Live Music and Projected Film

Sam Green & Brent Green's “Live Cinema” matches film with live music performed by musicians who've played with Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up and Thee Silver Mt. Zion.

click to enlarge "Live Cinema" mixes a musical ensemble with short films. - PHOTO: Gayle Laird@Exploratorium.jpg
PHOTO: Gayle [email protected]
"Live Cinema" mixes a musical ensemble with short films.

The use of live music with film goes all the way back to the silent era of cinema, when an in-house player was used to provide a soundtrack to accompany on-screen action. Seven years ago, documentary filmmaker Sam Green had the brainstorm to revive the concept in order to create a one-of-a-kind movie experience that would be like a concert, with the performance and sequence of events never exactly replicated. He and collaborating filmmaker/animator/musician Brent Green (no relation), together with four musicians, will demonstrate the results in Live Cinema Saturday night at Memorial Hall; it is part of the Contemporary Arts Center’s performance series.

“I accidentally happened into it,” says Sam. “I was making a documentary about utopia, and it was sort of a complicated poem of a piece. I had these difference stories about utopia, one way or another, and there was no explanation or voiceover. To me, it was really interesting and I showed people a rough cut, and much to my chagrin, they said, ‘This makes no sense whatsoever.’

“And I was like, ‘Wow, shit!’ I was stuck, because I didn’t like films with narration. But someone said, ‘Would you do a presentation about your project in progress? Just show some clips and talk about it.’ And I said, ‘Sure, but that sounds boring so I’ll get my friend to do live music. It will be a very fancy PowerPoint presentation.’

“And I did that, and the funny thing was that it worked the way I wanted the film to work. People got it. They hung out afterward and it was great. Then someone else asked me to do the presentation, and at a certain point I (thought), ‘Well, I never heard of a live movie before but maybe that’s the form this one should take.’ ”

As a result, Sam premiered the film Utopia in Four Movements with live musical accompaniment at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and wound up touring the world with that presentation for the next two years. One of his more recent productions was 2012’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, a film about the renowned architect and futurist, with a collaborative soundtrack by iconic Indie Rock trio Yo La Tengo.

Sam’s current touring presentation is titled A Thousand Thoughts, created in collaboration with the internationally known Kronos Quartet. They are at Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts on Thursday. But due to scheduling conflicts and the difficulty in setting up the production, Kronos couldn’t follow Sam for his Cincinnati debut, and so he and Brent Green have concocted another multimedia presentation just for local audiences.

“Brent is an animator and musician and an old friend of mine and we’ve both been doing live cinema separately for many years,” Sam says. “So we have always compared notes and exchanged tips. A couple years ago, one of us said — and I don’t even remember who at this point — ‘Why don’t we put together a program where we share a band and alternate doing little live narration/short films?’ And it sounded like a good idea so we tried it.

“My stuff is very documentary and Brent’s is more animation and kooky and wild, almost like music in a way. He’s almost like a singer. But for some inexplicable reason, one plus one is three. There’s a synergy that changes both of our work and makes it something else. Audiences seem to dig it, which I’m always pleasantly surprised by.”

A good part of the success of any of the duo’s live cinema offerings hinges on the band. The one assembled for the CAC show is beyond reproach: former Fugazi drummer/multi-instrumentalist Brendan Canty; his brother James Canty, guitarist for The Make-Up and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists; Rebecca Foo, former Thee Silver Mt. Zion cellist/vocalist; and Kate Ryan. Together they create an appropriate musical bed for the imagery.

“It’s a great band and we have a ton of fun,” Sam says. “And the pieces are just short little ditties. Brent has a piece about the woman who sewed the spacesuit for the dog that was sent into space by the Russians in the late ’50s. He grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and he’s got some pieces about his crazy family; there’s one about his grandfather chopping off his fingers accidentally.”

Sam’s pieces are also narratives that document the stories of subjects like the oldest person in the world or Jazz icon Louis Armstrong’s personal archive. In the 1950s and ’60s, Armstrong would record himself hanging out with friends; Sam listened to the tapes and drew inspiration from them. There’s also a tale about the last person in the San Francisco phone book.

“There’s a wide range of topics, but hopefully people will laugh, cry and leave the theater a little different than when they came in,” he says.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Live Cinema — other than the Greens’ dueling narrations, which Sam compares to a Rap battle — is the ephemeral and singular nature of the performance. It’s completely different from the “repeat as necessary” construct of every other cinematic experience.

“I kept coming back to this form because it had so much potential,” Sam says. “You’re using the tools of cinema at their most refined — live music, not just pre-recorded music, and huge images on the screen, not just a window on your computer. It’s the kind of thing where people know it’s never going to be the same twice and that you could fuck up, so there’s a certain frisson that comes with that. I don’t want to sound like a New Ager or a hippie, but the energy in the room is profoundly different when there’s somebody playing music live.”

Brent Green & Sam Green: Live Cinema occurs 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. Tickets/more info: contemporaryartscenter.org.

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