A Hawk and a Hacksaw, the Balkan-folk project of multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Barnes (former drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel) and Heather Trost, a key member of Zach Condon’s recording ensemble for several Beirut albums, have become well-known for their electric live performances.
However, their latest project brings something slightly different to the standard set-up. Barnes and Trost have written their own original score inspired by 1964 Ukrainian film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and their new show is essentially a screening of the film with live accompaniment.
St. George’s Church provided an ideal venue for this kind of performance, its cosy, atmospheric feel combined with cinema-style seating and lecture theatre functionality.
The band’s style is quintessentially Eastern-European, combined with elements of gypsy folk, klezmer and Middle Eastern traditional music. The instrumentation is delightfully varied, and emphasises both performers’ astounding musicianship – at several points during the show both are playing up to three instruments each simultaneously, with insane ease.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors follows the trials and tribulations of Ivan throughout his life in the bleak Carpathian Mountain region of Eastern Ukraine. It is a classic Romeo and Juliet tale of love amidst warring families – Ivan falls in love with Marichka, daughter of his father’s killer. Tragically, before the two families can even begin arguing over the fate of their children, she drowns, and Ivan is left heartbroken.
Barnes and Trost’s soundtrack is fiercely traditional, recognising and paying utmost tribute to the rich musical history of the region. Heartbreaking violin laments and minor accordion waltzes prevail throughout most of the film, recurring motifs and themes coming back for individual characters, yet never in a way which is too instantly recognisable or predictable.
The second half of the film is fast-paced and slightly confusing in places. A lot happens in a relatively short space of time; Ivan marries a woman named Palagna and a lot of cursing, sorcery and sacrificial lambs are on the menu. The soundtrack reflects this visual cacophony, Barnes and Trost performing several more frenzied numbers for the film’s climactic battle scenes, yet soon returning to the familiar, symbolic melodies and character themes.
One small issue arose when the projector cut out during possibly the most pivotal scene – the death of Ivan at the hands of a sorcerer. However, the music continued uninterrupted and visuals were restored in time to see our main character’s bloody corpse against a pure, snowy backdrop.
As the credits rolled, the audience sat in hushed, reverent silence before breaking into rapturous applause. Although unsettling Ukrainian films involving slaughter, religious iconography and evil sorcerers may not be to everyone’s taste, A Hawk and a Hacksaw have triumphed with this ambitious project, and everyone at St George’s Church seemed acutely aware that they were witnessing something very special.
Words: Lizzie Palmer