The Sounds of Silent Film Festival’s Gripping NYC Debut
The New York debut of Chicago’s Sounds of Silent Film Festival Friday night at Anthology Film Archives was close to sold out and would have been if not for the monsoon. It was sort of a Bang on a Can marathon of film music. The concept, said composer and Access Contemporary Music honcho Seth Boustead, was to introduce themselves to New York audiences with a greatest-hits package from the previous eight Windy City festivals. Eleven short films, none of them dating further back than 1967, got new scores from an eclectic mix of contemporary composers, both a showcase for their talents as well as a way of getting a captive audience to witness a program of first-rate, frequently creepy indie classical music.
Writing cinematic music is not easy: it requires a broad sonic palette and the ability to seamlessly negotiate abrupt emotional, melodic and rhythmic shifts. Conducting a live ensemble to keep pace with a film without the benefit of a click track is even more difficult, but conductor Francesco Milioto kept a tight ensemble drawing heavily on the Access Contemporary Music roster on a steady course. Christie Miller’s moody clarinet and bass clarinet often took centerstage, along with Hulya Alpakin’s insistent, often menacing piano, Nathan Bojko‘s dynamic percussion leading the group into richly noir territory. The rest of the ensemble – Lesley Swanson on flute, Alyson Berger on cello, Elizabeth Brausa and Gregory Harrington on violins and Alexandra Honigsberg on viola – played with what was often a white-knuckle intense focus.
Oboeist/composer Patricia Morehead’s scores for Steve Stein’s Must Like Magic, a wry account of a magician and his new apprentice, bounced along with a surprisingly effective undercurrent of unease. Boustead’s pulsing, smartly developed theme and variations grounded Guy Maddin’s surreal, vaudevillian, early Soviet-influenced sci-fi Heart of the World with an unexpected matter-of-factness. One of the most enjoyable films on the bill, Martin Pickles’ G.M. – a snarky but loving homage to Georges Melies – got a dynamic Randall West score that went from droll to neo-Bernard Herrmann in seconds flat.
The ensemble’s most difficult task was blending in with the original minimalist soundtrack of Steve Bilich’s haunting, accidentally 9/11-themed Native New Yorker, which won the award for best short film at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Shot with a a 1924 hand-crank Kodak, it follows the trail of a shirtless American Indian as he makes his way to lower Manhattan and then gets to witness the horrors of that morning: the shots of all the ambulances racing across the Brooklyn Bridge, streaming dust and debrus behind them, are shattering. William Susman’s new score bookended an uneasy, Philip Glass-ish, circularly summery interlude with a marching theme that moved from murky to horror-stricken.
Another rarely screened gem was Martin Scorsese’s final NYU student film, The Big Shave, a brief 1967 antiwar parable wherein a draft-age guy starts shaving, and then keeps going long after he should have stopped, with expectedly gruesome results (one suspects Roger Waters ripped it for the Bob Geldof shaving scene in The Wall). Brian O’Hern’s music underscored it with a cruelly cynical faux-martial bombast. And Virgil Widrich’s delightfully creepy Copy Shop – Kafka meets Rod Serling – got a similarly noir, macabre, carnivalesque score from Eric Malmquist.
The rest of the music was a lot more interesting than the movies. Doug Johnson scored claymation inovators the Brothers Quays‘ homage to an earlier pioneer of the style, Jan Svankmajer with a lively, flinty, goodnaturedly wry sensibility. Amos Gillespie’s eclectically rhythmic score overshadowed a rather sentimental Michael Dudok de Wit short, Father and Daughter, Matt Pakulski doing much the same with Gus Van Sant’s abbreviated First Kiss. Amy Wurtz’s music for first-wave anime filmmaker Osamu Tezuka’s The Mermaid held the audience in check with its foreshadowing and drift toward darkness in a way that the film couldn’t. The night ended with Boustead’s Bizet arrangements for Alexander Payne’s Carmen, an over-the-top satire which has far more resonance for those familiar with the opera than for those who aren’t.
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