Film and music have gone together since the early days when silent films were accompanied by an organist in old-time movie houses.
As viewers and listeners, we expect movies — even documentaries — to have some form of soundtrack. It may be a collection of hopeful hit singles or a full-on film score that helps viewers navigate the emotional journey of the scene or film or a single catchy tune for a montage.
For most moviegoers, watching a film without any musical accompaniment would be a noticeably weird experience.
For many years, various composers and musicians have periodically taken on the challenge of writing new music for classic silent films. Classical music mavericks the Kronos Quartet toured with a score of the original Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi that contemporary composer Philip Glass wrote. Guitarist/composer Bill Frisell wrote music for two of comedian Buster Keaton’s silent films.
In 2012, Akron Film+Pixel took the idea and recruited several area musicians to provide a new score for the 1920 German expressionist horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the event was successful enough for them to do it again.
This year, AF+P has chosen another silent film classic (i.e. something in the public domain), Aelita: Queen of Mars, the 1924 Russian film that was one of the first full-length sci-fi films.
The screening will take place at Akron-Summit County Public Library, 60 S. Main St., Akron, at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“Silent-film scoring is a pretty popular activity for film societies to do,” Akron Film+Pixel Executive Director Steve Felix said.
While these kinds of silent-film scoring projects often involve musicians playing along during the screening, AF+P is using a recorded soundtrack that will be mixed and synced to the film by composer Jacob Trombetta and Felix, a local musician, composer and producer, and singer/guitarist of the band Comfort Clouds.
“We wanted to involve more groups of people so we thought recorded music would be better than trying to do it all live,” Felix said. “Akron is a music town first and foremost so we needed to involve musicians, but it was just too daunting to have 20 musicians trying to do it live.”
For the Caligari soundtrack, AF+P put out an open invitation to the public, but for Aelita, the organization chose to go the invitation route. It culled 23 artists and bands, gave them each scenes a few minutes long from the 113-minute film and let them go at it with no artistic restrictions.
The list of contributing artists includes several returnees from last year’s event plus some new blood. Moviegoers will hear short pieces by ShiSho, the May Company, Ultrasphinx, Corey “Baloo” Farrow, the Speedbumps, Light of the Loon, Karl Vorndran, Relaxer, Gabe Schray, Kevin Coral, Trombetta and others.
The film plays like an early communist manifesto. Its hero, a young engineer named Los, becomes obsessed with Aelita, daughter of the dictatorial ruler of Mars, who is able to watch Los through a telescope.
Eventually, Los builds a spaceship and travels to Mars, where he and Aelita are imprisoned by the Martian dictator.
Together, the inter-species couple rally and then lead a revolution of the prisoners (proletariat) against the ruling body, leaving Aelita as the new queen who then also becomes a dictator whom Los tries to stop.
Felix said that the scenes were randomly assigned to the artists, meaning some folks have more interesting scenes than others.
The dark, macabre piano and vocal harmony-driven sound of Light of the Loon would seem to be a perfect match for the expressionist visuals of the film, and the band’s Amy Heisei is an aspiring filmmaker who participated last year. Their scene features aliens and earthlings co-mingling.
Singer/guitarist Sharon Possibly said it was a challenge to come up with their mostly instrumental piece, “but if you have a good editor, it can be less challenging. It seems a little freer for playing around with mood making. With our regular songs, especially, I can get stuck on an idea and have a hard time figuring out how to bring it all together.”
The smart and fun teenage sister duo ShiSho also participated last year but were unhappy with their offering. “Of course, we had a lot of grand ideas for the piece, but they never really panned out,” singer/guitarist Vivian Ramone said. “It was uncomfortable to watch it with everyone in the theater, because it was exactly what you’d expect from ShiSho. Maybe even a bit lower quality than what you would expect.
“Not this year, though,” she continued. “This year, we were more confident; stretched ourselves creatively and actually finished our piece early.”
Ramone, a dedicated fan of local music, agrees with Felix assessment of the combination of art and music that fuels a lot of Akron’s creativity.
“It’s really cool because there’s this intertwined art and music scene in Akron. You can see it a lot at the First Night events that happen downtown, and in the independent shops in the [Highland] Square and the Northside and all those types of places,” she said.
“Everyone’s helping everyone, and it’s a pretty tight-knit group of people. I think projects like these are only strengthening the sense of community and bringing creatives together.”
The AF+P has no plans for an official soundtrack release but hopes to follow last year’s example and put the fully scored Aelita: Queen of Mars on YouTube after the screening.