“I think there’s going to be more and more space in experiencing film in the future,” says New York-based musician Brendan Cooney in regard to the constantly changing landscape of the movie industry. But Cooney is looking to that future by way of the past. He’s tapping the very origins of film — the silent era — through his long-running touring project, Not-So-Silent Cinema.
For over the past half-decade, Cooney and various musicians have toured the country, hauling along silent films and accompanying them with live, original scores. Now, he’s touring the South with a selection of Buster Keaton short films. The production comes to The Isis Restaurant and Music Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 22.
Cooney grew up playing a wide array of genres, from classical to jazz and from bluegrass to Eastern European brass band music. But his introduction to silent film was purely by accident. “A friend of mine, a piano player, was asked to play along to a silent film in Philadelphia,” Cooney says. “She didn’t want to do it, so she asked me. I had never watched a silent film, so it was a new experience, but I got really into it and I discovered the whole interesting world of pre-sound films.”
While he didn’t consider himself a cinephile, Cooney soon found a new appreciation for cinema. “I was never a film buff, but after I started writing for films and started watching them very closely, looking at the timing and the camera work, I got more and more interested,” he says. His diverse musical background and his newfound appreciation for these old films soon dovetailed. “One of the reasons I enjoy doing these silent films is that I can draw on a lot of different styles of music,” says Cooney, who writes brand-new scores for the films he tours with. In the past, he has presented F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu with a klezmer ensemble and Fred Niblo’s 1920 The Mark of Zorro with flamenco music.
His current iteration of Not-So-Silent Cinema includes Cooney and the New River Ensemble. That group, which Cooney has collaborated with in the past, has members in New York and rural Virginia. The program includes ’20s-era pictures Cops, The Electric House, The Haunted House and One Week. “I picked the ones most fun to watch and the most fun to write music to,” Cooney says of the shorts. The scores aren’t exactly true to what audiences might’ve heard in a movie house in the early ’20s but are instead meant to evoke the spirit of an era.
“I’m really aiming for an early Americana vibe,” Cooney says, adding that his pieces leave room for improvisation. “The music is meant to capture the spirit of the urban American landscape of the ’20s. There’s a lot of ragtime, blues, hot jazz and classical music thrown in here and there. Probably, if you saw a film in 1920, you wouldn’t have heard much jazz and blues. But now, when we think of that time period, we culturally associate it with jazz and blues and ragtime, so it seemed appropriate to throw all of those styles into the films.”
The small, recent resurgence of silent film, thanks to movies like The Artist or Martin Scorsese's Hugo, has led to a heightened interest in Cooney’s creation. And there’s historical importance in what he’s doing: Last month, the Library of Congress announced that 70 percent of all silent films have been lost.
Cooney also sees Not-So-Silent Cinema as an alternative to home theaters and crowded multiplexes. It offers a living cinematic experience, one that accentuates the inherently communal nature of going out to the movies. “There’s something real going on; it feels more collective somehow. It brings the film to life, it makes it more immediate or visceral,” says Cooney. He points out that even the most state-of-the-art movie theater or advanced home theater system can’t duplicate a live score. “What we expect going out to a film has changed, I think, and has opened up a niche market for something like this, the experience of going out to see a film live. Seeing a film with an ensemble performing the score live is a real unique experience, and you can’t get that at home sitting in front of Netflix. Some people are drawn to that.”
what: Not-So-Silent Cinema
with Brendan Cooney and the New River Ensemble
where: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
when: Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 9 p.m.
$10 advance/$12 at the door