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Scoring The Silence
Metavari and Metropolis launch 'Sound & Shadow' Series premiere At Cinema Center
By J. Hubner
Fort Wayne Reader
There's very few moments in cinematic history as relevant and game-changing as Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The futuristic, 1927 science fiction film blew open minds with its — at the time — impressive special effects and engaging story line about love, loss, and the struggle between man, machine, and where humanity fit in between them. Lang's vision has been the inspiration for countless films since, Blade Runner being one standout. It's metallic, industrialized landscape inspired not only the vision of the future, but the sound of it. Countless generations of musicians would imagine a futurized noise that could be coerced to create beauty and glorious atmosphere all from tubes, circuits, and the manipulation of sound waves. Names like Buchla, Moog, Oberheim, ARP, and Korg gave us the sound of the future in the analog synthesizer.
With Metropolis being a silent film, it lends itself open to aural interpretation. The Cinema Center saw an opportunity to allow local musicians to reinterpret silent films by re-scoring them in a new series called Sound & Shadow. The first of the series will be premiering on September 24th at the Cinema Center with Metarvari re-scoring, yes, Fritz Lang's silent age sci fi classic.
According to the Cinema Center's press release: "As part of Cinema Center’s Art House Theater Day celebration, the film organization will launch its silent film series - Sound & Shadow, with local electronic musician Metavari performing a live score and soundtrack to the science-fiction epic Metropolis, on Saturday, September 24th, at 7pm."
And according to the Cinema Center's Jonah Crismore: "We cannot think of a more appropriate way to showcase what makes venues like Cinema Center so special on Art House Theater Day than watching Fritz Lang’s masterful science-fiction film Metropolis on the big screen, with an enthusiastic audience, while listening to a score provided by Metavari,”
I spoke with both the Cinema Center's Jonah Crismore and Metavari's Nate Utesch about the September 24th show and how it all came together. First up, Jonah and I discuss how the Sound & Shadow series came about.
J. Hubner: So tell me about the 'Sound & Shadow' series at the Cinema Center. What is it?
Jonah Crismore: Sound & Shadow is a series of silent films screened in September, October, November and January. On September 24th we will show Metropolis with Metavari performing a live score, then Christine Taylor and Andrea Atwood of Lost Lakes will play a live score to the spooky pseudo documentary Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages on October 28th for Halloween. For the next installment Hope Arthur will perform to Man with a Movie Camera, and finally Cinema Center will show the classic silent animated film Adventures of Prince Achmed with local artist Kurt Roembke creating a soundtrack and score to the film.
J. Hubner: Where did the concept come from?
Jonah Crismore: The concept came from the fact that the films we call "silent" never were really silent. There were always accompaniment from an organist, piano or sometimes an ensemble, usually performing music provided by the studios.
With Sound & Shadow, we at Cinema Center were looking for a way to make these classic silent films contemporary. Many of the film concepts found within these films have shaped genres and the medium, as a whole, and it is important that they are seen by today's audiences. Think about "Metropolis," which has a look and story that has influenced every science fiction film since, from everything from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to "Alien" to "Blade Runner." A film like "Metropolis" is very much alive, and this fact is experienced through modern music.
J. Hubner: How did you decide on the musicians that would be participating in the series? Were they given options as to which films they were going to score, or were the films catering to the artists and/or vice versa?
Jonah Crismore: The process of pairing films and with musicians was an organic experience. Nate Utesch of Metavari very much wanted to score Metropolis and it made complete sense that this film set in a future, but as created by artists in the 1920s, would be scored and performed by an electronic band. This was a similar background for Adventures of Prince Achmed, which was brought to me by Kurt Roembke.
There was more of a discussion about Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages with Andrea and Christine of Lost Lakes. I gave a few suggestions, they gave a few suggestions and when we both thought of Haxan, it was like the light bulbs went off for all of us.
Cinema Center was lucky to have Hope Arthur perform a live score to Battleship Potemkin the last silent film series and because she knocked that Soviet silent film out of the park, we thought it would be fun for her to take on Dziga Vertov's fragmented montage patchwork of a documentary about Soviet life Man with a Movie Camera.
