Composing women: Two female-made avant-garde films get new music by Austin women composers

A double screening at the Bullock Museum spotlighting two female avant-garde filmmakers will get a contemporary female-powered music boost.

On April 12, Germaine Dulac’s “The Smiling Madame Beudet” (“La Souriante Mme. Beudet”) from 1923, and Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” from 1943, will be accompanied by newly commissioned scores performed live by Austin-based composers Laura Brackney and Henna Chou.

The event is part of the museum’s “Reel Women in Film” series which highlights the cinematic work of women both in front and behind the camera. Each screening also starts with a short film or music video by a Texas filmmaker prior to the feature. For April 12, it’s Sharon Arteaga’s black and white music video “Whispers and Dreams” featuring a whimsical ballet accompaniment to Mandy Sloan’s title track.

From 1923, Dulac’s “The Smiling Madame Beudet,” a 33-minute silent film is often considered the first feminist film. As a filmmaker Dulac (1882-1942) advocated for a “pure” cinema whose artistic language was wholly individual from other art forms. She was a leading radical feminist of her day and the editor of “La Française,” the journalistic organ of the French suffragette movement.

Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the film’s titular Madame Beudet is a wife pushed to the brink by her marriage to a boorish husband and by a bourgeois lifestyle that stifles her imagination and individual agency. Though Madame Beudet escapes into vivid fantasies — realized filmically with a suite of then-groundmaking visual techniques such as slow motion, distortions and superimposed images — she ultimately cannot tolerate being stifled, and finds a dramatic solution.

Made two decades later in 1943, Deren’s 14-minute “Meshes of the Afternoon” is likewise concerned with the interior life of a woman, but uses distinctly surrealist techniques — repeated motifs, disorienting camera angles — to create a dreamlike tale.

Composers Brackney and Chou are both creative directors of Church of the Friendly Ghost, an avant-garde music collective. The pair has divided up lead composer responsibilities with Chou creating the score for “Meshes” and Brackney scoring “Madame Beudet.” The two are the only performers, with Brackney on keyboard and Chou on cello.

“For Dulac’s film, I decided to use the keyboard as a central feature since Madame Beudet’s piano — with sheet music for a piece by Debussy on it — represents one of her only forms of expression,” says Brackney.

“I wanted to keep the soundworld for my score mostly acoustic as a challenge to experiment with seemingly simple material. Henna’s bringing some delightful noise textures and weaving in a couple of thematic melodies on cello. My score also features some of my favorite timbres in samples I’ve made of prepared piano, gamelan instruments, and a dulcimer I built.”

For her score for “Matches” the ever inventive uses Chou keyboards, drum machine, guzheng (also called a Chinese zither) and modular synth sounds.

“I think our collaborating for this project sits well with the re-visiting of these historical films, as two people interested in experimental music from different generations,” say Chou.

Adds Brackney: “It has been a rare opportunity for two female and local composers to be given the opportunity to respond to films directed by two early and important female directors.”