It was the night before Halloween, and the stage was set – the anticipation of a ghoulish silent horror film from the 1920s, a vintage theater full of charm, audience members in costume, even the pianist was dressed as the Grim Reaper. It was my first time at the Art Theater in Long Beach, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some time. (I absolutely loved the venue. Anyone in Long Beach, go there now.)
In fact, it was a night of firsts for me, since it was also my first time seeing a silent film with live music. I was immediately struck by the pacing of the film – I found myself all-too-aware that I’ve become numb to absurdly fast-paced media. As such, it was refreshing to be able to sit back and enjoy the slower action of The Phantom Carriage. The pacing was in no way a reflection of the depth of the film, which seemed to be well ahead of its time. In fact, the unfolding of events allowed for layers of subtlety that a faster-paced film could not have achieved. Special effects abounded (ghosts walking through doors, etc.), flashbacks on flashbacks, plot twists…this film had it all, and a classic tale of morality to boot.
Needless to say, I didn’t just come to see this classic film – I also came to see the reimagined score by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. The composer, Dubowsky, was also the conductor of the ensemble, which was comprised of Charles Sharp on bass clarinet/flute, Henry Webster on viola, Slam Nobles on percussion, Jeff Schwartz on double bass, and R. Scott Dibble on keyboard and electronics. The score was full of musical imagery, from cymbal swells to represent waves, flouncy flute lines as women laughing and bass clarinet riffs for men laughing. There was also a fair amount of mickey-mousing, such as the tick tock of a horse walking, ensemble members talking with hands over their mouths to represent the muffled chatter of the crowd in the picture, to drum hits as literal smacks and falls of the characters onscreen.
The music itself was mostly tonal, with a handful of themes that played through most of the film. These themes sounded traditional, often patriotic, meant to reflect the time period and the innocence of many of the characters on screen. Along with the conventional harmony implied with these melodies, there was an undertone of a more abstract, experimental score that could emerge at any moment, which perhaps was meant to represent an underlying evil. At the times when this part of the score did emerge, it was usually when something supernatural was happening onscreen. My favorite moments were these moments of abstraction – it was here that I felt the underlying character of the film was more present.
Instruments also became representations of character’s actions. For example, as a character onscreen shrugged off the command of someone, a bass clarinet line approached the scene with similar attitude. For the most part, I got the impression that the bass clarinet took on an emotive role, rather than portraying specific action. By contrast, the percussion largely seemed to reflect specific actions on screen, which is helpful when the film itself has no sound embedded within itself. Electronics played a subtle role throughout the score – mainly, they acted as a quiet force in the background, waiting to emerge.
Overall, the whole experience was a lot of fun. (And slightly spooky.)
On Friday evening at HM 157, the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble presents a new, live soundtrack to the 1915 horror film The Golem, considered by many to be the first horror film ever made. We got a moment to talk with Jack about his work and this project. Check it out.
So tell us about your show this Friday.
We were looking at dates, and noticed that there was a Friday the 13th in March. So we thought, that’s a great date, let’s do that. Then the natural thing to do was, let’s do a public domain, silent horror film, to celebrate Friday the 13th. And then of course, the venue. HM157 is such a cool venue, and they do all kinds of great stuff. Live music, films, Halloween parties. They are a real arts community and a real Historical Monument.
We will have Alicia Byer on clarinet, Michael G. Bauer on alto sax, Jeff Schwartz on double bass, and myself on keyboard.
What attracted you to scoring silent films, and The Golem in particular?
I’ve been doing live music to films for years: experimental films like Jean Genet’s Chant D’Amour, animated films by filmmakers like Samara Halperin, even my own films. One great thing about silent films is that they were made to have music accompany them (check out Rick Altman’s book Silent Film Sound), and if you watch a silent film a few times, you can pretty much figure out where the music was intended to go, and what it was intended to do. They also have intertitles, so you don’t have to worry about obtaining a print with a clean, isolated dialogue track. You create the entire audio track. The other reason is that unrestored copies of the films, if old enough, are generally public domain. You can’t put on an unauthorized public performance of a film that is still under copyright. I emphasize it must be an unrestored version of the film. Restorations are likely under copyright because of the work that has been put into the film.
