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[whitespace] Musical Silence

New Music Works dazzles with inventive scores for silent films

By Scott MacClelland

IN CASE YOU MISSED the New Music Works program Reel Time last Sunday at UCSC, you can count yourself lucky to get a second chance this Sunday at Louden Nelson. Three uniquely original silent films are fitted with three amazing contemporary "soundtracks." Even better, the music is played live by the New Music Works Ensemble, which sounds altogether as good as it "ever has."

In fact, the whole production should convert skeptics into supporters. Music director Phil Collins has grown the New Music Works the hard way, with vision and principle--in other words, by serving his subscribers often-daunting fare. But two-plus decades of surviving and doggedly going forward are now delivering some remarkable results. The KoreAmerica program in February was an astonishing artistic success. So is Reel Time.

The films, which span the decades between the two World Wars, are Man Ray's mischievous Les Mystères du Château du Dé, Maya Deren's symbolist At Land and Robert Wiene's proto-psychothriller The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The music was composed, respectively, by Jon Scoville, Collins and Richard Marriott. (The first two scores are world premieres; the last is a new arrangement for New Music Works.) Film historian Morton Marcus provides spoken introductions while Michael McGushin and Irene Herrmann play tongue-in-cheek Furniture Music, piano for four hands, by Erik Satie.

Acquaintance with Scoville's commercial recordings scarcely prepares one for the compositional skill and orchestral panache of Les Mystères. Bumpy images from a handheld camera in speeding vehicles invite a certain musical imitation, one supposes. But Scoville detaches in favor of wit and whimsy conveyed with a sure and graceful hand. The man who says were it not for his marriage to Tandy Beal he'd be "playing guitar in a Country and Western band in Nashville and voting Republican" writes ensemble music with a fine sensibility. Neither a note nor the instrument that gets to play it leaves anything out of place. It gives Ray's often-frantic dice-rollers a welcome levity of spirit that smoothes off some of the sharp cinematic angles.

Arguably, Collins' score for At Land is even more disconnected from the cinematic action--or, it is more connected. With no shortage of Luis Buñuel imagery, the film seems to document a dream, full of recurring images and non sequiturs (and its own reference game: chess).

Collins uses conventional instruments to produce unconventional sounds, a pointillistic palette of discretely exploding flavors and effects, like an intimate fireworks show for the ear. The ensemble of familiar-looking instruments is abetted by Herrmann's concertina and Jennifer Cass' Chinese cheng. To further enhance his bag of timbral tricks, Collins added the soprano vocalizations of Rita Lilly.

Marriott's score follows the scenes of the Wiene film as it spins out the tale of Dr. Caligari's murderous somnambulist (even while leaving unanswered exactly who is the real killer). The film's expressionist distortions are echoed in a musical syntax that draws on various period popular styles, sometimes told in a straightforward manner but at other times with sarcasm--for example, the backbeat dance episode that accompanies the full horror of murder most foul. The film is surprisingly well-paced and suspenseful for all its pioneering technical clumsiness. The music is equally surprising in its deft subordination to the action on the screen, though it could probably stand on its own quite well in a condensed concert suite.

Prominent solo work is supplied by trumpeter Charles Old, saxophonist Bill Trimble, violinist Timb Harris and contrabassist Stan Poplin. Other New Music Works ensemble musicians in this program are cellist Karen Andrie, flutist Teresa Orozco-Petersen, clarinetist Bruce Foster and guest percussionist Ward Spangler. (This season's last program, the annual fundraising Avant Garden Party 2001: A Space Garden, is set for June 10.)

Reel Time takes place Sunday (May 6) at 8pm at Louden Nelson Theater, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $13/$15. (429.2277)

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From the May 2-9, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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