In our occasional discussions of jazz and silent film, particularly jazz / improvisatory guitar and silent film, we haven’t yet covered Marc Ribot. The guitarist whose edgy sounds are best known through his work with Tom Waits, recently released an album entitled Silent Movies. The album was inspired by his experience of playing live to Chaplin’s The Kid at Merkin Concert Hall in January 2010 as part of the New York Guitar Festival, though he has played to silent films before now (Giovanni Pastrone’s Il Fuoco in 2007, for example). Only one track on the album comes from that score, but all are about the experience of putting music to film. As it says on the record company’s website:
The album reflects Ribot’s fascination with movies and contains pieces intended to function as music for films: some are adaptations of music he has actually written for films, others for classic silent movies that he scored for his personal amusement, still others for films of his own imagination. His goal is to explore, as he says “the strange area between language and spatiality that exists partly in between music and visual image, and partly as a common property of both.”
Contrary to other solo guitar forays by Ribot, where “bracing atonality or studies in texture” prevail, Silent Movies is – we are promised – “replete with beautiful melodies and quietly wistful playing”, with Ribot commenting on the CD liner notes that the project ““did indeed have the feeling of having walked backwards into the beautiful frame of a silent movie.”
All of which sounds rather pleasant, and is still further evidence of the new interest some in the jazz world are finding in silent films. Of course, we who attend silent film shows are used to improvised music where the musician works as much to the themes on the screen as the musical themes. It’s seldom what you would call jazz if you listened to it without watching the screen, but the same spirit – exploratory yet disciplined – pervades.
There’s an article in the current Jazz Times (available online) which rounds up some of the recent comings-together of jazz and silent films, each of which has been covered by the Bioscope. Apart from Marc Ribot, there’s Dave Douglas’ Keystone project (covered here, plus his new work Spark of Being with filmmaker Bill Morrison here), guitarist Bill Frisell’s tributes to Buster Keaton (covered here), and billionaire filmmaker Dan Pritzker’s film Louis, made as a silent film and performed live with a Wynton Marsalis score (covered here). Not covered in the article is the work of Gary Lucas, a guitarist whose works hovers between jazz and the avant garde (covered here).
Trailer for Dan Pritzker’s Louis, with Wyonton Marsalis’ music
What other examples are out there? Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon played his part-composed, part-improvsed score for 16-piece big band for Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925) at the National Black Arts Festival in July. Guitarist Alex de Grassi has been playing to Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), while last month saxophonist Javon Jackson premiered his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger at the Syracuse International Film Festival. Saxophonist Courtney Pine produced a score for the BFI DVD release of Kenneth Macpherson’s experimental feature Borderline (1930). Clarinettist Louis Sclavis scored Charles Vanel’s Dans la nuit (1929). Another clarinettist Don Byron has scored for another silent film designed for black audiences, Frank Peregini’s The Scar of Shame (1927). And another guitarist, Henry Kaiser, has played to Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of Madness (1926). Finally, avant jazz musician Jan Kopinski has scored and played for a number of silent films, including Nosferatu, Safety Last and The Seashell and the Clergyman.
Any more examples?