Monday, August 29, 2011

Improvised Music Outdoors

I just got back home from a gig playing improvised music for a silent film. We were playing outdoors, at the pavilion at James Madison Park in Madions, WI. This is a park where you can watch the sunset over Picnic Point across Lake Mendota, and the water is always reflecting the mood of the sky in beautiful patterns.

I used to live near here, about two blocks from James Madison Park. This was my first apartment when I first moved to Madison in 1986. I would come down to the Park all year long, at all times of day and night. Coming down to watch the sunset was practically a neighborhood ritual. My best friend and I, who lived across the street from me for those same years, would go down to the water on hot humid summer midnights and skinny-dip off the rowing docks to cool off.

I love the way the light on Lake Mendota shimmers and moves from the vantage of this Park. It was one of the reasons I kept coming back down to the water, especially at sunset. In my back catalog of older photographs, I can identify this location as important to my development as a photographer. I have numerous photos that are abstracts of the colored light ripples on the water, with no other imagery; pure pattern, pure abstraction. I can recognize this in retrospect as a formative experience, a piece of self-training, for later photographic work.

The silent movie we improvised to, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), is a classic German Expressionist film. One of its interesting aspects is the set design and backgrounds, which are all distorted, non-rectilinear, and psychologically complex. It's interesting to realize the influence of Freudian thinking on this film, which is about murder, mesmerism, somnambulism, and other then-horrifying glimpses into the shadows of the unconscious mind.

I'm very happy with what we played. This was my first gig playing Stick since the recent surgery, and I wasn't sure about my endurance, my ability to haul gear around, and how the Stick would work with my ostomy bag in place. In fact, there was no problem. I had help hauling gear, setting up and tearing down, and the Stick's belthook and shoulder-strap configuration avoided the ostomy bag entirely. I did tape the bag to my skin so it would be out of my way for the gig, and I did have to watch out for cables. I just brought a couple of processors for effects, not my big rack. So it was minimal gear anyway. I played bass guitar for one scene, but most of the film was on Stick.

Four or five people came up to me afterwards to complement our group on the composed music for the silent film. They were astonished to be told that it was all spontaneously improvised. Most thought it had been pre-composed, rehearsed, and planned. In fact, there were no rehearsals, we just show up and play. With the right people, though, people who have played together before, and are good at listening, it's not difficult. This is in fact my favorite way to make music: just play. With the right people, it works.

This group of players tonight was the same that improvised music for Nosferatu last Hallowwen in Madison. (I'd also had fun making a poster for that gig.)

Much of the music tonight was in the groove, rhythmic, almost like aleatoric rock & roll, often quite hard-edged and psychologically intense. Which was great, because that really suited the mood of the film. Some of the audience comments I heard later said that they felt the music was perfectly matched to the music, perfectly applied, and therefore it must have been composed. That was why some of those commentors were surprised when they found out how we actually did it.

I felt part of a rhythm section again, me playing bass lines mostly on Stick, some on bass, with Geoff Brady playing really brilliant drum grooves. Playing like this makes me play better. It was a very satisfying gig. I was tired by the time I got home, and I needed to rest for a couple of days afterwards, but I got through it, and it felt good.

I managed to tape the performance with my little digital voice recorder. Actually I used two DVRs, and will at some point mix them together to maximize the recording quality and balance. Meanwhile here are a couple of short excerpts from two different chapters of the movie, from one of the DVR recordings.

Performance excerpts:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, excerpt 1    

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, excerpt 2    

Geoff Brady, drums, percussion, theremin
Arthur Durkee, Chapman Stick, bass guitar
Kia Karlen, french horn, percussion, small toy instruments
JoAnne Pow!ers, saxophones, flute, cornet

Location: Live at James Madison Park shelter, Madison, WI, August 28, 2011

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Blogger Jack Veasey said...

Congratulations. The music is very powerful -- I can see how it would perfectly suit the film.

I've never seen a silent film with improvised music, but I have seen the 1925 Phantom Of The Opera with an organist playing the original score live. It was pretty effective -- though the location had a lot to do with how atmospheric it was. It was an old, very ornate theater where the pipe organ rises up out of the floor,
and the dome ceiling has twinkling "star" bulbs in it, and moving clouds projected on it, once the lights go down. Kitschy, but it works well with old films. The theater is in Hershey PA.

I wish I could see a silent film there with you guys playing! Improvised music responding to the images as you see them seems like a way more effective approach. I find myself imagining what you could do with Metropolis or Nosferatu.

I'm glad to hear that your surgery wasn't an obstacle. I know what it's like to perform when you're recuperating from something (I'm a singer, among other things).

1:40 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Jack, and thanks.

This same group did the same thing for "Nosferatu" last Halloween, and I hope to do it again. I've done a few Halloween silent film gigs, actually; it's a natural kind of film/music event for that occasion.

Regarding the restoration and rediscovery of original scores, I agree, atmosphere makes a huge difference. The problem is, though, the music they thought was moody and frightening and scary and spooky a century ago, we nowadays just find . . . quaint. That's not to say it's not good—but it IS of its time. The original intent stated by some silent film directors, that I've read about, is that they actually did want live music for their films, but they wanted the music not to be a fixed score played the same way every time, but to change with time. That would keep the experience fresh for the audience even for repeated viewings. There needed to be room for musical interpretation, and to respond directly to the images on the screen.

Which is what we do: respond directly to the action, the plot, the characters, and the images as they go by.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Danish dog said...

'compliment', not 'complement',
but my compliments all the same.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I remember seeing Cabinet at the rep theater here in Berkeley, a theater that is no more. I don't remember the plot but I do have striking images stuck in my head - and the music snippets sound right.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


The images are really some of the best aspects of this movie. That's really what lingers for me, too.

I think we did manage to capture the mood, or feel, of the film, especially in responding to those images.

12:16 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Our cockatiel was particularly impressed with the saxophonist in the first excerpt but got bored during the second part and sat there in stony silence. What can I say? Everyone’s a critic.

4:53 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Duet for Cockatiel and Saxophone. From one who honks to another who honks. Sounds like a winning combo to me.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Knits with Penguins said...

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is one of my favorite Conrad Veidt films. I wish that I could have been there, to hear your accompaniment. Color me a lovely shade of Jealousy Green. Glad to hear things are going well, my friend.
ETA: Gotta giggle about verification word is "coogi".

2:58 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Wish you'd been there, too. It would be even more fun. I did manage to record the music we did, though, so I'll be editing that down at some point. I'll let you know.

9:32 AM  

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