Häxan is a 1922 Swedish-Danish silent film that purports to trace the history of witchcraft in the West from pre-Christian times through the Middle Ages and early modern period and up to the early twentieth century. The film is a quasi-documentary on a subject often treated in a sensationalistic manner; with its scenes of pagan rites, Satanic temptations, and trials by ordeal, it can be dark, and was considered graphic for its day.
It also was an occasion for music. Like other films from the silent era it was accompanied by live music: original showings featured an orchestra playing a score comprising bits of Beethoven, Schubert and Gluck. More recent screenings have also featured live music, but of a different type altogether.
Häxan (Cinema Paradiso Vol. I) is the Richmond Avant Improv Collective’s interpretation in sound of this soundless film. The Collective, ordinarily a septet but often adding players as needed, was an octet for the occasion. Playing live in the studio, the group improvised as the film ran. The titles of the four tracks—Hell, Confession, Witchcraft Trials and Deeds of the Devil—give some idea of the flavor of the music. The sounds are predominantly dark—a looming overcast of electronics, minor-key melodies on the cello, keening sounds from the saxophone, eerily oscillating voices and distorted electric guitar chords—and evocative. One need not see the film to “see” the film, when listening.