Rats And People Motion Picture Orchestra finishes its most ambitious string of shows to date tonight at El Lenador -- the group will be sharing a bill with Peck Of Dirt and Googolplexia starting at 9 p.m. and admission is free.
Each Monday in September, the Orchestra has played a different (or several different, in one instance) original score to a silent film. Tonight, the group will play its take on Buster Keaton's Go West. The first score ever attempted by Rats and People, it is also one of its most beloved. When the film's copyright holders got wind of tonight's performance a couple weeks ago, the Orchestra turned to its fans to raise the money required to pay for the one-time screening license. The studio asked for $250 (it would have been $350 if the group were charging admission). Rats and People, deciding it could not pull the plug on a performance it had already promised fans, set up a blog seeking donations. Its first post was at 8 p.m. on Sunday, September 11th, and by just after noon on the 12th, the money had been raised.
We spoke with the six members of the ensemble about how they approach scoring a film, what it's like to play Go West and where they fit in the silent film scoring landscape.
RFT Music: It seems like you don't try and compensate for the fact that these are silent movies; you don't write literal soundtracks - it seems like a more general expression. Was that a conscious decision?
Matt Pace: Absolutely. We used to be more militant about it and not do anything like that. Now we do some little things that sonically depict actions. But yes, that was totally on purpose.
Brien Seyle: There is a school of silent film accompaniment where, you know, something blows up and you go, "Kaboom!" Where it's all exactly lined up. That's awesome, but it interferes with making really great music. We try and express what we read the director's intention to be. We don't want to be all whiz-bang with it. We want the music to stand sort of on its own.
Pace: Like a counterpoint, sort of. Because the stuff you see is pretty self-explanatory. You don't really need any help knowing that Buster Keaton fell.
Matt Fredrick: There's much more of a conscious effort to compliment or enhance the narrative tone of the film rather than just the nuts and bolts action that you see on the screen.
Pace: Which makes it a critical activity, sort of. Because in order to do that we have to have an idea of what the film is about.
Fredrick: One thing that happened with that score is that it does draw out or support the pathos in that film. If you did a different scoring of Go West, you could definitely accent the readily available hijinks. The kinetic activity going on.
Go West was the first score that you did as an orchestra, right?
Seyle: Yes, it's the first one we even tried. In fact, when we agreed to it, I thought it was a short. I didn't know anything about it. I said, "Oh yeah, twenty minutes of music, sure!" How long is it? An hour and twenty?
Is it different playing it now than it was in the beginning?
Robert Laptad: It's a lot different. I used to write down every individual thing that happened in the movie and how I responded to it. I did that for the first few movies. I'm sure those sheets are still around somewhere.
Seyle: And Go West has had a bunch of different incarnations of the group as well.
Heather Rice: Me and Emma are the most recent people to join. So we're excited to play it.
Emma Tiemann: It's a totally different feel. This month, having to play every single movie, and then going back to Go West... I wasn't around for any of this stuff, and the way it's set up is completely different.
Rice: There are a lot of parts scattered throughout my score that say, like, 'violins doodle for a while.'"
Pace: But they are not improvised. There are parts that aren't in the score that we just knew."
I would have to think a lot of people scoring silent films don't come from a rock background. How has the fact that you have made this project different?
Pace: Weirdly, the most famous group that does this is probably the Alloy Orchestra. And that's two dudes from Mission Of Burma and then another guy.
Selye: I think that's somewhat rare, though.
Fredrick: But at least four of us were band nerds. Every rock band I've ever been in was made up of band nerds, pretty much.
Ed. The Orchestra is planning a regional tour for the end of the year, and one of the biggest reasons for this residency in the first place was to raise money for a new van, in order to make that tour possible. So donations are very, very much appreciated.