Milwaukee band Altos prepares to help the film festival hit its high note
After months of practicing, tinkering and practicing some more, the breakthrough finally happened for Altos and guitarist Ken Palme.
"We struggled for a long time to make the score one cohesive piece, and it started to feel like this would maybe never happen," Palme said. "I don't remember if it was last practice or two practices ago, though, but suddenly, it just kind of came together."
That was about two weeks ago. Now, Palme and the rest of Altos have had that amount of time to fine tune and perfect their breakthrough for a truly special one-night-only performance.
Altos will provide the original live musical accompaniment tomorrow night for the Milwaukee Film Festival's centerpiece selection, a screening of a rare and almost pristine 35mm print of Aleksandr Dovzhenko's classic 1930 Ukrainian silent film "Earth."
The 70-minute feature is considered by many critics to one of the finest Soviet films ever made, a legacy that includes well-known masterpieces like "Man with a Movie Camera" and "Battleship Potemkin."
Visually, the film is timelessly beautiful. But as master directors like Spielberg, Coppola and Hitchcock would tell you, it's the music that truly makes a movie come alive, a responsibility that now falls directly on Altos' shoulders.
"It's almost hindering to score some genius piece of work," said baritone guitarist Daniel Spack. "Now that we're near the end, and things look right and sound how they look to us, it only makes me wish we had another year to work on it so we could get all of this new definition that we've learned about the movie into the soundtrack somehow."
David Ravel, the director of the Alverno Presents performing arts series, introduced Altos to the project much earlier in the year. The band and its members, who admitted to not watching many movies on their own, decided the idea of scoring a feature film and performing it live sounded too interesting to pass up, so they said yes. In order to make the fullest sound possible, the 12-piece band – which started with only five members back in 2006 – added six new musicians to their ranks.
"We needed singers that were better than us," Spack said. "I think some of them are just going to morph into being general members of whatever we do next."
After gathering the right amount of new musicians, the group moved onto the actual development and creation of the original score. It was their goal to avoid listening to other silent movie musical scores for inspiration, especially previously recorded musical accompaniments for "Earth." Instead, it was a very piece-by-piece process, according to Spack, with each member contributing parts and ideas to the music.
"We all watched the movie about 40 times together and kept little notes of parts that we were excited about or things that we heard during certain scenes," Spack said.
"It became monotonous, staring at this thing and going over billions of ideas. We had to stop it frequently just to take in what we were looking at and ramble about it until we agreed on what that part looked like. We worked on those first and then started to fill in the space in between until it became a 70-minute piece of music."
"All of us have basically played together for at least four years – some of us for as many as eight or nine years – so we kind of already had a process," Palme added. "I mean, it's not easy to write music with 12 members in the first place. If you're ever going to have a say, you have to figure out your little spot to squeeze it in. But you have to make sure that when your ego gets involved and you want to get on a roll, you sit back and understand that there's 12 that have to work together."
It's a process that involves a lot of give and take amongst the band members. Even so, the musicians still enjoyed personally finding themes, ideas and emotions from "Earth" and trying to bring them across musically. Spack described Dovzhenko's film as "a cool John Henry story about man versus machine," while violinist/singer Marielle Allschwang was intrigued less by the plot, and more by the film's aesthetic and how it matched the group.
"I think 'Earth' has been really appropriate because just visually, the way the film looks has a texture, and there's an influence of nature and elemental things that Altos music is also really expressive of," Allschwang said. "It's a really great opportunity to respond to something collectively that we can all latch onto."
During the process, Allschwang and other members of Altos also found themselves connecting on a deeper level with the people on screen.
"Watching the movie over and over again, and becoming intimate with the characters and their faces, that veil of what's happening in the movie lifts, and you see that these are just people who are collaborating and working on this," Allschwang said. "They're going through the exact same conflicts, disputes and thought processes that we are. It's really haunting."
"You just keep finding new little compositional details," said Adam Krause, who is playing drums, saw, guitar and tape manipulation for the screening. "The director thought a lot about how things fit into the space, and it segues in really interesting ways."
Watching a silent film with live musical accompaniment is rare and unique experience. "Earth" promises to be no different, especially since Altos is neither a conventional band nor a conventional orchestra. For instance, in order to create a sort of death theme for the film, Krause played a very low frequency into a cassette player to create a suitably surreal and weird sound loop.
"If you put that frequency into a computer at that gain level, the computer would be like, 'Ehhh no, unacceptable,'" Krause said. "But a tape is like, 'Eh, I'll do what I can with this.'"
The combination of a classic film with modern experimental sounds and music may strike some purists as showy and attempting to upstage the movie itself. Bassist Nathaniel Heuer noted that, on some level, they were likely trying to upstage the film. In the end, however, they predict that will end up being an impossible task.
"It's such a beautiful film," Spack said. "Every shot in it is gorgeous. Eventually, I became totally in love with the frame-by-frame of how the film is put together. It's so pretty. I don't think we could try hard enough to do it justice."
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