The Sound of Silents

The Knitting Factory's "Loud Music Silent Film" series comes to San Francisco

Mainstream American culture has a long history of greeting innovation in the arts with disdain. Given the growing conservatism currently chokeholding public funding, our most creative musicians are seeking out original projects by which to flex their lyrical muscles but still pay the rent in the process. Scoring and performing live soundtracks for films is one of the more consistently rewarding mediums available to new-music composers and improvisers up for the challenge.

In the Bay Area, Club Foot Orchestra has been successfully augmenting the imagery of black-and-white celluloid for nearly eight years. Following an enterprise last spring which set sound to the antics of showgirl Lulu in the G.W. Pabst tale Pandora's Box, CBS came calling. The network giant enlisted the Club Foot crew to provide an updated Felix the Cat with suitably mischievous music for his animated Saturday-morning adventures. The match was a success; the series will run for at least another season.

On the opposite coast, downtown Manhattan's Knitting Factory has been running a "Loud Music Silent Film" series on Sunday nights for over a year. Next to John Zorn, the highest-profile artist involved in the enterprise is six-string innovator Bill Frisell, whose most recent Nonesuch CDs, Music for the Films of Buster Keaton: Go West and The High Sign/One Week, are unsurprisingly his most inspired recordings to date. The straight-faced comedy of Keaton's artistry seems to have given Frisell the creative impetus he's been wanting since his wild days with Zorn's Naked City.

After the resounding success of the Knitting Factory's series both at home and abroad on two European jaunts, the club is bringing a half-dozen of its intrepid Downtown artists to San Francisco's historic Victoria Theatre this week for the premiere "Loud Music Silent Film" stateside tour. Three performances/films will be presented each night, including Rebecca Moore (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Anthony Coleman (Sunrise), and Gary Lucas (The Golem) on Sunday and Judith Ren-Lay (Witchcraft Through the Ages), Liminal (Nosferatu), and the Mark Dresser Trio (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) on Monday.

Last year on its in-house Works label, the Knitting Factory released Dresser's haunting, evocative score to the twisted brilliance of Caligari, arguably the apogee of the silent era's German expressionism. As complementary as Dresser's compositions and structured improvs for contrabass, trumpet, and prepared piano are to the dramatic layers of the film, the disc also stands ably on its own. So, too, does the just-issued Nosferatu by Liminal. This effects-drenched soundtrack casts a supernatural spell that gives chilling new meaning to the word "ambient."

The Knitting Factory has also released Rebecca Moore's amazing debut, Admiral Charcoal's Song. The pianist/vocalist combines the breathless urgency of Bjsrk and the theatrical eccentricity-cum-intensity of Tom Waits into a unique personal style. Although the album is not part of the soundtrack to 20,000 Leagues, which Moore will perform on a battery of toy instruments along with cellist Martha Colby, the power and originality of Moore on disc indicate that we have much to look forward to live.

In a recent telephone interview, 27-year-old Moore says that the genesis of Admiral came from a surrealist musical she wrote a couple of years ago called The Hinger. That work stemmed from an initial dive "into music with a vengeance" following the death of her father, photographer Peter Moore, who from the late '50s onward captured the art-in-progress of avant-garde New York artists like Meredith Monk, John Cage, and Philip Glass.

"I was raised in art," Moore says, in explanation of what she calls the quirky bent and stark theatricality of her music. "I was brought up going to happenings and theater pieces out in the middle of the street and in alleyways. Before I could walk, every single night my parents took me to these performances."

Although Moore studied piano as a child, a teen-age foray into experimental theater precluded any dedicated effort toward music. "I did music very much in the closet, very much by myself until this show The Hinger," she says. When Knitting Factory chief Michael Dorf heard a live tape of a short Hinger-related gig, he approached Moore with a CD offer.

Moore says she feels "encouraged in the last few years by women in music who have a strength that seems rare," such as Sinead O'Connor, Bjsrk, and P J Harvey, who challenge the boys' club mentality of the music industry. "But sometimes I feel a little discouraged because if you're not taking on some sexual persona, then you feel like things are going to be harder for you. I just want to be myself, and I find the Knitting Factory has been nothing but encouraging. I'm happy to be there."

The "Loud Music Silent Film" series runs Sun, Nov. 5, and Mon, Nov. 6, at the Victoria Theatre in S.F.; call 863-7576.

 
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