New Scores Do the Talking for Keaton

Brendan M. Cooney, the composer behind the film scoring project Not-So-Silent Cinema, peeked up at his audience at the beginning of his Friday show at Somerville’s Center for Arts at the Armory. “I’ll do more yakking after the film—let’s just get into things,” he said, seated behind his piano. “You can meet the band later.”

The screen hanging above Cooney and the rest of his band flickered into a black and white shot of Buster Keaton slouching across a road. The band, composed of Cooney on piano, Andy L. Bergman on clarinet, and Kyle Tuttle on banjo, burst into an original score written by Cooney to accompany the first of three Keaton short films. As Keaton unfolded a newspaper as large as a blanket, tripped over his own feet, wooed a large-eyed lady, and was hired by and then escaped from a murderous gang of ruffians, Cooney and his bandmates met him step for step with an up-tempo Americana score. Cooney said he intends his scores to play up the brilliance of these old films without overpowering them and to slide the audience back in time for a night of early cinema.

After a rehearsal in his Medford home, Cooney sat perched behind his piano, sipping whiskey with his bandmates as he explained how he became involved with silent films. He recently founded Not-So-Silent Cinema, he said, but his first project was several years back, in Philadelphia, when he decided to score Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film “Battleship Potemkin.” The audience’s reaction was a pleasant surprise for Cooney. “They fucking loved it,” he said.

He studied music at Oberlin College, where, he said, he always had an audience of music students who appreciated esoteric compositions. “I can play all this obscure, obtuse, hip shit… [but] audiences want something they can hold on to, something they can understand, something palatable,” he said.

For Cooney, films provide an anchor for his compositions and make them more accessible to audiences. “We live in such a visual culture. We’re always watching TV, we’re always on the internet—when there’s a moving image to latch onto, music is so much easier to understand,” he said. His scene-by-scene composition process relied on having the Keaton films on hand, he explained. “I set this computer on my piano, take out a big piece of manuscript paper, pour a glass of whiskey, and hit ‘play,’” he said. As part of Not-So-Silent Cinema, he has also composed scores for films such as “The Mark of Zorro” and the 1922 vampire classic “Nosferatu.”

Cooney strives to create a sound built from instruments and genres that are not usually paired with one another, a philosophy that led him to bring together his musicians for the Keaton scores. “The goal is to try and find people that would normally never play together, because that’s when you get the most interesting interactions. You know, bluegrass banjo, jazz piano—hardly ever happens. And then adding clarinet on top of that—totally hip,” he said. “These are my three favorite instruments in the world right now, and I was really hoping to find a film that made sense with them.”

Cooney felt the trio of instruments evoked America of the 1920s, which is why he chose the three Buster Keaton shorts— “One Week,” from 1920; “The High Sign,” from 1921; and “The Goat,” also from 1921. The dusty American West imagery of Keaton’s short works delight Cooney, and he and the band aim to draw out the spirit and landscape of Keaton’s films. “The focus is not really the music,” Tuttle said.

The three musicians agree that Buster Keaton is the true powerhouse in their performance. “You need to get your ego out of the way, let the film be the star,” Bergman said. “These movies had no original score, so the movie just had to be able to support itself with the humor…. I mean, you can add to it, but this movie is just like, ‘I’m funny—watch me!’”

As the three rehearsed before their performance, they marveled at Keaton’s skill. At one point, Cooney played a clip of Keaton sliding like a human Slinky over the top of a boxcar back and forth several times, crying, “See that? How does he do that?”

The band seemed just as relaxed onstage at the Armory as in its casual rehearsals at Cooney’s home. The musicians’ appreciation for the films they score was apparent as they grinned and chuckled throughout the performance. As the first short concluded and the audience burst into applause and hoots, Cooney leaned into the microphone and said simply, “Thank you, Buster Keaton.”

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