Atash Revamps “The Unknown” Silent Film Project

Written by Roberto Paolo Riggio, Atash Musical Director

In 1999, when we were still called “The Gypsies”–not to be confused with the Houston-based group of the same name–we were approached by the folks at Alamo Drafthouse (which was almost brand-new at the time) about composing music for a rare silent film that they had managed to get hold of.  It was Tod Browning’s 1927 film The Unknown, a dark, psychological story that takes place in a Spanish Gypsy circus. We had been through a lot of changes very recently when that project was given to us.  This was really one of the moments that cemented my becoming the new musical director of the group, and it also helped us to fashion the compositional approach and the sound that would become the hallmarks of Atash.

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Working with a videotape copy of the movie, we spent weeks watching the film and coming up with musical ideas which revolved around the mood of the film and the relationships between the characters.  At first we tried to through-compose it like a film score that is an indelible part of a movie’s soundtrack.  However, we found it worked better to create parameters for improvisation within a solid structure that adhered to the structure of the film.  In other words, we knew what was supposed to happen, musically, in each scene, but we didn’t prescribe it note-for-note. We allowed the players to improvise, perhaps using a fragmentary melody, or a certain scale or mode, or rhythmic elements.

This turned out to be a very lucky approach for us, as when we attended the first rehearsal in the downtown theater, with the projection, we discovered that the pacing was completely different from what we had been accustomed to!  They were using the old style crank projectors with reels of film which had to be switched on the fly while the movie was being projected, so there was always the possibility that, besides the movie moving along at a slower or faster pace than you were used to, a whole chunk of it might suddenly get cut out when they were switching from one reel to another.  We did not use any kind of written notation, but used only visual cues to play our parts, which, as I said, were based upon the characters and what was going on psychologically in the movie–so this approach worked well.

Because of the deeply psychological nature of the drama, we were really able to explore an interesting musical approach, which became formative in forging a style and sound that defines us not just in the context of this project, but in the way we make music in general.  We thought about the way that intervals affect the listener, whether they be melodic or harmonic intervals.  We borrowed scales from Indian ragas and Arabic maqamat (modes), which are linear and melodic, and changed their context by altering the bass notes underneath them to reflect changes in the feelings that were going on on the screen.  We’d juxtapose the scales and/or melodies associated with the different characters in different ways, sometimes transposing them to create different harmonies, which also reflected the drama.

We used a lot of western orchestral textural techniques with the string instruments, and rhythmic devices from various cultures.  Anyone who has been a longtime fan of our music will recognize some of the melodies we used for the film, and might think we simply used our existing songs to build the score, but it was actually the other way round.  We composed those songs after creating the score, basically taking those melodies we used for the film and weaving them into song structures.

When the Austin Chamber Music Center came to us this year with the idea of having us perform it with their students, we jumped at the chance, but we knew we’d have our work cut out for us.  First of all, it had been many years since we’d done it, and, since we didn’t write anything down, we had to remember what we had done.  Then, we had to figure out how to integrate the students, all classically-trained musicians who usually have notated parts in front of them.  It wasn’t easy!

We decided to give them a little training in our methodology–we talked to them about scales and intervals and what musical elements we had chosen to represent the various characters and emotions; we gave them theme sheets with the various themes and bass lines written out so that they could memorize; we offered them a chance to get comfortable with listening to the kinds of exotic scales we were using, thinking of them in terms of the psychological and dramatic effects of the intervals, and allowing them a chance to improvise using those scales.  However, time was very short.  It also was necessary to set and orchestrate certain passages in a way which used less improvisation.   After all, a group of 23 people improvising could easily get to be a huge mess!  So I created a complete score.  In some passages, it would be more vague, where everyone basically had the same thing to look at, and they would choose what they wanted to play; if I wanted dissonance and suspense, I’d have a group of specific notes that they could play, but would allow each person to choose which of those notes, when, and how they would play them; at other times, I’d have all of their parts fully written out, but would allow some nuance to be brought to them within certain parameters.

John Moon, our other violinist and the Director of Orchestras at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, played a pivotal role by conducting the performance.  In the original performances at Alamo, he played violin, while I played a combination of violin, viola, oud, and guitar.  This time, we discovered early on that he would need to devote himself entirely to conducting, as the kids (and the band!) really depended on him for entrances and tempos.  There were a lot of elements to pull together.  He and I rehearsed the young people for two weeks, but we only had one rehearsal with the full band!  The band operated in a completely different way, without sheet music at all, and going on what we were feeling within certain structure–so the two groups needed to be reconciled and sorted out by a central figure.

The results were fantastic.  At the end of the show, we all got a chance to let loose a little bit with the performance of an Atash tune, “Nocturnalia,” with solos by band members and students alike, including John.  It was a growing and fun experience for everyone involved, and I think we all agree that we’d love to do it again. I hope our neighbors can join us for an Atash performance soon!

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