Live Music for Film

Two of the most turbulent times for musicians happened due to the film industry.  Or rather, I should say that the film industry disrupted live performing music culture twice.  The first was when Cinemas started to replace the thousands of Opera Houses in the US as entertainment destinations for the population.  The second was with the advent of sound in cinema which forced an estimated 22,000-26,000 musicians out of work in just a few short years in the late 20s.

Maya Beiser performing Michael Harrison's "Just Ancient Loops" with film by Bill Morrison
Maya Beiser performing Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops” with film by Bill Morrison

So it’s with a little bit of irony that live music for film is making something of a comeback.  Most of us are familiar with Philip Glass’ 1994 “La Belle et la Bête” – and opera for his ensemble and film.

Less familiar is the Filmharmonia Duo which began as a musical project to recreate the music for the 1920 Russian Scifi silent film, “Aelita, Princess of Mars,” back in 1990.  The project has since recreated other scores to other works with Filmharmonia Ensembles that have toured around the world.

Aelita, Queen of Mars with live music by the Filmharmonia Duo at the IU Auditorium 26 October 2013
“Aelita, Queen of Mars” with live music by the Filmharmonia Duo at the IU Auditorium 26 October 2013

I discovered the Filmharmonia Duo (in an IU Auditorium brochure) just last week when my partner in Camera Lucida (an interactive video/cello project) while attending a performance at the 2013 Orphans Midwest Film Symposium at IU given by filmaker, Bill Morrison, and the ever awesome cello goddess, Maya Beiser.  It was the world premiere of All Vows with music by Michael Gordon and the program included “Light is Calling” (music again by Michael Gordon), “Cello Counterpoint” (music by Steve Reich) and “Just Ancient Loops” (music by Michael Harrison) all accompanied by film by Bill Morrison.

Cello Goddess, Maya Beiser, with Camera Lucida (Roxell Karr - video and electronics, l; Jon Silpayamanant - cello and electronics, r)
Cello Goddess, Maya Beiser, with Camera Lucida (Roxell Karr – video and electronics, l; Jon Silpayamanant – cello and electronics, r)

I’d first seen the Reich piece and video on a recent TEDtalks presentation given by Maya Beiser.  The presentation also featured  David Lang’s “World to Come” with video by Irit Batsry.

Roxell and I spoke to Maya for a bit about my video and cello project (the previously mentioned Camera Lucida).  Some of that was explaining the program, Isadora (named after dancer, Isadora Duncan), designed by programmer Mark Coniglio for Troika Ranch specifically for real time manipulation of media.  In our case, video. Here’s an excerpt of our first performance in Madison, Wisconsin last year with dancer, Christine Olson.

As the software was designed specifically with dancers and movement artists in mind it allows the movement captured by dancers to be manipulated in real time, creating effects that are all too familiar to those of us who use effects in music (delay, feedback, distortion)–but with video!  Probably one of the most interesting pieces (using a similar program designed by Friede Weiss) seamlessly in live performance can be seen in Australian based Chunky Move’s “Mortal Engine.”

So Camera Lucida is designed specifically to work with dancers and movement artist though two of our upcoming projects will be more along the traditional lines of live music for film as we develop a documentary focusing on the local Steamboat Culture in this area and as I score music for the silent film Phantom of the Opera which will also feature my new music group, the Mothership Ensemble.

Given how quickly technology is moving, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this relatively new genre of live music for film or video projection to start moving in directions many folks couldn’t have foreseen.  The documentary project and Phantom of the Opera film won’t simply be “static” projections.  Roxell will be manipulation them in real time while leaving a portion of the total projection area for non-manipulated images.  New technology has allowed the videographer or filmaker to be an active real-time collaborative partner in ways that simply being the content producer.  There are a number of groups doing work like this in addition to us, Troika Ranch, and Chunky Move.  Some with large companies that include live music and aerialists in addition to dancers and projection such as Quixotic Fusion in Kansas City to the “dance-imation” duo of ARTheism from Austin.  Here’s their TEDtalks presentation, “Dancing with Lights.”

There are still some of the more traditional performances too.  For example, a local film series happening here (sponsored by the Louisville Film Society) in Louisville had showings of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films back-to-back but with a different ensemble for each performance. A local big band did the first performance and Bourbon Baroque (a Baroque Orchestra I often play with) did the second and a Hip-Hop artist did the third.

Poster for the series of Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin films with live musical accompaniment at the Dreamland Film Center
Poster for the series of Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin films with live musical accompaniment at the Dreamland Film Center

Large ensembles are also getting into the act.  Greg Sandow mentioned the recent “Art of the Score: film week at the Philharmonic projects” by the New York Philharmonic which had screenings of Hitchcock films and “2001: A Space Odyssey” with live scores performed by the orchestra (September 17 – 21, 2013).  The 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, a full orchestra/choir that regularly performs live concerts of scores during live projection of films, From what I understand, have featured the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek movies and a number of the Pixar films to sold out audiences throughout Europe.

I look forward to seeing what tomorrow will bring!


The Golden Voice of Cambodia

Greg Cahill's "The Golden Voice"
The Golden Voice

A few weeks ago I finally had the opportunity to watch Greg Cahill’s docufilm about Cambodian vocalist, Ros Sereysothea, The Golden Voice. I was only mildly disappointed. Not for the quality of the film–it is beautifully done–but because there wasn’t enough focus on, well, the music (probably also the biggest issue I had with Olivier Dahan’s docu-film about French Chanteuse, Édith Piaf , La Vie en Rose).


I suppose I’m just a sucker for really “dry” (I quote it because to me they aren’t really that “dry”–hah!) and serious “documentaries” about music or musical genres. Something along the lines of, say, Nasser Taghvai’s documentary Dress Rehearsal: The Brave Hurr’s Ta’Zieh, a Ta’Zieh (Persian Passion Play/Opera), ; or Derek Bailey and Siân Busby’s documentary of the Lincoln Center’s production of The Peony Pavilion (Mǔdāntíng), a Kunju (Chinese Opera) piece.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the dramatized biographies–or that I actually enjoy the genre docs more. I do believe the former are much easier to watch, and likely more pleasurable. But there’s something intellectually satisfying, from a musician’s standpoint, about the latter. See, while the bio-docs focused on things that we all have in common with each other–at the expense of erasing the differences, the genre-docs focused on highly developed Art music (Art theatre, maybe?) hat are so foreign to Western Opera/Musical that it takes no effort to accentuate the differences.

I understand that this is a very unfair comparison on many different levels, but I’m just trying to make some sense about what are the things about particular documentary[-like] films that work for me using a few examples I can think of off the cuff. I’ll definitely be coming back to this as I get more in depth with the documentaries that I have in various stages of [in]completion.