Building a Better Battleship

Graham Reynolds scores films, conducts unconventional symphonies, and rewrites the rules of modern jazz

The lights go down, and the images begin to flicker on the screen: Hands perform the gestures of cooking food, washing dishes, and winding the riggings on a battleship. With each movement, they convey a tension about to explode, paced by tight, frenetic jump cuts twitching from scene to scene. Below the screen hands are moving too -- guiding violin bows, striking piano keys, flitting over the keypads on a saxophone, producing sounds mirroring the tension, drama, and sometimes languid beauty that continues to build on screen. Those movements mark the opening of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin, as well as Austin composer Graham Reynolds' thoroughly modern but entirely appropriate live score.

In the past two years, the ambitious 29-year-old Reynolds has recorded two albums with his nebulous Golden Arm Trio, composed a string quartet, and even premiered an original symphony. This weekend, he brings his Potemkin score to San Francisco's Foreign Cinema for a series of midnight screenings, conducting a small orchestra made up of some of the Bay Area's finest improvisers and creative musicians. "It's a great film, and the music is good, so, yeah, I think people are excited," says Beth Lisick Ordeal bassist George Cremaschi, who met Reynolds when the Ordeal played the South by Southwest music festival in Austin last year. Cremaschi also assembled the local musicians for the event. Along with drummer and fellow Lisick bandmate Andrew Borger, musicians participating are Jon Raskin of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, current and former Mills College students such as saxophonist John Ingel, string musicians Ben Barnes, Loren Dempster, and Tara Flanderau, as well as several others. "I like it, it's good, it's very good," Cremaschi says of the score, "and it's perfect for the film, actually.

"You just have to realize that you can't overwhelm the screen," he says of performing the music. "I mean, the film is really strong, so it's not that delicate of a situation, but you ... have to be restrained. When I listened to a tape of the music, I thought there were long stretches where nothing was happening. But then I realized that, ah, it was that way for a reason. I mean, an improviser's impulse is to play more than less in general, and you just have to be careful."

"Audiences really like it, too," says Reynolds, who originally wrote and performed the score for a series at Austin's Alamo Draft House last year. "It stretches the bands, pushes you, gives you a reason to write new music."

At a show in Austin in April, Reynolds -- who frequently reworks his larger musical themes to perform in more intimate, Golden Arm Trio settings -- seemed intent on providing that experience almost single-handedly. Only he and Brown Whörnet leader Peter Stopschinski worked with the enormous array of instruments gathered for the show: xylophone, a drum kit, kettle drum, bass and lead guitars, upright piano, bells, and contrabass. The two explored seemingly every bit of music in Reynolds' considerable repertoire, beginning with a piano duet, quoting bits of classical and jazz and pop standards at each other at a furious pace, bending them to their own mad ends. Later the pair seemed to chase each other around the jungle of instruments, making the music cartoonish and surging from melodramatic doo-wop to an Eastern European binge. It called to mind everything from Raymond Scott to Prokofiev to Chopin (Reynolds is apt to borrow from the latter two), ending, after a long dirgelike interlude, with Reynolds and Stopschinski building toward a Schroeder-esque romp. While Reynolds is more than proficient on the piano, he is kept (or saved) from virtuosity by a continuous sense of searching, switching modes, looking for a new sound even as he's arrived at the current one.

Whatever that sound was, the crowd ate it up, and Reynolds almost wearily concurs that labels don't work with his quirky hybrids of jazz, classical, and pop. "I try to avoid getting pinned down," he says. "I mean, we play with a lot of saxophones, so put sax and improvisation together, it gets called avant-garde. I don't know what label to give us, but it's not the first one I would use -- [it] gives people the wrong impression. I think we're more melodic and our beats are straighter than you would expect from avant-garde jazz."

Reynolds founded the Golden Arm Trio soon after moving to Austin from Connecticut in 1993. Since then, he has covered so much territory in such a short time that the collective "we" he uses could refer to both the many musical personalities he's exhibited and the rotating cast of musicians who make up his "trio." "We were a trio for, like, one gig," he says. But when his bassist quit, Reynolds says, "it led to a broader approach to just play with whoever was appropriate to whatever gig. And it was easier to say, 'Sure, I can do that show,' without having to check with anyone. So it's practical, and it keeps things fresh."

The first self-titled Golden Arm Trio release in 1998 features dozens of guest musicians and shifts gears so completely from track to track that a group of Austin filmmakers took on a project to make separate shorts inspired by each of the 28 songs. The link between music and film was appropriate: Reynolds cites his childhood fascination with movie soundtracks as one reason for his affinity for classical music, and he's performed concerts of the music from Star Wars. Reynolds wrote his own score for Potemkin soon after the first Golden Arm Trio release. "That's when I really started playing with more string players, and that led to writing the string quartets, which led to writing the symphony."

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