ACM serves up new scores to disquieting, wryly humorous silent films

Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 3:57 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Martin Scorsese’s early short, “The Big Shave” is featured with a new score by Brian O’Hern at ACM’s Silent Film Festival

Film music, like ballet music, is music made to order; motivated by externals rather than by its own promptings, it needs to be heard in context in order to be fully appreciated.

For the last five years Chicago’s Access Contemporary Music, a group dedicated to providing opportunities for young local composers, has commissioned original film scores to a variety of mostly silent modern shorts and has presented the results at the homey Chopin Theater on the near west side.

Friday night’s opening presentation of the weekend festival was a collection of humorous but disquieting works by diverse filmmakers, with quite a bit of random violence and blood on display although it’s all in good fun.

Serving as a musical introduction to a nicely plotted evening’s entertainment was a tongue –in-cheek faux ragtime score by ACM artistic director Seth Boustead set to a series of pictures of Chicago’s seedier dives and their denizens.

The seediness continued as Boustead’s piano improvised an accompaniment to Soup: a Trilogy, a gritty little joke of a piece by Steve Stein – simple but well-acted.

Gus Van Sant’s First Kiss, a forgettable 3-minute segment from the 2007 anthology film Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema) about an adolescent film projectionist erotically caught up in his work had a classically informed score by Mike Leghorn.

Hitclown, a more diffuse and unsettling piece of contemporary noir by Chris Mancini concerning a hitman and a children’s party clown trading places, can be found on the filmmaker’s anthology Myopic Visions. Brian Baxter’s original score fit the action nicely.

And as for unsettling, the infamous little short by Martin Scorsese, The Big Shave, dating from the Vietnam era, presents an almost unwatchable picture of a man shaving his face into a bleeding pulp. The music by Brian O’Hern couldn’t distract from the painful imagery.

Centenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s contribution to Chacun son cinema, Rencontre Unique, presents a surreal meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Pope John XXIII as a playfully satirical clash of cultures. The piano score by Matthew Pakulski was nicely handled. Hopefully the projection of the subtitles will be fixed for the next performances so those who can’t read French can savor the delicious humor.

A longer segment was The Unearthening, a quirky fable created by Chicago filmmaker Brian Kallies with nice chamber music scoring by Jason Seed featuring violin, flute and bass saxophone as well as some avant-garde whisperings. The story involved a magical bottle of poison which presents a haunting possibility to a husband at the end of his rope in caring for his terminally ill spouse.

Dans l’Obscurite by the Belgian Dardennes Brothers is a sophisticated little 3-minute gem of a film which renders homage to Robert Bresson in its enigmatic portrayal of a youthful pickpocket working a movie house.  Mike Leghorn’s spare chamber composition was fine but something was lost from the film without the original soundtrack in which we hear the affecting end of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which explains why the young woman being robbed in the theater was dissolved in tears.

The program concluded with the classic anime Mermaid by Osama Tezuka. The perfect marriage of the visuals of the boy and his (imaginary?) mermaid with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was replaced with what was the most successful reimagining of the evening.  Composer Amy Wurtz fashioned a sensitive commentary on the action and mood of the film which was quite as satisfying as the original in its more literal way.

The evening went by in a flash; a tendency toward arthouse self-reference was more than redeemed by the visual variety and offbeat humor of the varied segments. Musically, there was a certain sameness to the compositions imposed by the scoring and the task at hand, but the composers had different takes on their projects and the live music provided by Palomar under the alert hand of conductor Francesco Milioto was refreshing if a bit rough and unbalanced in spots.

The Sound of Silent Film Festival continues at the Chopin Theatre 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m.  Sunday.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “ACM serves up new scores to disquieting, wryly humorous silent films”

  1. Posted Apr 03, 2011 at 12:16 pm by Harry Happenstance

    “… it needs to be heard in context in order to be fully appreciated.”

    How refreshing to read this, in a world rife with train-spotting weirdos babbling about the rump ephemera known as soundtrack albums. There is music, a glorious gift, the reasons for it making evolutionary scientists from Darwin to today stutter… and there is film music which once removed from context is like the paint-job of a Ferrari hanging on a wall. How it interacts with the narrative and image is the critical question. I look forward to reading more of your writing on the subject.

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