A Musical Firefight: SFIFF Rescores Silent Film Classic Waxworks

Movies Features

If there’s one thing Matthias Bossi knows about his first gig accompanying a silent film, it’s that he has no idea what his music will sound like.

“Who knows what’s gonna happen?” he said. “Maybe we’re gonna have a Jack the Ripper theme song… Maybe we’re gonna do some outrageous death metal thing, or we’re gonna have a hip-hop tune, or we’re gonna wear ankle bells and douse ourselves in Kool-Aid. I have no idea. It’s gonna be fun.”

Bossi is one of three avant-garde percussionists who will join forces with vocalist Mike Patton (of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle and countless other projects) to premiere a live score of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924) at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Tuesday, May 7, at the Castro Theatre.

Bossi conceived the collaboration between himself, Patton, Scott Amendola and William Winant after festival programmer Sean Uyehara approached him to accompany a film. Uyehara originally thought Bossi might collaborate with his wife, violinist Carla Kihlstedt, who plays with her husband in experimental rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. “She wasn’t available,” Uyehara said, “and we were exchanging ideas about who else might work, and he put together the ensemble.”

The musicians have worked together in various combinations over the years, and Bossi expects the four of them to create some thrilling, edge-of-your-seat musical moments: “Why not just make it very dangerous by putting three people on…percussion and all that that can mean, pitched or unpitched, and then slap one of the world’s most accomplish voices on top of it with all his consonants and range?”

Patton has written original scores for films, including Crank: High Voltage and recent release The Place Beyond the Pines, but silent film is a different animal, and this live event looks to be a real chance for him to show off his versatile musical abilities. “He was just a perfect guy to invite on,” Bossi said. “He’s an enthusiast. He’ll bring it like no one else.”

Bossi spoke on the phone from his house on Cape Cod before heading to San Francisco to meet Patton and percussionists Scott Amendola and William Winant for a week of rehearsals. “We’re really laying the groundwork as best as we can, not all being in the same room here in the run up to it,” he said.

Leni’s film seems a good choice for the ambitious, varied score Bossi promised. Sporting the showy sets and stylish visuals that define German Expressionism, the anthology features Arabic fantasy, dark history and stylish, tripped-out horror. Its two main centers star the two most famous German actors of the period, Emil Jannings as Harun al-Rashid and Conrad Veidt as Ivan the Terrible.

“It’s a funny, kitschy movie, kind of sweet,” Bossi said. “Especially on that big screen, [the music will] be a really nice juxtaposition with the outrageous characters and the over-amplified emotion on the screen.” Each movement of the film will have its definitive voice, but the musicians will constantly feed off one another. “We’re really going to have to pass the flaming skillet from one guy to another…always have our ears open,” he said.

A Tradition of Non-Traditional Silents

The San Francisco International Film Festival has long included silent films in its programming, but in 2001 the festival programmers began to actively encourage indie musicians to enter the world of accompaniment.

“Yo La Tengo was definitely the genesis of the festival commissioning scores from musicians who don’t normally accompany silent films,” said Brian Darr, who keeps tabs on the Bay Area’s rich film scene on his blog, Hell on Frisco Bay. The seminal indie band scored a collection of short underwater-shot silent films by Jean Painlevé, and their performance was one of the hottest tickets at that year’s festival.

The years that followed featured bands including SuperChunk, Deer Hoof, Black Francis and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. Local cinephiles may have expressed mixed reactions to the screenings, but the musicians’ fans enjoyed rare, perhaps one-time-only performances. “Only a few of these have been recorded or reprised anywhere else,” Darr said. (Yo La Tengo’s work is the most prominent exception, having appeared in the Criterion Collection’s Painlevé anthology.)

Silent film accompaniment is a rich and varied field, and the musicians have wildly different views of the level of purity required. Some only use source music from the period, others compose and improvise their own material while reflecting the instrumentation and style of the time. And then there are those who use modern instrumentation, creating tones and melodies that would’ve been completely alien when the film came out. They’re concerned with building a new connection between the audience and the film, not historical accuracy. Put a bunch of accompanists in a room and you’re likely to hear heated arguments and a healthy dose of derision.

The artists that SFIFF commissions have an even bigger mountain to climb than established modern-sound misfits such as the Alloy Orchestra. Skepticism arises over whether they have the right to accompany a silent film at all. Sure, music is music, but silent film music serves a very specific purpose of linking the audience directly to a film’s plot and emotions. Musicians who come in with possibly limited knowledge of the craft and the medium face an uphill battle to be taken seriously.

There’s little doubt that the Waxworks quartet will please fans of wild, ambitious percussion. And fans of Patton’s work will surely be keen to see him set loose to paint such a moody canvas. But the real measure of success will be whether the the film is a key part of the experience or a mere sideshow.

Going through a list of SFIFF’s past silent screenings, Darr said, “Most of these are musicians that I have a history of enjoying, and none more than this year.” Like the musicians, he isn’t sure what to expect, but will go in with an open mind. “I plan to go as a Patton fan and leave my German Expressionist hat in the closet,” he said.

A Tricky Business

After years of programming these screenings, Uyehara has a very positive view of the experience. “To my mind, this has been an extremely successful program in terms of execution and audience experiences,” he said. “I think the reasons for that are that the musicians are often a little bit outside of their comfort zone, so they take it seriously and really practice, so the shows come off alright. I feel extremely lucky that the vast majority of musicians I have been able to work with in the programs have been utter professionals throughout the process.”

