November 30, 2006

Rocking The Cinema

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When Park Doing, now a professor in the College of Engineering, was an undergraduate at Cornell, he saw Ithaca-based Johnny Dowd perform for the first time, and ever since then, has viewed the town’s music scene in totally new ways. “It was like a wake-up call,” he told me over coffee, “to all the great music going on in Ithaca.” Dowd, whose records have been called by Billboard “the most important music in America since World War II,” is emblematic of the prominence Ithaca musicians have earned across the country and around the world. While these musicians might called Ithaca home, Doing insists they’re far from merely “local bands.” It’s this sort of collected talent that Doing hopes to bring up the hill to the Cornell Cinema this Saturday for what might be one of the most illuminating cultural experiences on campus this semester. “I wanted to make a connection between the energy of Cornell students and the brilliance of the musicians I know here.” And so we have it, after months of planning: the first, hopefully-annual, Rock the Cinema Ball.
The five sets that Doing chose for Saturday’s line-up help to show what he calls Ithaca’s “incredible cross-pollination of musical strands.” For a city of this size and relatively isolated geographical location, Ithaca boasts thriving blues, reggae, punk, folk and rock ‘n roll scenes. The sound Saturday will focus mostly on the last pair — Johnny Dowd, Mary Lorson, Jennie Stearns tend to the singer/songwriter end, The Atomic Forces and Candy Pants are straight guitar-heavy R&R. The national acclaim for all of them might come as surprise. Besides Billboard’s stake on Dowd, Lorson’s Madder Rose recorded with Atlantic for years, Jennie Stearns works with Lucinda Williams producer Gurf Morlix, and The Atomic Forces have toured with boyhood friends and now the cult-rock band Guided By Voices. Volunteering their time, the bands offer unique sounds that should make for an ideal rupture between the end of the classes and the beginning of exams — a sort of fall semester Slope Day.
The Ball will also put the spotlight on another one of Park Doing’s Ithaca gems, Cornell Cinema. While digging through the archives, Doing came across a rare collection of what might be called surrealist music videos. With an eye for the experimental short film, the night will kick off with some strange early ventures between film and music. Who knew Bruce Connor, the father of found footage, directed Devo’s already weird “Mongoloid?” Tom Tom Club, a break-off band with The Talking Heads’ David Byrne, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, as well as Elvis Costello also have spots.
At the end of our conversation, Doing reminisced over the The Den, a raucous bar packed with drunk students and constant live music that used to be housed in Noyes, a place he loved to play with his band when it was still open. It’s this musical setting he hopes to establish — more than a ball, or a benefit, Rock The Cinema should be a party. If you haven’t been, or rarely go, to the Cinema, make Saturday an exception. You might find out there’s way more to Ithaca than you ever imagined.