Silent Films with Live Music
Special Commissions by the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Exploring the 2008 Festival Programming Streams of Camouflage, Counterpoint, Games, and Gastronomica
West Side Story Counterpoint
March 31, 2008
Two Performances at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.
Hockett Family Recital Hall, Ithaca College
Seating on a First-Come, First-Served Basis
Evening attire suggested
Jairo Geronymo and Deborah Martin, piano
Deborah Lifton, soprano
Brad Hougham, baritone
Original multimedia projection, design, and lighting by Ann Michel and Phil Wilde
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of West Side Story
A collaborative partnership with the Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution
Everyone knows West Side Story. Its melodic songs, syncopated rhythms, pulsing score, explosive dancing, and immigration drama entwine with the American national imaginary. West Side Story is part of our American psychic DNA. We know the play. We know the film. We know the songs. We know Tony and Maria. But do we know the music?
This performance celebrates the 50th anniversary of West Side Story. Through counterpoint strategies, it pushes against the dominant and accepted ways of thinking about musicals and romance. It invites you to listen to West Side Story and hear its polyphonies, harmonies, dimensions, and migrations.
This contrapuntal concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story starts with the music arranged for two pianos—not the play or the characters or the film. It reverses the way we think about the relationship between live music and silent film. It places us not in the plot, but in the exciting, visceral complexities of the music itself.
Leonard Bernstein’s path-breaking musical West Side Story premiered in New York City in 1957. It altered this distinctly American genre by radically layering together two completely different worlds: the popular culture of the accessible Broadway musical with the high culture and musical sophistication of opera in an urban, youth-oriented, immigrant setting.
Erudite yet accessible, sophisticated yet simple, exciting yet subtle, complex yet popular, West Side Story still feels up-to-date, innovative, and rich. Because the musical was such a hit, Bernstein needed a piece he could perform in a concert hall, and hence, he created the Symphonic Dances, heard in tonight’s performance as a two-piano arrangement. The score combines many ingredients to generate surprising forces, layered rhythms and elaborate textures delicately balanced with gorgeous melodies. The sweet simplicity of the duet “One Heart” is balanced by the density and aggression of “Mambo.”
To translate the rich symphonic textures of the Symphonic Dances, the two-piano idiom had to be stretched. John Musto, the arranger, skillfully features effects like snapping fingers, a whistle, words, and chordal glissandi in unusual combinations. All these special effects combined with the nestling of the two lidless pianos produce a larger and richer sound that reads West Side Story in a new aural dimension.
With two pianos, soprano, and bass baritone, this multimedia performance deploys alteration, extension, layering of horizontal lines, and fusion—strategies from musical counterpoint—to transform motives, images, and music. Large-scale projections layer archival amateur film from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the United States with contemporary urban images. This multimedia performance smudges the borders between inside and outside America—it visually amplifies the motifs invoking immigration, migration, and racial and ethnic identities imbedded in the music.
Sponsored by the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies
Friday, April 4, 2008, 7:00 p.m.
(Clarence Badger, United States, 1927; 72 min., starring Clara Bow)
A musical and theatrical journey through camouflage
Fe Nunn and Friends, live jazz score
Fe Nunn, keyboard
Mike Vitucci, guitar
Charles Leo, tenor and soprano saxophone, flute
Bill King, drums
Cynthia Henderson, spoken word performance
Ann Michel and Phil Wilde, producers and lighting design
It transformed working class actress Clara Bow into the first mass-market sex symbol—the It Girl. But It is also a delightful and enticing cruise through the manners and morals of the flapper era, an engaging comedy of manners, class, sexuality, camouflage.
Clara Bow, the quintessential flapper, plays Betty Lou Spence, a beautiful, sassy, confident shopgirl at the Waltham Department Store, who eyes Cyrus, the handsome son of the store’s owner. It’s love at first sight—and the chase ensues in one of the greatest romantic comedies of the silent era. Through her dazzle, charm, and spunk, she snares him. And captivates the audience throughout.