J. Hubner: Let's talk about the first show in the Sound & Shadow series, Metropolis being scored by Metavari which is coming up on September 24th at the Cinema Center. Now, did you do any research regarding past showings involving musicians re-scoring Metropolis live? I'm curious if there have been any other interesting attempts at re-scoring this film. It seems like the ideal candidate.
Jonah Crismore: Metropolis is such a popular and interesting film. Most people consider it one of the first science fiction films. Most people, even if they aren't particularly into film history, still are at least somewhat familiar with the imagery of the movie. While I am aware of other takes on modern live scores to "Metropolis," deciding on this film happened because of the passion that Nate Utesch displayed in wanting to perform it at Cinema Center.
J. Hubner: So when discussing the project with Nate, did you have any words of advice or guidelines you wanted him to follow when writing this piece? Or did you let Nate take the reigns and go for it?
Jonah Crismore: When it comes to "Metropolis," and all the films in Sound & Shadow, we wanted the musicians to have full artistic freedom. There were no guidelines or words of advice because Cinema Center only asked truly professional musicians to participate in the series.
J. Hubner: During the writing process, have you had any previews? Any work-in-process listens? Or will your first time experiencing the music be September 24th?
Jonah Crismore: I am excited to experience the film and the music on September 24th for the first time with an audience.
J. Hubner: Can you give me an idea of what this first experience is going to be like? What can people expect at the Cinema Center on Sept. 24th?
Jonah Crismore: This experience is not going to be like anything else in our theater. It is going to be part concert, with the soundscapes and score reverberating the entire venue. But, it is all for the benefit of the story shown in Metropolis. At Cinema Center we say that we offer a "more than a movie" experience, and that is exactly what is going to happen on September 24th.
J. Hubner: After the Metavari/Metropolis show, there are three more shows planned with three more amazing Fort Wayne artists coming up in October, November, and January. Could you see this becoming a yearly or bi-yearly event?
Jonah Crismore: Because of how long it takes musicians to score films, most of the musicians have been working on their films for over a year, we have to take all that hard work into account. We are completely open to it being an annual event, but so far, it has worked out as a biannual work.
Next, I talk with Nate Utesch of Metavari about how he got involved in the 'Sound & Shadow' series and the process he went through scoring the cinematic classic Metropolis.
J. Hubner: So Nate, how did you get involved in the 'Sound & Shadow series?
Nate Utesch: Around August of last year Jonah approached Metavari about the idea and the series as a whole. He told us about the bands who had done it previously—End Times Spasm Band doing Nosferatu, Hope Arthur doing Battleship Potemkin and Fernando Tarango performing alongside short Christmas films. Metropolis was the absolute first thing that came to mind, but Ty Brinneman (live bassist) and I sifted through a bunch of silent Horror films just in case—knowing that horror or sci-fi or a collision of the two was going to be our top pick. Nothing struck a chord quite like Metropolis so we pulled the trigger.
J. Hubner: So talk to me about the process of scoring such a monumental piece of not only film, but science fiction. Where do you start? How long was the composing and arranging process? It seems like it could've been an overwhelming task.
Nate Utesch: This was the largest undertaking that I've ever been a part of. Without a doubt. To date (granted, I have at least a month of mixing left) it's taken me about 15 months. I decided early on that I'd approach this like a lot of my favorite soundtracks — stretches of sweeping soundscapes and ambient composition juxtaposed with shorter traditional songs. Sort of that score vs. soundtrack scenario. For example, that moment in Risky Business where we are jarred out of Tangerine Dream's masterpiece and all of sudden Tom Cruise is sucking face on a subway train soundtracked by Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Holy Moses, help me back to my feet, if that's not perfect! Since Metropolis is, of course, silent I knew that I wouldn't be able to get a breather during long stretches of dialogue or natural sound from the film itself. So weaving in and out of "songs" vs. "scoring" was the earliest bullet point on what I wanted to accomplish. The rest of my process involved a minute by minute spreadsheet of the entire film, cataloging the ebb and flow, shifts in scenes, plus all reoccurring themes. This is what I used for the better part of the next year, both in developing those stand-alone songs and the score itself.
