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The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Blog posting written by Kimberly Capehart, Documentary Studies and Production ’16, FLEFF Blogger, Cherry Hill, NJ
On Tuesday, January 28th, the Cloud Chamber Orchestra accompanied the silent ethnographic documentary, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (you can read Blaize's blog post for a synopsis of the film as well as her reflection on the screening!).
The screening took place in the historic Sage Chapel on a snowy hill of the Cornell University campus. It was my first time inside the Sage Chapel and I was amazed by its beautiful interior: abound with stained glass, hand-painted designs on the lofted rafters, and elegant mosaics surrounding its altar and apse.
Despite the beauty of the chapel, the real delight was the Cloud Chamber Orchestra who were situated in front of a giant screen that had been placed at the alter. As a pleasant surprise the group, which is typically comprised of only three men, had an additional member in the form of pianist Peter Dodge’s son, playing percussion. The addition of a fourth member greatly contributed to the richness of the sound echoing throughout the chapel.
An intriguing combination of electric guitar and other electric instruments performed by Robby Aceto, cello performed by Chris White, piano and horns performed by Peter Dodge, and percussion performed by his son perfectly accompanied the silent documentary. The instrumentation created an ethereal ambience during slower parts of the film and also matched the energy of more exciting parts of the film.
Though there were a number of technological malfunctions with the projector due to the cold interior of the chapel, the group’s improvised score held the attention of the audience even when the film cut out.
It was incredible to watch these musicians as they played: they, themselves, watching the film to get a feel for what they wanted to play.
Aceto, White, Dodge and Dodge received a standing ovation as they lowered their instruments as the film ended. A gracious group of musicians, they hung around after the chapel began to empty to talk to students, friends, neighbors, and the like.
Overall, it was an excellent performance to accompany a fantastic documentary. Don’t miss out on your next chance to see the Cloud Chamber Orchestra, when they improvise a live score to the classic Sergei Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin during this year’s Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival!
What silent film would you like to see scored by the Cloud Chamber Orchestra?
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Ithaca's very own Cloud Chamber Orchestra will be playing an original live score to the classic documentary, Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, this Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 at the Sage Chapel at Cornell University. The beautiful interior of the chapel should make a pleasant backdrop for what is sure to be an unforgettable performance by an incredible group of musicians.
Consisting of local musicians Robby Aceto, Peter Dodge, and Chris White, the Cloud Chamber Orchestra is an improvisational group that specializes in live film scores for silent films.
The group has performed original, improvised film scores for films such as Nanook of the North, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Great White Trail, among others, and continues to be an annual favorite at FLEFF favorite.
White, the cellist of the group, says that the excitement of playing an improvised score comes from "playing with such good musicians and improvisers" but also "the unknowns that go along with [playing live music] with the film in front of a live audience."
Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life is considered by many to be the first ethnographic documentary. Made in 1925, the film follows a group of people from the Bakhtiari tribe of modern-day Iran as they lead their herds of livestock on a treacherous, annual journey through a mountain range to better pastures.
Says White "It is a documentary, but it's also a story, and such a grand story that you forget it's a documentary."
Despite the inherent difficulties in scoring a documentary, White insists that the story in the documentary is so compelling that improvisation won't be much more difficult than it would be for a narrative film.
"We usually prepare by first watching the film, either individually or together, and then we talk about it," says White.
"Often we'll come up with general strategies of musical style and instrumentation. Peter and Robby both play multiple instruments while I usually stick to the cello. Then we begin rehearsing by improvising while we watch the film. Each time we play with the film the music is different because it's all improvised, but each time we are getting to know the film better, and our interpretation becomes more firmly established and more closely aligned with the film and how we want the score to sound for the movie we're working with."
The screening of Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, kicks off at 7:30 PM this Tuesday, January 28th at the Sage Chapel at Cornell University. Get there early so you can get a front row seat to see Ithaca's favorite musical group (and a sneak peak of what their performance at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival will be like!).
What was your favorite Cloud Chamber Orchestra performance?
Monday, March 26, 2012
Blog post written by Colleen Ryan, Television-Radio '12, Anthropology Minor, Lansing, NY
This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Chris White, an extremely talented musician, and one of FLEFF's returning performers.
White is classically trained on the cello, and also plays the guitar and harmonica.
It was Dr. Patricia Zimmerman's (co-director of FLEFF) idea to bring together the three musicians for FLEFF several years ago, and the trio has been doing live improv film scores ever since. "It was easy from the get-go," he said. "We just flowed so easily. We each have our own bag of tricks, but a common vision and language that works well together."
White told me that the trio watches the films by themselves, and then together practice improvising. They converse about the mood of the film and its transitions. Each time the score is played differently. The trio doesn't practice too much so the day of the performance is fresh and well, improvised!
"Every experience with FLEFF has been great," he said. To him, playing and improvising with a film is a much different experience as a musician. "It's liberating," he remarked.
Although the trio has only performed for FLEFF, and one other event for the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, White revealed to me that the trio is considering putting out a CD of their scores, perhaps in time for next year's FLEFF. (I've heard samples from their work, and believe me, it's a must have!)
To listen to Chris's personal work with the Cayuga Jazz Ensemble, you can click here.
Although I, personally, could never fathom a career in professional music, to young musicians who wish to dip their toes into improvising, Chris's greatest advice is to listen to a favorite genre of music and imitate it. Practice the style, and put a lot of time into it. "It happens more naturally than you might think," he said.
With that being said, I'm excited to watch White and his cohorts perform. It's something that indeed comes extremely naturally to them, while enjoying and appreciating their talent, is something that comes naturally to me.
