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Keeping (silent) score

June 12, 2003|Tommy Nguyen | Special to The Times

THe Cinematic Orchestra lived up to its name when the six-member U.K.-based group was tapped three years ago for a role in the inaugural event celebrating Porto, Portugal's official year as European City of Culture.

The group, which formed a couple of years earlier with collective roots in jazz, hip-hop and electronic dance music, was asked to write and perform a new live score for the gala screening of Russian director Dziga Vertov's "Man With a Movie Camera," a 1929 silent documentary noted for its sophisticated filmmaking.

In one sense, it appeared to be an odd pairing of a contemporary band with a 70-year-old silent movie. But in another, it made perfect sense.

"Vertov wrote specific notes about the film's music," says the band's mastermind Jay Swinscoe. "He heard music as being quite repetitious, and so I instantly saw a connection with dance music. I started with that."

So along with Cinematic Orchestra's breathtaking strings, jazzy horns and delicate piano keys, the score features rabid break beats, turntable dexterity and techy loops and effects, much of it courtesy of member Patrick Carpenter of DJ Food fame.

"It was interesting to hear what other people have done," says Swinscoe, referring to other "Movie Camera" scores by Pierre Henry, the Alloy Orchestra, Biosphere and Michael Nyman. "But they seem to keep the film in the past, and I think it's nice to use contemporary technology and sound techniques to bring the movie forward."

Doing so turned into a hectic exercise in creativity.

"We only had four days in a rehearsal studio with a TV to watch the movie," Swinscoe says. "It was all a bit rushed. Then again, I didn't know how big the gig was going to be. I was expecting maybe 400 or 500 people."

In fact, the only sight that may have been more remarkable to the band than that of 3,500 people in Porto's renowned Coliseu theater sitting mesmerized by the film and its new score was the thunderous 10-minute standing ovation the audience offered at the end.

"The moment really sunk in," says Swinscoe, "and we just didn't want that feeling to go away."

News of the group's Porto appearance spread across Europe, and within a year it was fine-tuning its score for other screenings in Turkey and Scotland.

Swinscoe still couldn't let go of the experience when the group, which performs Monday at Spaceland, went into the studio last year to record its second album, "Everyday." The spatial future-jazz drama of "Motion," the group's debut album, had been lauded with adjectives usually reserved for film-noir intrigue and hard-boiled pursuits.

"Everyday" would make the band's connection to the reel world even more explicit: Two of the album's tracks were taken from the "Movie Camera" score and the rest of the album was influenced by Vertov as well.

In fact, the album's title refers to Vertov's film. A filmmaker who was suspicious of theatrical and literary traditions in movies and deeply preoccupied with the productivity of an idealized workers' society, Vertov set out to celebrate everyday people and machines in motion.

He did it with a style that was a precursor of cinema verite, though few would dispute that Vertov had fun, often wacky fun, manipulating his premise of reality: cheeky split-screen effects and stop-motion animation of prawns in a story that follows a cameraman as he wanders through fantasized utopias of the former Soviet cities of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa.

The film treats the repetitious interactions of people and machines with great reverence, and Vertov thought the music for his film should be ideologically committed in a similar way.

Now a new DVD of "Man With a Movie Camera," accompanied by Cinematic Orchestra's score, will be released Tuesday.

The band is on tour in support of the soundtrack album, but because of the cost of adding a string quartet and technicians to run the film, it will play the soundtrack live as the film screens in select cities (not in Los Angeles).

"We'll be playing some old stuff, some new stuff, along with songs from the soundtrack, though the arrangement will be different," says Swinscoe.

"And unlike the soundtrack performance, the live show will have a bit of improvising," says Swinscoe. "We'll be reacting to the energy of the crowd and what the crowd wants."

That's one thing you can't get at a movie screening.

*

Cinematic Orchestra

Where: Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake

When: Monday, 9 p.m.

Cost: $15

Info: (213) 833-2843

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