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In Performance: new music for old movies

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The period between Halloween and Hanukkah forms a perfect pocket in which to view The Golem, director Paul Wegener's 1920 silent marvel of German expressionism. Based on ancient Hebrew folklore, The Golem is part monster flick, part religious epic. It concerns a Czech rabbi who creates an outsize clay "robot"--which some people think of as the "Jewish Frankenstein"--to protect the residents of his ghetto from state-sponsored pogroms. When he needs to awaken the slumbering giant he uses--instead of a bat signal or supersonic watch-radio--the Hebrew word for "truth," which he inscribes upon the Golem's forehead.

I've seen The Golem twice: once without any sound track, and then at the 1989 Next Wave Festival in New York, which offered a short series of newly scored silent films. This time The Golem featured a dense, brooding, and preternaturally effective sound track designed by guitarist and noisemeister Gary Lucas. Lucas managed to capture the story's oppressive context with music that drew equally upon eternal mythography and postindustrial improvisation. By the time of that performance, the idea of matching silent films with new music had already attracted Michael Dorf, proprietor of the Knitting Factory, one of the busiest programmers of new jazz and performance in New York.

In 1988 the Knitting Factory had presented F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh with music created by Steve Nieve (of Elvis Costello's band). Ever since, the Knitting Factory has offered such occasional mixed-media events; last year these blossomed into a weekly Sunday night series, and this year Dorf began touring Europe with a half-dozen films--including The Golem, with Gary Lucas's music--under the catchy title "Loud Music Silent Film." (Next week's visit to Chicago will represent only the second U.S. appearance of the series outside New York.) The gist remains unchanged: take some classic films from the pretalkie era, hand them over to some of the most inventive artists on New York's downtown music scene, and watch the resultant sparks span the century.

Of course, the silent films of the teens and 20s--although they lacked any mechanically reproducible sound track--were rarely shown silently: live music, most often in the form of a pianist or organist, usually accompanied them. "Loud Music Silent Film" updates the tradition; and the anachronistic nature of these collaborations makes them plenty appealing for these postmodern times.

So bassist Mark Dresser's trio--comprising Anthony Coleman on prepared piano and the versatile and often stunning trumpeter Dave Douglas--dips into a broad range of musical techniques to match the groundbreaking imagery of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Robert Wiene's 1919 masterpiece depicts a young man's descent into madness; Dresser's music, which appears on a 1994 CD (Knitting Factory Works), weaves its own tales of horror, delights both dark and light, and impending discovery.

Another of the same label's "sound-track albums" presents the equally appropriate music composed by Liminal--an effects-heavy postambient trio--in response to F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. This first cinematic rendering (1922) of Bram Stoker's Dracula is nearly as operatic as Coppola's version some 75 years later, and a good deal scarier. Liminal, which started life in 1994 as a group called Asshole-Savant, mixes guitar effects, tape loops, sampled sounds, and loads of sequencing into a sound they call "ill-bient," and it makes for more than adequate Halloween listening.

Stuart Paton's 1916 filming of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea usually gets kudos as cinema's first true special-effects "spectacular"; songwriter Rebecca Moore brings smoldering vocals and darkly whimsical imagery to bear on the adventures conceived in the previous century by Jules Verne. Keyboardist Anthony Coleman has used a genre-hopping approach to composition in scoring Sunrise, a 1927 American film directed by Murnau that won a special Academy Award for "artistic quality of production" (whatever that meant). Witchcraft Through the Ages, Swedish director Benjamin Christensen's semidocumentary depiction of a pagan ritual, has been described as a "handbook of diabolism"; it gets the sound treatment from dancer and vocalist Judith Ren-Lay.

Most of the films chosen fall into the general arena of German expressionism; given the Gothic expressionism that has permeated so much modern art here on the eve of the millennium, perhaps it's not surprising that these musicians have found a common ground with such films. These silents may already be golden, but they gain an extra luster in these unique collaborations.

"Loud Music Silent Film" starts at 8 PM this Tuesday with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Sunrise, and The Golem; it concludes at 8 PM Wednesday with Witchcraft Through the Ages, Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Each show costs $10 at the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield; 472-0449 or 559-1212.

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