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Building a Better Battleship 

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

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
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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."

All of these projects were a stretch, even by Austin's notoriously offbeat standards, but were greeted with enthusiasm and sold-out shows. Most of that music found its way in one form or another onto the second Golden Arm Trio release, Why the Sea Is Salt, which contains an even larger cast of musicians. Reynolds attributes the leap to the freedom afforded by living in a smaller town like Austin. "There's definitely a trade-off for not being in New York or San Francisco, where the type of music we tend to do might be more established [and there is] a community of players ready to play it," he says, "rather than taking a classical musician who's got the technique but not necessarily the improvisational background. But I can't imagine getting together an orchestra in New York City for the amount of money, and paying from the door charge, and not paying very much."

Indeed, money had been the main obstacle to Reynolds presenting his Potemkin score here sooner. Tom Welsh, an executive at San Francisco label New Albion Records, met Reynolds in 1997 at South by Southwest, was wowed by an early demo of his debut release, and has been facilitating gigs for him in San Francisco ever since. Last summer, Welsh brought Reynolds to perform at the El Rio's "Outdoor Cinema" series. "Xandra Castleton, who's an outstanding filmmaker [and] runs that series, was way into it, and produced the whole event," says Welsh. "So with each return visit, Graham is kind of doing a bigger and more ambitious project."

Reynolds wanted to do his Potemkin score there, but that was unfeasible due to lack of space and funds, problems that also prevented a potential screening at the Roxie. Instead, "I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before," says Castleton. "So he said, 'Pick a film,' and I picked a film called Bed and Sofa, which is an early Soviet film. He did an original score for it that was absolutely beautiful."

The right circumstance for Potemkin came when Jon Varnadoe, owner of Foreign Cinema and the newly reopened Bruno's, heard about Reynolds through Welsh, and jumped at the chance to invite him. Varnadoe had already had success with Jill Tracy's live score for Nosferatu last Halloween, and the opportunity to do another live film score performance "just fell in our lap," he says. "Graham is such a unique talent, and he already had a composition for Potemkin. By that time I had heard the Golden Arm Trio; it seemed like it was just a good lucky break that we could have his Golden Arm Trio here at Bruno's, and present his Potemkin over at the Cinema."

"It's going to be slightly different, but I think it's going to be the same," says Reynolds of the San Francisco version. "Here we had 10 [musicians], there we'll have a few more, but more to fill out the string section than anything else ... there's a segment that we synchronized, but most of the scenes have a starting point and a general theme, and then you improvise from there. So it's somewhat controlled improvising, because I'll sort of maintain a hand in the direction it's taking. It's definitely not taking turns soloing."

Cremaschi, who will also appear in the smaller Golden Arm Trio groupings with Reynolds earlier in the week at Bruno's, assembled the orchestra with that sensibility in mind. "I picked the players that I picked on purpose, just knowing that they were good players of written compositions and could improvise," he says, "but not strictly improvisers. The improvising is really just in the vein of the music he's written, which is kind of hard to describe, actually ... but it's not jazz at all."

The Golden Arm Trio performs Wednesday, June 14, at 6 p.m. at Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight (near Stanyan), S.F. Admission is free; call 831-1200. Also Wednesday, June 14, at 10 p.m. with the Dred Scott Trio at Bruno's, 2389 Mission (at 20th Street), S.F. Tickets are $5; call 648-7701. Graham Reynolds performs his score for Battleship Potemkin Thursday through Saturday, June 15-17, at midnight at Foreign Cinema, 2534 Mission (at 21st Street), S.F. Tickets are $10; call 648-7600.

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David Cook

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