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."

Short-form composing

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

December 1998

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.

Silke Tudor,
SF Weekly
March 21–27, 2001