The Golem seemed like a great film to do; it has depth and complexity, and people have heard of it, without being too familiar with it. While some laud The Golem (1920) as a precursor to James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), The Golem is also about technology and violence. The Golem is basically a weapon. Once that weapon is unleashed, it can’t be controlled. That resonates with our nation’s fixation with technology, violence, and military solutions; when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The Golem was made shortly after The Great War, and while it’s set in the 1500s, you can feel the shadow of WWI’s out-of-control militarism.
Another facet of The Golem is the portrayal of a Jewish community that was not assimilated into the white European establishment; the Jews are portrayed as likable, superstitious, irrational, magical people with silly hats. The way the Holy Roman Emperor deals with the Ghetto and the Jews, by decree without cultural understanding or appreciation, eerily foreshadows not only WW2 but also the way the West currently deals with the whole Middle East. And in some ways, The Golem is like a giant, out of control drone; he’s made of clay, he’s not a man, but he is able to do the dirty work. Who has the moral responsibility for his actions?
You also, if I understand correctly, are a film music scholar. How does this inform your composition?
I worked in film for many years. I was an assistant engineer on Eliot Goldenthal’s score for Alien 3. I worked for many years in the in-house music department at Pixar. I also scored a handful of independent films, including most recently Jim Tushinski’s documentary I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole (2013). Film music was my entrée into teaching and academia. I had knowledge and expertise ‘from the field,’ as they say. I’m not sure how scholarship informs my composition; I always thought it was the other way around! I thought that being conservatory trained as a musician and composer meant that I brought something interesting to film music scholarship. Because there’s lots of people dabbling in film music scholarship who are trained in other areas, like philosophy or English or media studies. That said, if you know the rep, if you know the canon, it just adds to your bag of tricks. A composer should study everything. If you want to write operas, you need to study dramaturgy. If you want to score a film, you need to understand picture editing and be sensitive to that. As well as drama and acting and cinematography.
What’s the focus of your research? What will you be presenting at EMP in April?
I’ve never presented at EMP before. It’s a popular music studies conference. So my presentation at EMP is a little different than my usual work. The cool thing is our bass player, Jeff Schwartz, who’s big on the improv scene here in LA, will also be presenting at the conference, on improvisation. I’ll be presenting on the work and history of Martin Lee Gore, principal songwriter for Depeche Mode. My presentation challenges expectations of what is “queer” and shows how otherness informs creative work. Here’s a link to my abstract: http://www.empmuseum.org/programs-plus-education/programs/pop-conference.aspx?t=zdubowsky#Tabs
What else is on the horizon for you?
I’ll be presenting at two other conferences in March and April: SCMS, The Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and PCA/ACA, The Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association.
I am working on finishing my monograph, Intersecting Film, Music, and Queerness, under contract to international academic press Palgave MacMillan for their Film, Media, and Cultural Studies series.
I’ve also been working as a music editor. I’m a member of the Editors Guild MPEG Local 700. So I feel like I have a lot of irons in the fire.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I grew up in LA and I only moved back to the area in November of 2012. So it’s been really amazing to see how much things have changed since I left in 1991 or 92. It’s still very car-centric, but there are a lot of people doing interesting things. The way the new music scene has grown, in both audiences and players, is really amazing. There’s a lot of people who are doing things just because they are interesting, people who are not trying to be a rock star or famous person or something. That’s what kind of aggravated me about LA in the 80s: it seemed to be all about pay-to-play and becoming famous. I’m not really sure where things are headed culturally or musically, but it seems like LA has a growing new music community and that’s a good thing. There’s also venues that seem to be not grounded in one particular genre, and that’s good too. I think cross pollination is a healthy thing.