New Music Works launched its 34th Season last week with another live music program built around vintage silent films. This is a great idea pioneered last year with the NMW presentation of the beautifully restored 1926 Art Deco classic, Metropolis, accompanied by a terrific new score written for the film and conducted by NMW Artistic Director Phil Collins
This year, the film of choice was the weirdly haunting 1919 German Expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's a wildly inventive piece of filmmaking for its day, with its surreal, hand-painted sets, and cadaverous, yet sympathetic "somnambulist" forced to do the bidding of the evil "Herr Doktor," who belatedly discovers a will and conscience of his own. And it's always a treat to see it on a big screen.
It was also a treat to have composer Richard Marriott in the house, whose original 1987 score for Caligari was performed live by NMW at this screening. Maestro Collins introduced Marriott from the stage, who spoke about his work with The Club Foot Orchestra (a Bay Area ensemble highly esteemed for composing and performing live scores to accompany vintage silent films), and how he came to write the Caligari score, after channel-hopping upon the movie one night on Channel 9.
Also on the program was the surreal 1927 short film Ghosts Before Breakfast, by DaDaist Hans Richter, accompanied by the largely percussive and playful 1982 piece, "Revenge Before Breakfast," by Henry Bryant.
The experimental 1944 silent short, At Land, directed by and featuring Maya Deren, rounded out the bill, an evocative piece in which a female (nymph? spirit?) appears to crawl out of the sea and slither into a swanky dinner party. Despite the composer credit for John Cage in the program, the 15-minute film was accompanied by dead silence. Lucky for me, Art Boy knows something about 20th Century music and explained it was an homage to a famous Cage composition, "4:33," which consists of four-and-a-half minutes of silence. But I wonder how many other audience members didn't get the joke, which was never alluded to from the stage.
In fact, there could be more acknowledgement of the audience in general from the stage. It would be nice if Collins or someone else from NMW came out to welcome the audience and thank them for their support at the start of the program. It could even be an amplified voice from offstage, just a little touch of showmanship to let people know the show is about to begin.
Pairing up avant garde film and music is a productive idea I hope NMW continues to explore in the future. With a little tightening up in the presentation department, consider the possibilities!