Regular readers are probably already familiar with the Fushigi Kenkyūkai collective of film and sound artists. This past fall they prepared a program based on “live” improvised accompaniment to silent films. The program consisted of a “main feature,” Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, preceded by two short films by Man Ray (“Le Retour à la Raison”) and Maya Deren (“At Land”). The improvised music was provided by the sextet of Jorge Bachmann (electronics), Beth Custer (various sizes of clarinets and vocals), Tom Djll (surrealist prepared trumpet), Joe Lasqo (keyboards, objects, and computer software), David Michalak (performing as D. Skatchit on skatchbox and lap steel guitar), and Tom Nunn (who performs as T. Skatchit with Michalak and plays a panoply of invented instruments). The result was successful enough that Fushigi Kenkyūkai was invited to Second Act to give a second performance.
Next week the group will return to PianoFight with a new program. Once again, there will be a main feature preceded by two shorts. The main feature will be Jean Cocteau’s 55-minute film The Blood of a Poet, which would be the first of the three films in the cycle he called The Orphic Trilogy. (The following two films were Orphée and Testament of Orpheus.) This film was released with a score by Georges Auric, one of the six composers brought together by Cocteau as a group known as Les Six. However, because the film consists entirely of sequences without dialogue, it may be screened with alternative soundtracks. The shorts will be Fernand Léger’s “Ballet Mécanique” and another Maya Deren film, “Meshes of the Afternoon.”
Many will probably recognize “Ballet Mécanique” as the title of a composition by George Antheil. This was originally conceived as accompaniment for Léger’s film. However, Antheil’s score ran for about 30 minutes, while the duration of Léger’s film is 19. As a result the two were never shown together in the lifetimes of either filmmaker or composer.
Getting the music performed at all was a major undertaking. Antheil scored it for sixteen player pianos in four parts, two regular pianos, three xylophones, at least seven electric bells, three airplane propellers, a siren, four bass drums, and one tam-tam (Chinese gong). Antheil eventually realized that synchronizing sixteen player pianos was an impossible task. He therefore combined the four parts into a single set of piano rolls and added six instruments to the two regular pianos to make up the difference. The original version was eventually performed in 1999 when the Percussion Ensemble at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell used MIDI control to keep sixteen Disklaviers synchronized. That performance was originally released on CD, but on Amazon.com it is now only available for download.
At the Fushigi Kenkyūkai performance, on the other hand, all accompaniment for the three films will be improvised. The performers will be Jorge Bachmann (electronics), Beth Custer (vocals and clarinets of different sizes), Bryan Day (invented instruments), Thomas Dimuzio (electronics), Tom Djll (prepared trumpet), Joe Lasqo (keyboards, laptop, and objects), David Michalak (lap steel guitar and skatchbox), and Suki O’Kane (percussion). As was the case at the fall concert, the performers will be placed between the audience and the screen. Thus, improvisation will be based on their visual awareness of the images and their auditory awareness of each other’s playing.
This performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23. The performance is expected to last 90 minutes. PianoFight is located at 144 Taylor Street, just south of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, west of Powell Street Station for both BART and Muni, and north of the Center for New Music. Tickets will be $20 at the door but $15 if purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page. That Web page also offers a discount of $5 per ticket for groups of four or more. For those interested in eating before the show, the restaurant opens at 5 p.m., and there are no drink minimums. Those wishing further information can call PianoFight at 415-816-3691.