Listening to it, one may disagree, but I think I was careful not to use every tool in the toolbox. As a, more or less, "laptop producer," it can be easy and yet so damning to use all the sounds that are so readily at your fingertips. Overloading your work so heavily that it doesn't really sound like anything. I chose only a small handful of synthesizers for this project and intentionally wrote as if those were the only instruments in front of me. In addition to some sparse live drums, an alto saxophone and my voice, the stars of the show for me were the sounds of a 1981 ARP Odyssey Mark III and a 1982 LinnDrum for virtually all drum sequencing.
J. Hubner: Going into this process, besides Lang's work itself, what was inspiring you? What were you feeding your head and ears to fuel this music project? Did you have any Vangelis-like aspirations? In my mind Blade Runner and it's look always felt like a modern take on Lang's work, so I would (wrongly) gravitate towards that sound.
Nate Utesch: The score is often more than half the battle for me in that first impression of a film. As much as I love watching movies, I am absolutely obsessed with soundtracks. Synth heavy backdrops from the 70s and 80s, and composers like John Carpenter, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder. The world has sort of found itself in the middle of a resurgent love for all this madness (which is slightly annoying for the bratty adolescent in me that wants to keep track of "who liked it first"). But at the end of the day it just made my life wildly rich with inspiration during this process. Since Day 1 of this thing called, "Metavari," that has always been my inspiration, but this certainly was motivation to finally wear it on my sleeve more visibly.
J. Hubner: Prior to this, were you a fan of Metropolis? Are you a sci fi guy?
Nate Utesch: Funny enough, I first watched Metropolis in high school. It was the 1984 restoration/re-release of the film with a re-score by Giorgio Moroder. I knew nothing about the movie and hadn't ever heard of Giorgio. I only watched it because Freddie Mercury had a song in the soundtrack. I thought it sucked. Didn't understand the movie, hated the soundtrack and Freddie's song was super lame. 10 years later, Giorgio had coincidentally become sort of a hero to me. I came across Metropolis again and was dumbfounded that the movie I had dismissed all those years ago was actually re-scored by this legend. I loved the movie on second watch, but still hated Giorgio's soundtrack. Now nearly 10 more years later, my favorite version of the movie is the 2010 restoration with the original orchestral score. And almost 20 years after I first watched it, I've spent more than a year of my life re-scoring it. Just insane. Huge sci fi guy. All in.
J. Hubner: How do you feel about the finished piece, musically speaking? Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?
Nate Utesch: I do feel like I accomplished what I set out to do. And amazingly, a condensed cut of this material is going to be Metavari's next record. While it's hard to firmly say I'm happy with every last second of it, top to bottom, I can say I am really proud. My left-brain was able to run wild in the aid of the organization of it all. And I had space for the rest of me to take it slow. There were stretches of weeks where I was just improvising on a single instrument and working on a single scene for days.
J. Hubner: What did you learn from this experience?
Nate Utesch: Wildly therapeutic, honestly. Being limited to not only the timing of the film, but even the movements of characters and emotions of a scene on screen was an incredible way to work. I'd do this for the rest of my life, could I be so lucky.
J. Hubner: If you could do this again, is there another film you'd like to attempt to re-score? If so, why that film?
Nate Utesch: It's hard not to choose something without it feeling blasphemous to the creator, but if I had to pick something it'd probably be Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain or David Lynch's Eraserhead. Also, the last few weeks I've been daydreaming about re-scoring a single episode of The X-Files and releasing that as a record.
The first in the 'Sound & Shadow' series premieres on September 24th at 7pm with Metavari and Metropolis at Fort Wayne's Cinema Center.
$15 for general admission and $10 for Cinema Center members. And keep up with Cinema Center for the future 'Sound & Shadow' shows, as well as many other great events they have in store.
And let's hope for the X-Files re-scoring.