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Surreal Sounds 

by Marty Demarest


Images surround us. Buses pass by, plastered with advertisements and information designed to penetrate our thoughts as efficiently as possible. Magazines issue come-hither stares from sales racks, promising alluring content if we just turn the page. Posters and cardboard displays attempt to capture our attention long enough to make the next major motion picture seem filled with at least seven dollars' worth of intrigue.


But next time you're walking around downtown Spokane, take a moment and swing by the Met Theatre's row of window displays that run along Sprague. If you get there before the weekend, you might find yourself pausing to look a little closer than usual, and realizing that there was no dog in the movie poster for Cleopatra. Linger a moment longer, and you'll notice that even through it's Elizabeth Taylor's body reclining under Richard Burton's gaze, it's not her face. The one on display outside the Met belongs to Kendall Feeney, artistic director for the contemporary chamber music ensemble Zephyr. And with a graphic versatility akin to the real-world artist's work, her face also pops up on images taken from The Wizard of Oz, Modern Times and other classic films.


It's also a perfect representation of what's going to be taking place at the Met this Friday evening, when Zephyr will be performing live musical scores for three short films, injecting elements of localism and vitality into what might otherwise be a distant and static work of art.


While a performance of a live musical score for an otherwise silent film is a novelty today, it was the common practice for film screenings until the advent of motion-picture sound.


"All the big theaters had live orchestras and full scores for the films, until about 1927 or 1928," explains Bob Glatzer, film critic and director of the International Northwest Film Festival, with which Zephyr is collaborating for Friday's performance. "Smaller theaters had pianists or organists. And the studios would try to get the music to the theaters along with the film, but often it would arrive just in time, and the pianist or organist would have to pick through it the first time at the first screening. And you would hear music for the cavalry charge sometimes ahead of it appearing on screen, and sometimes it would run a little behind. Often the score would indicate that the musician should play something with a particular mood, but not provide any music for those passages. And in some ways, that was part of its charm and excitement."


With Friday night's films, however, Zephyr will be playing fully composed scores by major composers, in which details of coordination and effect have already been worked out. And since this is a collaboration between a film festival and a contemporary music group, the works driving the concert from the screen are some of the more vivid examples of artistic innovation in 20th-century film. An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou) was the result of the famous collaboration between the filmmaker Luis Bunuel and the surrealist Salvador Dali, which has managed to shock audiences with its blend of reality and nonsense. The Ren & eacute; Clair film Entr'acte is a comedy, also from a surreal perspective, in which Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Darius Milhaud and other notable French artists of the time seem to be playing with the concept of a moving image as much as anything else. And Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens' short masterpiece Rain creates an evocative, poetic pastoral with simple, literal images.


What intrigued Kendall Feeney the most, however, was how differently the music and the films came about in each case. "There were three films that I knew had interesting music -- some very different music. What was interesting about it, was that with one of the films, the music was contemporaneous. So the Eric Satie score that goes with Entr'acte was written for the film. The Hans Eisler score which goes with the Dutch film Rain was written about 12 years later -- the original score really did not do that great film justice. And then An Andalusian Dog is very interesting because you have a film for the '20s -- the famous surreal film -- and you have a score written in 1996, by the Argentinean composer Martin Matalon."


Nevertheless, some of the challenges faced by theater pianists and organists from the era of silent films are still around for the Zephyr musicians.


"There are still some issues that we're trying to work out," Feeney laughs. "For example, certain cuts of certain films were of different lengths, and Eisler was going with that cut rather than an extended cut. So it's a lot more work than simply a concert, but it's also something that I wanted to bring to the community -- these great films with great music. The films, when I watch them by themselves, there's a lot there, but the music makes it a much different experience, as one might imagine."


Glatzer agrees: "You're sitting in the theater, and hearing the sound that was composed for the film in the orchestration for the film, that was written by Eric Satie or a specific composer. And if you were to rent or borrow a tape of the film itself, you are very likely to get no music at all, or a later soundtrack that someone else composed some years afterwards. Most of this music that was composed for the film wasn't played once sound come in. Particularly in France, where two of these films come from, the films would survive and be screened, and the soundtracks would never be heard, because the films were very graphic and so strong visually. So they were often shown without a soundtrack at all, or with something cobbled together by an editor. So this is one of the few times that audiences will have the chance to sit in a theater and experience these films as the complete works of art that the filmmakers and composers intended them to be."

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