Misunderstandings, love, sex, and a ukulele converge in the film’s hilarious yacht-bound climax. A scene of high camp hilarity and cutting counterpoint unfolds when matronly author Elinor Glyn, who penned the original definition of “it,” strides through the movie to explain what “it” is.
So what was “it”? Across popular culture after this film’s success, “it” was code for sexual magnetism, self-confidence, unselfconsciousness, and vitality. Clara Bow was the brightest star of the jazz age. She was one of the first movie stars to popularize red lipstick, wearing it in the shape of a heart on her lips. With her flaming red hair, she epitomized the freedom and moxie of the flapper as the woman who defies the constraints of patriarchy and passive gender roles.
Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount Pictures, said Bow “danced even when her feet weren’t moving.” A tomboy as a young girl, Bow rose to stardom from poverty and a difficult life. In Hollywood, the studios overworked and exploited her. The tabloids skewered her as a low-life, uncultured, overly sexual woman who had too many affairs. Unabashedly sexy and spunky, Clara Bow’s legendary performance in this film paved the way for women stars who combine sexual and gender camouflage with presence and power—Dorothy Dandridge, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker, the Dixie Chicks, Angelina Jolie.
Fe Nunn and Friends provide a fresh musical interpretation of “it” with their unique brand of upstate New York jazz brimming with improvisations, riffs, and grooves. Keyboardist Fe Nunn and guitarist Mike Vitucci have collaborated for over 27 years and serve as the engine of their distinctive sound. With Bill King and Charles Leo, they create an avant-garde jazz style that mixes rhythm and blues with original compositions, altering melodies and reworking harmonies.
Actress Cynthia Henderson channels Clara Bow and her impact through the 21st century. She teases out and plays with the hidden histories of women in the entertainment industry who transformed “it” into an expression of sexual camouflage, verve—and daring.
Cosponsored by the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, dedicated to the art, science, and history of filmmaking in central New York
Steamboat Bill Jr.
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 2:00 p.m.
(Charles Reisner, United States, 1928, 71 min., starring Buster Keaton)
With an Americana-inspired musical score performed live to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the film
The Common Railers
Mike Costello, acoustic upright bass and slide dobro
Chad Crumm, fiddle and banjo
Peter Glanville, acoustic guitar
Gordon Rowland, mandolin, banjo, and accordion
Ann Michel and Phil Wilde, producers and lighting design
One of the most inventive and hilarious physical comedians of the silent era, Buster Keaton conjures cinema as a conceptual environment, a game of mastery over machines, nature, space, and time. In this performance, the Common Railers, a band specializing in Americana music, enter into lively game play with Steamboat Bill Jr. ,mixing strategies from the exuberant flourishes of bluegrass to the layerings of American composer Charles Ives. The plot of Steamboat Bill Jr. mobilizes games, abstract strategies, and risk. Games demand competition, bluffing, teams, winning, and losing.
In the riverside town of River Junction, Captain William Canfield owns an old steamship that competes with the brand new passenger vessel of John James King. William is informed that his unknown son William Canfield Jr. will arrive by train from Boston to visit him. When Willie, a dandy from the East, arrives, William trains him to work the steamboat. However, Willie begins to date Marion King, the daughter of James King—against the will of their fathers. When a hurricane whirls through River Junction, Willie rescues his father and his future father-in-law from the floods in one of the landmark scenes of American silent film. Steamboat Bill Jr. torques many tropes of American culture: Huckleberry Finn, the Western, the disaster film, the romance, inventiveness, vaudeville, economic competition, the forces of nature.
One of the most underrecognized yet salient references in Steamboat Bill Jr. is of the great flood of 1927, arguably the most widespread and devastating natural disaster in American history. During its most severe phase, the Mississippi River swelled to more than 100 miles wide in some areas. As secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover’s response to this national crisis helped him become president. But African Americans, antagonized by their disparate treatment under relief efforts, began, for the first time, to gravitate to the Democratic party. They started the process of building what would become the New Deal Coalition.
