May 2, 2007

Live at the Movies With Cornell Cinema

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The idea of live music in a cinema has always seemed a little intriguing, and a little more genuine. Before amplification, and long before professionally-recorded film scores, theater and early film relied on musicians to provide the soundtrack. This could be in the form of the honky-tonk piano player sitting to the side of the screen or an 80-piece orchestra exerting its massive sound to the mood and character development on stage.
Lucky for us, Cornell Cinema has featured live music even in an age where most, if not all, movies come with a handpicked official soundtrack and running musical accompaniment. They’ve even pushed the boundaries of filmmaking by bringing in live acts; last fall, Portland’s Small Sails delighted an audience that should’ve been much bigger with their unique sound perfectly matched with the changing images on-screen.
At the same time, live music can help enhance, or give new meaning to, cinematic classics. This past Saturday, the Golden Arm Trio, which showed up as a quartet, played their original score to Sergei Eisenstein’s legendary Battleship Potemkin to a packed and riveted audience.
The original score to Battleship Potemkin was composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, the legendary modern Russian composer who lived until 1975. Or rather, the score was pilfered from symphonies he had already written. I haven’t heard his contribution to the film, so I’m not sure how it could compare to the Golden Arm Trio’s version, but my guess is that the Trio’s version with its direct link to the film’s action may be just if not more powerful than a classical symphony out of context.
The instrumentation provided by the trio was sparse but powerful: Graham Reynolds, who leads the group played drums as well as piano, and he was backed up by a cellist, a baritone saxophonist, and a double bassist. The music had an intense consistency to it that matched the dramatic shifts in the movie — some scenes were less intense than others, and the musicians picked up on the subtleties of these changes. Battleship Potemkin hardly has any easy-going moments, but the shots that sided to this mood were often accompanied by long strings of climbing and falling riffs matched by piano and cello and thumping bass lines. When scenes shifted to more dramatic scenarios, like the lifting of a canon’s barrel or an angry mob organizing itself for the revolution, Reynolds switched to the snare and bass drums, as if he were leading a regiment into battle. Scatological saxophone mimicked the frenzy of a crowd or the tension between petty officers and low-level seamen on the ship, and cello drifted into muscled arpeggios.
In terms of performance, technical difficulties tarnished an otherwise spotless live show. When the DVD began skipping and randomly pausing, the Trio was at first thrown by the surprise — they didn’t know how to react, and broke any potential dramatic effect by getting flustered, stopping the music, and talking to the crowd. Later errors were handled with greater skill; most notably, the cellist during one particularly long break from the film’s progress improvised beautifully on that scene’s melodic theme. The other musicians responded well — the phrase “the show must go on” can’t help but come to mind — and the movie eventually finished without further interruption, its already dramatic cinematography only given new meaning by the Golden Arm Trio’s unique interpretation.