However, Darr said he doesn’t think all the musicians have been suited to the format. While he really likes Mountain Goats, for example, he wasn’t impressed with the band’s accompaniment to the 1919 Swedish film Sir Arne’s Treasure in October 2010. The music lacked any real connection to the film, he said. “It was very much a bunch of Mountain Goats songs and a film playing.”

As far as film lovers are concerned, there have been a few controversial screenings over the years. “Bands with vocalist want the vocalist involved and that doesn’t always go over,” Darr said. “It’s like adding a narrative that wasn’t intended by the filmmakers.” Darr singled-out Lambchop’s 2003 accompaniment of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans as an example. Maybe the cards were stacked against the band. Few tasks are loftier than taking on one of the great silent masterpieces. The result, Darr, said, was one of the most loathed efforts of the series. The score didn’t relate well to the film. As for the vocals, “the impression that I had was [the lyrics] were not specific to the film,” Darr said.

Darr picked Dengue Fever’s score to the 1925 fantasy film The Lost World as both a personal and consensus favorite. “The ‘70s rock-and-roll style fit the jungle environment,” he said. Darr suspects that the vocals went over better because they weren’t in English. And while The Lost World is an entertaining film, it isn’t a widely revered a work of art like Sunrise.

That’s why Waxworks was probably a wise choice. The film is enjoyable, but not a truly major achievement like Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), which features Veidt’s greatest performance. Even if the quartet tanks, at least it won’t have spilled white-wash on the Mona Lisa.

The vocals may not get in the way as much either. Patton has said that he often picks words for their tone and rhythmic qualities rather than their meanings. And he could simply make other-worldly sounds rather than singing in English. “Patton can caterwaul, soar and scream over the top of militaristic drum stuff,” said Bossi, adding that he could also grab an instrument instead of singing. “He can get down in the trenches and join us and no one will know where what sound is coming form.”

The nature of Patton’s contribution is still up in the air. “I think we’re letting him call the shots there. Who knows what he’s gonna bring to the table? His rig at this point is solely vocal-based…whether or not he’s going to be looping himself. The world his his oyster. If he’s inspired in the moment and brings some lyrics then so be it,” Bossi said.

A Battle Across Time

Bossi certainly has no worries about offending any purists. “I really wanna battle it out with the movie. No, look at us, no look at the movie, no look at us,” he said. “The way I have it on DVD now, it’s such a museum piece. I’m really looking forward to ramming it into the 21st Century here. And I think it’s gonna be possible with this crew.”

Bossi isn’t a fan of the Jon C. Mirsalis score included on Kino’s DVD of the film. “It’s very schmaltzy, over-the-top, dramatic, romantic piano music… In a way it’s almost poking fun at what you think of a silent film score as,” Bossi said. “Will he go through the door? Of course he’s gonna go through the door because your piano is compelling him with all its ridiculous telegraphing of emotions.”

Bossi promised an “eruption of gear” on the Castro Theatre’s stage. “Willie will be playing vibes and gongs. I’ll have crotales. We’ll have big concert bass drums, timpani, traditional drum kits. Scottie has a really cool electronics rig, almost like a dub-sounding drum kit where he’s got a mic on the snare that is triggered through crazy chaos pads. We can go in crazy directions and that’s what I wanted to tap into.”

He added, “I’m not gonna be surprised if we get some cool looping, grooving things going on, if there’s just pure scraping feedback. I think it’s all possible. I think there’s a chance to really make it scary if we’re lucky. Where it’s so not. It’s on the edge of silliness.”

Staying Flexible

Bossi doesn’t fear unforeseen challenges. He craves them. And he thinks his quartet’s history of improvisation will prove vital to avoiding pitfalls.

When you’re playing music to a 89-year-old film, there’s plenty of room for variables. Archival prints are inconsistent. The 35mm print from one archive could include scenes that were missing from the print used for the DVD, or lack scenes found on other prints. Even if the musician works off of a video transfer of the same print that will be projected, there’s no guarantee it will be shown at the same frame rate.

The musicians’ lack of experience accompanying live screenings sometimes shows, Darr said. He singled-out Jonathan Richman’s 2003 accompaniment of The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström’s moody 1921 tale of ghostly redemption. “You could tell that Jonathan Richman put his all into scoring the film, getting this ensemble together and using only instruments that were around in the silent era,” Darr said. But during the performance, there were long gaps of silence during which the musicians sat quietly. “They’d obviously rehearsed the film at a different frame rate.”

Bossi has been warned of such hazards, but isn’t worried. He said he hopes something unexpected like an extra scene happens, “because that’s where the good stories come from.” It’s clear from the enthusiasm in his voice that Bossi is looking forward to the adrenaline rush of performing live, of being surprised by his fellow musicians. “We can go in crazy directions and that’s what I wanted to tap into.”

In the end, it won’t matter whether the music fits everyone’s view of how silent film accompaniment should sound, or if it’s just too much of a noise freak-out for some people to handle. The question will be, can these four men banging on instruments and making weird noises really tap into the film and create some sort of synergy with their music? “What I’m going on is my infinite trust in these individuals and the path they have walked as musicians, and the excitement we all draw upon from these situations,” Bossi said. “It’s dangerous. It’s unpredictable. It’s like wading into a musical firefight.”

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