The other week I watched one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen in my life: Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders. Hailing from Czechoslovakia in 1970, the film chronicles 13-year old Valerie’s sexual awakening after the onset of her puberty. Fantasy and reality become entangled with as Valerie explores her world with a new perspective and adult curiosity: the result is a dreamy collage of half-imagined scenarios, gorgeous scenery, beautiful symbolism as well as some totally off the wall surrealism involving lesbians, vampires, corrupt priests and some magical earrings that appear to save dear Valerie from death. A humourous, scary and kaleidoscopic experience, it’s become one of my favourite films: there is nothing else quite like it. Anyhow, after doing some research about the film to try and find out just what was going on (and say children, what does it all mean?) I came across The Valerie Project, a band who were so influenced by the film they took their name from it and designed their album as an alternate soundtrack to it. They’ve taken it to the very extreme, running the same entire 74 minutes as the film itself, so it’s quite a haul, but a mesmerizing one (in places) at that.
Seeking to evoke the wonderful original soundtrack of dreamy, folksy chamber music, The Valerie Project also have a strong folky sort of sound, balanced on a knife-edge with some psychedelic rock leanings. Opening in a mysterious, fugue-like string part, the music soon gives rise to some altogether disconcerting melodies. A sinister cello theme kicks in, over which appears a marching, dirge-like rock theme, complete with the temperamental swissssssh of cymbals and distorted guitar… this persists for a few minutes before a very ethereal (think pre-Dark Side of the Moon Floyd, mixed with some Tangerine Dream and Mozart) harp section appears, complete with ghostly voices and acoustics. Musically it is hard to define: ultimately I’ll refrain from doing so and merely say it captures the spirit of the film excellently in some places, keeping the sense of beauty and naturalism at the forefront, interspersed with the ominous and surreal, the disjointed and the tense.
There are several moments in The Valerie Project that are altogether free-form, with minimalist organ/electronic lines taking some sort of a lead as the strings and flutes and guitars etc all appear to be losing direction. Good in places, tiresome in others. There’s much to be said for attempting to recreate the bizarre, disjointed nature of the film by having disjointed music, but sometimes the mediums aren’t quite interchangeable. I could quite happily sit and watch a series of fractured nonsensical little tidbits, (and indeed I have) but music’s a different kettle of fish. I generally like my music to have a bit of structure, and as much as I am a fan of jazz and improvisational music even I have limits to how far I’ll tolerate experimentalism. John Cage (gosh I really do hate the man) and his “Chance music” can go jump. And unfortunately there are portions of The Valerie Project that are just too much for me. Thankfully however they don’t persist too long, always regressing back to previous sounds and changing current ones, moving the piece along, only with occasional relapses. Wonderful little moments of euphony can be found here and there: little bucolic flute melodies, delightful pieces of harp, angelic chanting. Despite delving into this darker and more abstract sensibility every now and then, the music keeps the spirit of adolescent fantasy pulsating, retaining the childlike optimism and the ambiguous, happy (ish) ending of the film.
It’s not essential to have seen Valerie and Her Week of Wonders to enjoy the album, although I’d highly recommend it. As a “soundtrack” album, which I guess it is by technicality, it holds up remarkably well, given most soundtrack albums are barely listenable when prised from their respective films. There are of course moments of lesser power and interest, but for 74 minutes it holds up pretty well. If you like the folk-prog of Mike Oldfield or Jethro Tull, the droning experimentalism of Taj Mahal Travelers or just fancy something different, do give this a try. Its absorbing and haunting qualities will hopefully leave you also in a state of wonder.
Words - Adam