It's hard to believe that movies were at one time created without music. Until the late 1920s, most films were silent, and often dependent on the live musicians in movie theaters to provide music.
A growing number of musicians today see an opportunity to exercise their creative muscles by accompanying silent films live on stage.
Among the most ambitious is the Boston-based Devil Music Ensemble, a trio founded in 1999 by Brendon Wood, who plays guitars, lap steel, banjo, accordion, bass clarinet and analog synthesizer. The DME was created to explore all facets of music--rock, country, electronic, orchestral, folk, improvisation, incidental--while playing live with silent films.
The group will visit Tucson on its fall tour to perform this Monday night in the circa-1920 Rialto Theatre, an actual former movie palace. DME will play its original score for F.W. Murnau's 1922 horror classic Nosferatu while the movie is screened.
Wood's partners in the DME are drummer and percussion player Tim Nylander and Jonah Rapino, who plays electric violin, analog synth, bass and vibes. Each is in his early 30s and has a music-conservatory pedigree.
Not all of them were film buffs when they began, says Rapino in a cell-phone interview from the road on the East Coast. He claims to have never watched a silent film before the Devil Music Ensemble was born.
"I personally have come to a better understanding of film, because I have been playing music that is presented with the projection of silent films," Rapino says. "Brendon had more experience in film when we started, but all of our knowledge has grown immensely in that time."
Indeed, Rapino waxes rhapsodically about the beauty of the silent milestones La Pasion de Jeanne d'Arc, the surrealistic experiments of Man Ray and the seminal films of the Lumière Brothers, Louis and Auguste, who in the late-19th century made some of the earliest films.
The Devil Music Ensemble began when it was invited to play a nightclub that was outfitted with a video screen. "We were doing improvisation together, some jams, and kind of knew a little bit about composing, so we decided to play with Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet.
"That's how we started back in the day--it was just basically throwing a movie on that we had maybe never seen, or that we had heard about from somewhere, or that one of us had seen, and just playing what came to mind."
That loose method didn't last long, though.
"We were asked at one point to score a silent film. So we picked a film and went about actually rehearsing, (and) mapped out some stuff. Eventually, that led to us fully scoring films, being very careful about what music we were playing and where we were playing it. These days, it's a very tightly composed score, cut to cut."
Rapino says the DME has played with individual film screenings, at festivals, and in small movie houses, museums and art institutes, in addition to extensive concert tours playing with films such as the German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the relatively obscure silent Western Big Stakes.
The band has recorded and released several CDs of their music, and they also play without movies, performing original music as diverse as rock and classical.
In Tucson in recent years, we have seen a few notable live music performances with silent film. Avant-garde guitarist Gary Lucas played his brilliant score for The Golem in 1999 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. A year later, at the UA's Centennial Hall, Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet performed Glass' soundtrack music for Dracula--not technically a silent film, but it has so little dialogue, it might as well be.
Rapino points out that other creative music artists are starting to play live scores with silent films, including members of Pere Ubu and Tom Verlaine. They join groups that have been doing it for a while such as the Alloy Orchestra, which includes Mission of Burma's Roger Miller, and Tin Hat Trio.
The members of Devil Music Ensemble usually set up in different ways every night, Rapino says. "One night, we might be very close together. The other, we might be totally stretched out, staring up at the screen. We've been behind the audiences, to the side and behind the screen."
Some logistical concerns necessarily drive the choices of silent films that the DME chooses to work with. Usually, copyright fees dictate that the films already be in the public domain. Also, the challenges of showing a 35- or 16mm print mean that, most of the time, DME's movies are projected from a digital video source.