Believe it or not, silent films were never really silent. In their heyday, they were usually accompanied by musicians who either had a specific score to read from, or as was more often the case, who simply improvised whatever seemed appropriate to the picture. Local bassist, cellist and composer Andrew Downing has picked up the long-dead practice and for several years has whisked audiences around the city and across the country back to the dawn of cinema. Now he's comittted two of his favourite scores to CD; Silents is an immediate, engaging collection whose vibrant melodies seem to have been gathered from across the Romani diaspora, with hints of everything from klezmer to early 20th century classical to hot jazz.
Bringing it to life are a seven-piece group consisting of Downing (cello) Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Joe Phillips (double bass), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet), William Carn (trombone), Peter Lutek (bassoon and clarinet) and David Occhipinti (guitar), along with guests Quinsin Nachoff (clarinet), Jesse Zubot (violin), Tania Gill (celeste, pump organ) and Mark Duggan. (At the release show at the Tranzac, he'll be joined by the core group plus Gill, with baroque/Arabic violinist Kathleen Kajioka standing in for Occhipinti.) EYE WEEKLY spoke to Downing about beginnings, film vs DVD and the elusive nature of the live experience.
How did you come to take up this project?
It actually started about five or six years ago. The Jackson-Triggs winery in the Niagara region, they had this little festival — they have an outdoor amphitheatre there, and they did about six concerts one summer of different bands playing along with silent films. And there actually just happened to be a last-minute opening, and my name was given to them somehow, so we did Phantom of the Opera with a smaller band, there were just five of us. And it was cool, it seemed to actually fit my music pretty well. The narrative nature of a silent film... I kind of like writing music that has a bit of a story to it. So it was really fun, and I just thought I’d like to do some more of it.
Do you perform it with a DVD player and a projector?
Yep. We’ve done it a few times with real 16mm stuff; we did one at the Goethe Institut a while ago, where they have the real deal, you know, better quality, 16mm, nice-looking film. But most of the time it’s just a DVD player.
Did you use music that would have been played at the time as an influence?
Not really. I know that I probably should have, but part of this experience for me, anyway — and I guess a lot of people do this kind of thing with silent films and I guess everyone has their own take on what the right thing is — but part of the experience for me is that it’s half about the movie and half about the music. So I didn’t want to make music that doesn’t sound like me. Or at least, I wouldn’t want to be too influenced by something else. I’m also not 100% clear on what people used to do back in the old days about silent films, because there wasn’t always one score to a film. And a lot of times a pianist or an organist would just improvise. So the style of the music for these two films, I sort of thought about the era that the movie was in; like, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was from 1919 so probably the biggest influence on the music is Stravinsky or Shostakovich, or something that sort of relates to the same period of time, or the same part of the world. But I think that has more to do with me really liking Stravinsky and Shostakovic.
What’s so compelling about Caligari?
I’m not sure… I wouldn’t want to say anything about it because I’m not 100% sure about all the historical stuff that was going on, but I think it was the beginning of a type of film. Because it’s a psychological horror film but there’s also just some campy horror stuff going on. I’m not sure what it is; it’s just particularly cool.
You’ve been doing this for a few years. Why make the record now?
That’s a good question, actually. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a recording of this music because part of what I like so much about it is that it’s a live event. To show the silent film and play the music felt like something that was complete just by itself, so I didn’t really want to make a record. But I was really happy with the music that I wrote for two of the films in particular, the two that are on the CD [Impossible Voyage and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.] I thought I’d just like to make a document of it before I move onto other things.
Yeah, I guess people can get hold of the movies and watch them with the record.
You know, unfortunately that actually doesn’t work. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about 70 minutes long, so the record actually wouldn’t really work with the movie. It’s just a bunch of the scenes that I arranged into something that stands alone.
Ha -- it's kind of ironic that live silent film accompaniments have been traditionally something you can’t recreate at home, and now, even with a CD inspired by them, you still can’t.
[Laughs] Well, I guess it means people will have to come to the show.