative or thematic way to film, especially in documentary, as well as contributing to renewed interest in the ‘city symphony’ as a genre which might take further exciting and revealing forms.

As above, Brighton Festival, who commissioned the work with additional support from the University of Sussex, originally funded the project. It was screened with the score performed by the Orchestra of Sound and Light, a full orchestra of professional and gifted young musicians, conducted by the composer Ed Hughes. In this form, it had its première at the Brighton Festival on 11 May 2016 at the major concert venue, the Brighton Dome. The live version may be heard and seen here: password: symphony

There it also included some of the young musicians on saxophone and in a rock band (comprising three electric guitars, electric bass and drums).

It had its second live screening on 7 October 2016 at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts with a smaller ensemble:

It was featured in Brighton Film City, part of the Cine City Brighton Film Festival, 11 – 27 November 2016:

The recording of the music that you can hear on the submitted version was completed in August 2016 and the film is currently being entered for festivals with the recorded music and will be issued on dvd by Metier in 2017.

Interviews include: ‘In tune’, BBC Radio 3, 9 May 2016; ‘Front Row’, BBC Radio 4, May 2016. Reviews: The Argus; Arts Desk, The Latest; Premiere programme article by Bryony Dixon (BFI) ‘New Waves’ (Brighton Festival, Dome, 2016)


– What demonstrable contribution has your practice made to the economy, society, culture, national security, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond contributions to academia? Who are the beneficiaries of your practice research?

The beneficiaries are members of the public especially those who have not experienced silent cinema with live music or this poetic form of documentary; other film-makers and composers interested in the processes of collaboration and in early film genres; young musicians and student film-makers who contributed to the project through playing and donating footage for the fishing and drone sequence over the pier. Audience comments include:

‘I liked the synchronicity of music and images – this kind of project bring alive what we take for granted in everyday life’

‘The different instruments speak to different aspects of the movement and the light in the images’

‘The representation of Brighton is really well done and it was really enjoyable seeing it at different times of day and in different weather conditions. I really enjoyed it. A mixture of an energetic place but also a pensive place….The Pride Parade, the Burning of the Clocks create very different images of Brighton…the music is a lovely accompaniment to the images, it doesn’t set out to over-dramatize them and the inter-play between them is very good’

Approx. 1300 people have seen the complete film with live music to date at the two performances, which have taken place so far.


Father Neptune, Beach Snapshots part 3, 1950-52, The Roger Dunford Collection, held at Screen Archive South East, University of Brighton

Thynne, Lizzie (2014) with Ed Hughes Voices in Movement (installation and single screen version (15 mins) premiered at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck, University of London 3 – 25 July, 2014; pilot installation as part of ‘Public and Private Archives’, Creativity Zone, University of Sussex, 4 April 2014 Funded by Leverhulme as part of the Sisterhood and After: Women’s Liberation Oral History Project (2013)

Thynne, Lizzie (2004) Playing a Part: The Story of Claude Cahun, film, 45 minutes


Hughes, Ed (2001) Score for Regen (Rain) (composition) University of York Music Press

Hughes, Ed (2005) Score for Battleship Potemkin (composition) University of York Music Press

Hughes, Ed (2012) Score for Dark Formations (composition) University of York Music Press

Hughes, Ed (2016) Score for Voyage a la Lune (composition) University of York Music Press


Adorno, Theodor and Eisler, Hanns (1947) Composing for Films Oxford: OUP

Beattie, Keith (2008) Documentary Display: Reviewing Nonfiction film and video London: Wallflower

Cook, Mervyn (2016) ‘Music and City Symphonies’, Article for programme of Brighton: Symphony of a City, 11 May 2016, Brighton Festival

Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project [accessed 30/11/16]

Hughes, Ed (2016) ‘Composer’s statement’ [accessed 30/11/16]

Marks, Laura (2002) Touch, Sensuous Theory and Multi-sensory Media Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Strathausen, Carten (2003) ‘Uncanny Spaces: The City in Ruttmann and Vertov’ in Shiel, Mark and Fitzmaurice (eds) Screening the City London: Verso

Taussig, Michael (1992) The Nervous System London: Routledge

Peer Reviews

The peer reviews that follow were part of the BAFTSS Practice Research Awards shortlisting process as this volume is published in association with the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies.

Review 1: Shortlist
Brighton: Symphony of a City is a mesmerising film, which must have been very powerful when experienced on a big screen with the live musical score. The film pays homage to the city symphony films of yore, particularly Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis and demonstrates a remarkable collaborative relationship between composer, the filmmakers and Brighton Festival, which is highly impactful. Its strength is in its brave exploration of the ordinary and the everyday, both in terms of contemporary culture and the use of archive / found footage from The Screen Archive South East. The use of the look into the telescope on Brighton Pier as a formal device to cut into the archive footage functions to situate contemporary Brighton culture in relation to its past. The research context could have done with further development in the statement, to enable the rich exploration of memory, the urban landscape and its mediation in the film to be more fully articulated as research.

Review 2: Shortlist
Brighton: Symphony of a City is an ambitious and impressive project; it was originally commissioned by the Brighton Festival as a live music event with a full orchestra bringing together professionals from the Orchestra of Sound and Light and talented young musicians from Brighton and the region. It is a collaborative piece between a filmmaker (Thynne) and composer (Hughes) and as such the statement conveys the sense of partnership working with a rethinking of documentary cinema along more affective lines. The use of amateur and vintage footage from the Screen Archive South East, integrated into the present day scenes through various formal techniques, is effective in giving a sense of contemporary Brighton, its history and multiple identities.

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