If I had longer arms I'd save you all seats, so get there early, it's going to be a happy and full house. See you Sunday night!
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Fellow blogger Meagan McGinnes asked guest Robby Aceto last night at the FLEFF intern meeting how his improvisational music trio, Cloud Chamber Orchestra, forms a cohesive sound, despite having a different take on the film they score.
“The baseline is respect,” he said. “Even though you can have completely different views, they can still work together as long as you have respect.”
And there it is. Collaboration. Adaptation. Appreciation. Microtopias.
“[When performing live music you must] Embrace accidents, figure out ways to utilize them, and not allow them to cause disaster, which waits at every moment,” Aceto said.
“You have to be in control of the environment. Not making sound is just as crucial as making sound. Embrace the silence.”
Even though just speaking about improvisational music, I believe Robby really captured the essence of FLEFF, and I felt very touched and inspired by his words.
Flaherty’s portrayal of Nanook and his family, although slightly fabricated, is a beautiful romanticized film about the life of the Inuit people, and I’ve never watched it with any sort of accompaniment – just dimmed buzzing classroom fluorescents.
Aceto stated that most of his trio’s scores are pretty modern, yet “vocative of place and time.”
He told the FLEFF interns that his trio inhibits the mindset of the filmmaker. They take into consideration what his wishes might be, and what the filmmaker achieved with his film at the time of its creation.
Although a child of the technological age, I sometimes feel as if I was born in the wrong era. I wish I could have witnessed life in a simpler time, without the instant gratification of technology.
From the vantage point of a 21st century citizen, technology we have today was just pure fantasy to those at the time of “Nanook of the North.”
Aceto also told the interns, “In a way now, we can feel superior to [the filmmakers then], but they were making it up as they went along, and they had to think much more creatively than a filmmaker now. “
“We’ve narrowed our expectations of what a film experience should be,” he said, and I agree.
The trio’s performance on the closing night of FLEFF will be the first silent film I've ever experienced with a live score, and I personally think that it’s a tradition that although seemingly archaic, is a lost and under appreciated art form!
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
I am sure everyone has heard of a little silent movie called The Artist. The musical score in this film brought the picture to life. The growing popularity of this film within mainstream culture has expanded the somewhat limited view we have about what qualifies as a good movie. For most, a “quality” film means explosions, a good love story and some 3D glasses. FLEFF, with the help of improvisational musician Robby Aceto, is bringing back the idea of beauty within simplicity. And even though there may be no explosions, simple does not mean boring. Because there is nothing boring about improvisational live music to a silent film.
Improvisation is all about evoking a response from the audience. It is interesting to think that improvisation could be considered the utopia for music—if we are applying the definition of utopia as a state of being without guidelines or restrictions. And this is not the only way in which the idea of a utopia, or better yet a microtopia, applies to improvisational music and its process. Aceto states in his improvisational trio, the first thing they need to do is establish a common base for their understanding of the film. There has to be a respect for the wish and intent of the director. Once that communication has taken place and once that basic understanding is met, all factors will work together, even if perspectives and interpretations between the musicians are different. Because differences create a textural sound-scape that allows the pictures to come to life off the screen (and without 3D glasses, imagine that!). As I have said before, FLEFF is all about the texture. In the microtopia FLEFF creates, communication is key. Though we may all be attending FLEFF for different reasons and with different viewpoints, we all have one thing in common: a basic respect for environmental advocacy and art through film. All the other differences, the unexpected interpretations of our minds—or even of the music—add texture, interest and excitement. Something you can’t get from your standard, explosion-filled blockbuster film.
What do you think of the idea that the category of improvisation is a musical microtopia?
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Blog posting by Isabel Galupo, Cinema and Photography '14, FLEFF Intern, Towson, MD
Aceto is an internationally recognized "color" guitarist. He explained that the term "color guitarist" allows him to signal that he uses his instrument in unexpected, non-traditional ways.
He explained, "there's an expectation of what you hear from a guitar, especially an electric guitar...it's used in very narrow ways...[but] the capabilities of the instrument are really much broader than that."
This year will mark his fourth year performing at FLEFF.
Aceto will be performing on the closing night of the festival at Cinemapolis, the local independent art cinema and long-time FLEFF partner.
He will be scoring the silent film "Nanook of the North," which is considered the first feature-length documentary film. 2012 marks the 90th anniversary of the release of the film.
Scoring silent films is a crucial part of film history. Before synchronous sound technology was developed, it was very typical for orchestras to accompany the screening of silent films in theaters.
In explaining the integrity of scoring silent films in modern times, Aceto also stressed the importance of active audience attendance and participation in these performances:
"Being there, you have an effect on the outcome."
Many interns inquired about the process and technique behind improvisational film scoring. Some of his tips included:
"Embrace the accidents that occur."
Ask yourself: "What did the filmmaker want? If he was here now, what would he think?"
"You've got to embrace the silence, as well as the noise."
And, above all, "You've got to make it happen."
The one thing that struck me the most about Aceto's presentation is the almost cautionary statement he made as soon as he stood up before us:
"I'm not an academic. I'm a person who is always doing things."
The nature of Aceto's improvisational work for FLEFF is doing. He does not glue himself in front of his television watching and re-watching films, completing hours and hours of preliminary research before he performs. He sees, experiences, and feels the film, and then translates those raw emotions into uncensored musical language.
In today's society, are we encouraged to process information by doing as Robby Aceto does?
How does FLEFF create a safe space for artists and academics alike to explore ideas through action, through doing?