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Man With A Movie Camera and made-up music

Winnipeg musician to improvise silent film score in Halifax

by Hilary Beaumont

Musician Garth Hardy says Friday's show will be "really great or terrible." Photo: Hilary Beaumont
Musician Garth Hardy says Friday's show will be "really great or terrible." Photo: Hilary Beaumont

Twelve Halifax musicians squeezed their instruments into the tiny top floor loft of the Roberts Street Social Centre Monday evening. Two guitars, two harmonicas, an accordion, a keyboard, a cello, a clarinet, a flute and a ukulele sat silently on laps and between knees. It was the group's first and only rehearsal before Friday’s live, improvised performance of a silent film score as part of the Sound Bytes Festival in Halifax (May 28 to June 28).

Winnipeg musician Garth Hardy orchestrated the meeting and skill share. To illustrate the importance of musical consensus within a group, he played a piece by one of his favourite composers: John Cage.

“This is the first time I’ve done this,” Hardy admitted a few days before the rehearsal, as he sipped java at a North Street coffee shop. “I’ve done five silent movie scores in the past four years, but this is the first time I’ll do it with a group of people.”

Hardy, an anarchist with a Masters in Music, has improvised with groups of musicians before, but he’s never taught anyone how to compose an hour-long movie score on the fly. And until Monday night at 7 p.m., Hardy didn’t know who would play the score.

“I don’t know the people who are going to show up,” Hardy shrugged. “I don’t know if they’re amateurs or professional musicians, I don’t know their skill levels, I don’t know how many of them have experience improvising.”

On Saturday he said he wasn't worried for Friday’s show because, as far as he’s concerned, there’s no pressure.

“I think these things are more about the process than they are about the end result,” he said. “It’s just this idea of a bunch of people getting together who all have different skill levels and ideas about music and all have a little part to play to make this big collective work. I think that’s really exciting.”

Hardy is in Halifax for eight days as part of Roberts Street’s summer residency program that hosts a new Canadian with a new skill every week. The easygoing musician has been camping in the backyard shed; the prison-cell-sized space holds a wooden bunk and not much else. The same bunk will host 15 more skill sharers before September. Hardy is the first.

Since he began improvising scores five years ago, Hardy has mostly focused his composing skills on Soviet-era silent movies such as 1920s propaganda film The Battleship Potemkin. He used digital effects over the folksy twang of his banjo to make sounds he described as eerie.

“They’re either really good or they’re terrible,” he said about his performances. “There’s really no middle ground.”

Friday’s movie, Man With A Movie Camera, will be screened at Eyelevel Gallery at 9 p.m. Hardy picked it because it doesn’t have a narrative. He explained that the premise of the 1929 art film is, “what if you just took a movie camera out and filmed life?” Although Man With A Movie Camera is a Soviet film, Hardy said it’s “surprisingly not Stalinist.”

The Winnipeg musician started thinking about silent film scores six years ago when he saw Nosferatu, a 1979 West German vampire movie. To his disappointment, Goth Metal comprised the entire score.

“It just didn’t work and I was like, ‘this is terrible.’ And then they played The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and it had this piece of Brahms played underneath -- and Brahms is lovely and I really like Brahms -- but Brahms is high romantic period music and Caligari is this expressionist film.”

Hardy did some research and realized live movie music used to be popular with audiences before technology existed that could synch sound to film. So he started to experiment with small groups and alone, starting with The Battleship Potemkin and building to his most recent screening of Sunrise, a film widely praised for its imagery.

Despite his cache of musical experience, Hardy said he hopes his influence on the ensemble's score will be minimal.

“Something like this is more about a bunch of people coming together and having an equal say,” Hardy said. “Even if the outcome is terrible sounding, I think it’s still worthwhile. For me it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad by whatever standard, what really matters to me is that people are enjoying themselves and have some sort of avenue for expression.”

He said this philosophy is based on Cage’s ideas about the roles of composers and conductors.

“I found Cage through just being an anarchist, and the idea that a composer or a conductor really is a boss, that’s the figure that they play within the music community. I don’t want to be a boss. I’ve got no desire to be those things, and I think that there’s lots of room for music to be developed based on consensus.”

Man With A Movie Camera screens at Eyelevel Gallery at 9 p.m. tonight, Friday, May 29. The show is free.

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