by Jeff Roth
For some, synchronized sound was the
death knell for film as a creative medium. Once the human voice was
married to the motion picture image the image itself was forever sacrificed
to the word, to verbal exposition. From that time forward, movies have
emulated the narrative language of novels and plays and have veered
away from purely visual storytelling.
Almost from the beginning, filmmakers made use of
the visceral interplay between live music and dancing images. "Silent"
films were never really silent; they were accompanied by original scores
played by a lone pianist or a full orchestra. While it might be considered
extreme to think that The Jazz Singer was the beginning of the
end of film as a medium for artistic expression, it does provoke some
thought about other possibilities, about nonverbal ways in which moving
images can move us.
These memories were all brought back to me very powerfully
not too long ago when I attended a truly transcendent show at the Red
Vic in San Francisco. The six-piece Sprocket Ensemble, led by composer
Nik Phelps, played live to a program of animation which included works
by No Nothing filmmakers Rock Ross, Michael Rudnick and Marion Wallace.
The spirit of the late No Nothing filmmaker Dean Snider was also present;
his poem, "Things I'd Say, If I Were the Pope, '' was the inspiration
for the Rudnick/Wallace Race collaboration of the Same name. Also included
in the show were works by animators Nina Paley, Jason Shiga, Drew King,
Joe e Davis, Sara Petty, Scott Kravitz and Jane Aaron.
This kind of show features free-form emotion and sound/picture
juxtaposition at their best, with real, live musicians filling the room
with a resonance that no THX/ Dolby/SDDS/surround/ultrastereo/subwoofer
contraption can approximate. Period. You just can't do it. Throw several
hundred thousand dollars at designing, building and equipping a listening
room, and it won't even come close. Believe me, I've done it more than
once. I prize an accurate mix room; it's my daily surroundings. But
mechanical reproduction can't touch live, human creative energy and
being in a room with sound waves emanating from brass, wood, horsehair,
catgut and vibrating bamboo reeds.
The vibrating reeds and brass in this case are played
by Phelps, Sprocket Ensemble's founder and composer. Phelps switches
between saxophones, clarinets, oboe, English horn, French horn and trumpet.
He is usually accompanied by Carla Kihlstedt on violin, Marika Hughes
on cello, Matt Small on bass and A.C. Lewis on drums and mallet instruments.
(The night I saw the Ensemble Chris Sipe was on drums, Jenny Scheinman
on violin, Ward Spangler on marimba and Zachariah Spellman on tuba.)
Phelps calls his combo "chamber music for the 21st century."
Phelps, background includes five and
studio work for artists as diverse as Lou Rawls, Wayne Newton, George
Burns, Frank Zappa and Tom Waits. His intro to composing for film came
through his work with the legendary Club Foot Orchestra, which he joined
in '89, just in time to work with them on their score for Fritz Lang's
Metropolis. Before Phelps' arrival Club Foot had carved out a
niche and a loyal following by performing its original scores for classic
silent films like The Cabinet Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.
Before Metropolis came around, Club Foot composers Richard Marriott
and Gino Ribera had been.' sharing the writing chores.. However Metropolis
was the product of six composers. An 11-piece orchestra toured with
the film, performing in New York-at Lincoln Center and the Knitting
Factory. When the Club Foot Orchestra ceased activity, Phelps founded
the Sprocket Ensemble to continue this quirky tradition, this time with
an emphasis on short, animated films.
Phelps' writing for animation got off to a running
start when CFO alumnus Ribera became the musical director for 13 episodes
of "The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat" for CBS television,
and brought the Club Foot Orchestra in to do the scoring. Again sharing
the composition duties, the group often had only days to produce the
tracks for each half-hour show. In 1996 Phelps was nominated for an
Annie by the International Animation Film Society for two songs he wrote
for the "Felix" series.
Flying in the face of incessant synchronization, Phelps
continues his experimental collaboration with musicians, animators and
filmgoers every month at the Minna Street Gallery. Contact the Sprocket
Ensemble at (415) 681-3189 for dates and times.
It should also be noted that the spirit of the No
Nothing Cinema is alive and well; it has been rebuilt at a new location
and is now known as the New Nothing. For more information call Rock
Ross at (415) 861-6953.
Jeff Roth is the owner-operator
of Focused Audio and a partner in One Union Recording Studios, an all-digital
audio post facility specializing in sound for the advertising community
House of Tudor
After the Foley artist, the soundtrack
composer runs a close second in my sound-centric heart. In animated
films, such music often supplies both the score and the Foley effects,
giving characters their unrealized leitmotivs and drawing emotion out
of potentially stagnant scenes. On Fetch!, a collection of pieces composed
and performed for short animation by Nik Phelps and the Sprocket Ensemble,
you can practically hear rubber balls bouncing across the titular song.
Over the course of the record, the Ensemble draws tongue-wagging dogs
with steel guitar and clarinet, colors insufferable felines with flute
and cello, paints children fighting with water-phones, and enlivens
wise men with violins. Fetch! bounds through live and Studio recordings
of classical, jazz, klezmer, and Western styles - all highlighted by
decidedly 'toony tones - offering true delights for fans of the Lounge
Lizards or Henry Mancini.
March 2127, 2001