All of Buster Keaton’s films, but most especially Steamboat Bill Jr., spin dialectics between competition and collectivity, interaction and immersion, fun and flow. His films are processes of deconstruction and reconstruction, where everyday objects and natural forces are never accepted, but are elements to be altered. Keaton plays with mise-en-scène in a game of radically reengineering the borders between the body and geographic space. He rewrites and manipulates the environment. Acrobatic, agile, and adroit, Keaton toggles between physical spaces and imagined geographies through touch.
The Common Railers employ gaming as an aleatory tactic in their musical performance with Steamboat Bill, Jr. A mélange of American folk, alt country, bluegrass, blues, and rockability, their music switches between syncopation and downbeat rhythms.
Emerging out of working class and rural cultures, Americana music often plumbs themes of sadness, heartbreak, loss of family, jobs, romance—narratives submerged in nearly every silent comedy. But it also conveys just the opposite—unbridled exuberance—through inventive instrumentals, ingenious interplay of musical genres, spontaneous solos, and free play among musicians. The Common Railers’ musical game with Steamboat Bill Jr. has fun ricocheting through this spectrum of Americana music.
Cosponsored by the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies and the 7th Art Corporation, the nonprofit organization that runs Cinemapolis and Fall Creek Theaters
Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life
Sunday, April 6, 2008, 7:00 p.m.
(Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Persia, 1925; 71 min.)
New original improvisational score composed by Chris White, Peter Dodge, and Robby Aceto
Performed by Chris White, electric cello, looper and effects; Peter Dodge, winds and percussion; Robby Aceto, guitar, looping and ambient effects
Ann Michel and Phil Wilde, producers and lighting design
Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life is a classic adventure documentary by the makers of King Kong. And it is also a film where geographic space is as important as characters.
In 1924, neophyte filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hooked up with journalist and sometime spy Marguerite Harrison and set off to film an adventure. They found excitement, danger, and unparalleled drama in the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe of Persia (now Iran). They were the first Westerners to travel with the Bakhtiari.
Through improvisation and virtuoso technique, Chris White, Peter Dodge, and Robby Aceto create a compelling and evocative score that summons the geographic grandeur and political resonances imbedded in this seldom-screened film. Their score layers jazz, postminimalism, sequencers, and tonal and textural experimentation. The score generates an aural and sensual landscape that itself envelopes the film.
Twice a year, more than 50,000 Bakhtiari nomads and half a million animals surmounted impossible obstacles to move their herds to pasture. Over deserts, mountains, rivers, and snowy wastelands in search of the life-sustaining grasslands, the Bakhtiari’s caravan of people, cattle, and goats search for life-sustaining grasslands. They cross the churning and icy waters of the Karun River with rafts made out of inflated goatskins.
A classic film about gastronomica and environmental tangibility, Grass also raises issues of Orientalism, the idea that representations of the so-called East are generated through imagined constructs propagated by the so-called West. Some cinema scholars have argued that its Orientalizing gaze figures the Bakhtiari as unchanging, uncontaminated, heroic essences of a primitivized Middle East. The improvisational score by White, Dodge, and Aceto twists through these ideas to provide spectators with a more complex reading and experience of the film, one that asks for a meditation on and immersion in the spaces the film occupies and imagines.
As an artifact, the film chronicles remote parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, leaving archival traces of lands and peoples that no longer exist as they are seen in Grass. These archival elements resonate and reverberate against our contemporary popular culture representations of the Middle East. Cooper and Schoedsack almost froze when they filmed the breathtaking, almost unbelievable sight of an endless river of men, women, and children—their feet bare or wrapped in rags—winding up the side of the sheer, snow-covered rock face of the 15,000-foot-high Zardeh Kuh mountain. Although many documentary historians consider Grass second only to Nanook of the North, few people have actually ever seen this legendary film. Grass is a mythic narrative of migration, settlement, and the quest for food.
Co-sponsored by the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, dedicated to the art, science, and history of filmmaking in central New York.