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Burlington Musicians Compose and Play for Classic Silent Shorts

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"Fétiche en voyage de noces"
  • "Fétiche en voyage de noces"

One of the most important components of a motion picture is its score. A well-placed violin solo can flood your eyes with tears. Ambient tones might convey a sense of mystery. And an aptly timed orchestra strike — just as the killer appears — could make you jump out of your seat.

Long before the late-1920s advent of talkies — movies with prerecorded, synchronized soundtracks — live musicians accompanied silent films on piano or guitar or as a full orchestra. Sometimes they improvised, as pianist-composer Bob Merrill has done for countless film screenings at Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center for the Arts, but often they worked from a composed score. This week, a group of Burlington-area musicians is preparing to whisk audiences back to the golden era of silent film — live score and all.

Called Llamadoll: Silent Shorts, the roughly 80-minute program features a full band playing "foreground music" for a collection of seven silent shorts. The presentation, commissioned by the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, takes place on Thursday, November 29, at the FlynnSpace in Burlington.

"I love movies and the role that music plays," says Johnnie Day Durand, the de facto director of the collaborative six-piece ensemble.

A multi-instrumentalist and former Flynn employee, Durand conceived of the event along with Flynn artistic director Steve MacQueen. She plays keys and glockenspiel, but her primary axe is the musical saw, which she also plays in the haunted-Americana band Silver Bridget. When bowed, the flexible piece of hardware emits a ghostly, theremin-like tone.

Joining Durand are Silver Bridget coconspirator Matt Saraca on guitar; Durand's twin sister, Tess Hadley Durand, on electric drums; Harry Leavey on bass and guitar; Annabel Moynihan on violin; and Curt Prestash on additional percussion.

"All of the pieces sound kind of different," says Johnnie Day Durand, describing the collective's scores as quirky, ambient and slightly akin to Angelo Badalamenti's work with director David Lynch.

"The Cook"
  • "The Cook"

The program includes live-action, stop-motion and hand-drawn animated films from the early 20th century. From Ladislas Starevich come "Fétiche en voyage de noces" and "Fétiche se marie." "Koko's Earth Control" and "Trip to Mars" (aka "Out of the Inkwell") were created by the Fleischer Brothers, of Betty Boop fame. Joseph Sunn's "Long Live the Bull" is regarded as the oldest Claymation film on record. "Liberty" stars slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, and an excerpt from Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's "The Cook" costars Buster Keaton.

"They're all kind of crazy and zany," says Durand. Though the group selected the films without an intended thematic thread, she notes that "a strange theme of heights and depths" ended up connecting them.

The project will engage film nerds and music junkies alike. The former, for instance, should be interested in Polish-Russian Starevich, a forgotten pioneer in the world of stop-motion. From manipulating actual beetles to creating specialized puppets, he invented vivid worlds full of imagination and whimsy. "I don't think a lot of people really know about him," says Durand.

Like most musical collaborations, the process of concocting individual scores for the films was hard work, full of trial and error. "I try to steer away from a predictable score," Durand says. "You can get creative with what brings out the humor. We had to watch these films and, all together as a group, collaborate on what worked. [We] would think something worked well, and then we'd try it and [say], 'Nope, that totally loses the comedy.' It's been a really fun process."

Durand is particularly excited to employ a new instrument: the mbira. Invented in the U.S. by Bill Wesley and manufactured by California-based Array Instruments, it's a redesign of a smaller African instrument. With metal tines on a wooden frame, the Array mbira creates plucked tones similar to those of a kalimba.

"It's got this music-box sound to it," Durand says.

The performance is one of two live scored events the Flynn has commissioned for its 2018-19 season. In February, Montréal composer Sam Shalabi will present new live accompaniment for Herk Harvey's 1962 fright fest Carnival of Souls.

Says Durand: "I feel like this is the kind of thing that I could get hooked on — ensemble work with films."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Classic Silent Shorts Get New, Live Scores From Burlington Musicians"

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