Breaking the silence


By the end of this month, four rare silent films will have new voices.

With its Silent Sounds program, Creative Alliance at the Patterson commissioned local bands to write new scores and perform them live every Friday through March 31. The first is tomorrow night.

Creative Alliance began occasionally hosting silent movie screenings with new soundtracks several years ago. Pianist Anne Watts and her band Boister were, among others, selected to fashion new scores to the Greta Garbo film Love and Buster Keaton's Seven Chances in early 2004. Showing four movies in four weeks is an extension of these earlier projects, said Kristen Anchor, director of the Creative Alliance MovieMakers.

Anchor, the curator, oversaw the band and movie selections and coordinated this month's shows -- a nearly six-month process, she said. A filmmaker, musician and former film history student, she says this project incorporates plenty of her own interests.

"It's sort of like combining my two loves of my life," Anchor said. "I have a very personal connection to this series."

Last August, Anchor drew up a list of potential local musicians. Some were recommended by fellow Creative Alliance staffers, some mailed in demos and press kits, and others had already made names for themselves around town. Anchor whittled the list down, called to check the groups' availability and met with them to talk about their sound. Anchor said she gives the musicians a choice of about four or five possible silent films.

"Sometimes it works really great if someone's sound is really different from the style of the film and then they complement each other or work against each other, even," Anchor said.

The groups chosen for the new Silent Sounds are as diverse as jazz bands and a DJ, and the films include an early science fiction flick and an African-American melodrama.

Jazz saxophonist Carl Grubbs, who will be backed by piano, bass and drums when he performs tomorrow night, opted for a more traditional approach.

Grubbs chose the 1927 melodramatic romance Scar of Shame. He wrote six or seven themes that flow throughout the score in different moods, he said.

"I try to write something that when people hear it, it's going to sound familiar to them," Grubbs said. "What I'm trying to do is write something so that when they walk away from the movie, they will still hear that melody going on in their heads when they leave."

Grubbs' score includes some of his previous works, but the majority will be new, he said. After his performance, he plans to record the new material for an album, he said.

The film is almost two hours long, which gives him plenty of time to improvise alongside the themes, he said.

"If you don't improvise, then it's not jazz," he said. "It becomes something else. Improvisation is definitely kind of key there."

DJ Tom Borax, aka Tom Boram, opted for Aelita: Queen of Mars, a Soviet science-fiction movie from 1924. The film takes place in Moscow and on a Mars colony, where the protagonist helps stage a communist uprising against a tyrannical dictator.

"It's a really weird movie," Borax said.

Borax's score is equally avant garde.

Though Borax is a DJ, his soundtrack could daze even devoted electronic music fans. He's drawing from experimental pre-1965 analog recordings, made from synthesizers as big as a bedroom. This stuff is far removed from modern house or trance, or even the '70s disco wave. He said he goes for the Forbidden Planet feel.

"The movie's long, and definitely some of the dramatic aspects of it are slow," Borax said. "I was going to try to spice it up."

Borax's early electronic sound doesn't turn on a dime -- it's more of a slow build and doesn't allow him the same spontaneity as a live band.

"If somebody raises their eyebrows [in the film], I'm not going to be able to hit a cymbal or something," he said. "Being a DJ's a really rigid way of approaching a film."

Borax's score is also unique because it won't have recurring themes typical of movie soundtracks. One of his biggest hurdles will be handling the most experimental of his music, which could potentially run people out of the theater, he said jokingly.

"I think that the movie's a little difficult, and I don't want to make it worse," he said. "I'm going to try to make it fun. That's the bottom line -- I'm going to try to make it fun. Just because of my sense of humor there might be a few parts that are a little abrasive. Just for kicks, I might turn it up a little loud."

To select songs for his score, Borax sat down and screened the film with headphones on, and scrolled through his MP3 player until he felt the music and the scene meshed.

When Borax and the other musicians perform live, they will set up in a space next to the crowd facing the screen, Anchor said. And for a couple hours only, six months of writing and rehearsing will come to a head.

"This isn't easy," Anchor said. "It's hard, and it's incredible when it comes together."

Creative Alliance at the Patterson's Silent Sounds series starts at 8 p.m. tomorrow and runs every Friday at 8 p.m. through March 31. Tickets are $15, $12 for members. For more information, call 410-276-1651 or visit

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