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Music Notes: films scored while you watch


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Film music can be a narrative tool, heightening the drama on-screen. Free improviser Ken Vandermark plans to turn the traditional role of film music on its head with his upcoming mixed-media series Chicago Eye and Ear Control. Joined by some of Chicago's finest improvising musicians from the rock, experimental, and jazz scenes, he'll create instant sound tracks to a variety of films. "Some purists might not be happy with what we're doing because there isn't going to be any sound from the original films," says Vandermark. "And it's not going to be the old organ-accompanying-the-silent-film thing."

A few years ago Vandermark organized Head Exam, a monthly series of free-improvisation concerts in which musicians improvise without any precepts to guide them and focus more on interaction and development than on typical concerns like melody or standard harmony. Despite its impressive array of participants, Head Exam failed to draw much of an audience. Vandermark's idea for Chicago Eye and Ear Control stemmed from the desire to reach more listeners and was influenced by Michael Snow's 60s film New York Eye and Ear Control, for which free-jazz legends Albert Ayler and Don Cherry (among others) improvised the sound track.

With the input of filmmaker Carolyn Faber, Vandermark has planned three disparate programs. Musicians Hamid Drake, Kevin Drumm, and Michael Colligan join Vandermark for the opening performance, which features Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Subsequent evenings will feature animated films--such as Warner Brothers cartoons, Felix the Cat, and experimental work from central Europe--and the avant-garde films of Sidney Peterson, Bruce Conner, Michael Snow, and others.

"The idea is to offer a synthesis of the visual element and the improvised element to create a third element," says Vandermark. "The imagery and the events on the screen will definitely have an impact on what's going on, but at the same time I'm not interested in illustrating with sound. In the case of Yojimbo, for example, when someone in the film is stabbed with a sword I don't want a chaotic musical reaction. It will be an abstract reading of what's going on."

Vandermark admits to watching TV with the sound off and music playing. "The mind makes strange correlations between the visual and aural even if they're not really connected," he says. "It's something that really interests me."

Bringing in an audience unfamiliar with or not particularly interested in improvised music is another of the project's goals. Vandermark wants to destroy the stigma many people attach to the music. "Sometimes the music can be difficult to understand," he admits, "but a lot of times it's not. If they hear the music in this setting, people might be inspired to seek it out in other contexts."

The Yojimbo performance takes place Friday at 10 PM at the Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. The animation program is scheduled for October 20; the avant-garde program doesn't have a date yet, but it will probably be sometime in November. Call 384-5533 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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