Marc Ribot: Scoring the silence
Marc Ribot may be best known for his contributions to many Tom Waits albums but the guitarist has played with a long list of great musicians that includes Elvis Costello, Elton John and Marianne Faithfull. He also has put out a few solo albums. For the past few years Ribot’s played an original score to showing of the Charlie Chaplin silent film The Kid. We phoned him at his Brooklyn home to talk briefly about this particular project.
You’ve performed for The Kid before?
Many times. It was originally commissioned about four years by the New York Guitar Festival. They actually suggested the film to me. I had seen it when I myself was a kid. They used to screen a lot of Charlie Chaplin movies on TV. I hadn’t really looked at it since then. I fell in love with it for a number of reasons.
What did you like about the movie?
I was struck by the fact that when I had seen the film as a kid in the ‘60s, it had seemed to have come from some ancient time. When I see it now, it seems contemporary. Several experiences contributed to that change in my perception. One of them is having grown up and become a father myself. I have some of those experiences where you suddenly wind up like Charlie Chaplin in The Kid. It’s common for most parents. You get this kid and you plan and then suddenly you come to a moment of truth where it’s just you and the kid in the house and you’re improvising. The kid is crying and you have to do something. No rule book or expert’s advice can prepare you for that moment. The other thing was that I first did this in 2008 or 2009 and the world that the film depicts is one of really grinding poverty. Historically, the set of that film is one that Charlie Chaplin built. He rebuilt the street he grew up on East London. He rebuilt it lamppost by lamppost and doorknob by doorknob. The difference between watching that with the general assumptions of progress and prosperity of the mid-’60s— I’m sure progress and prosperity wasn’t a reality for many people then but the assumption was that was where things were going — and watching it again in 2009 after the more recent stock market crash reminded me that progress isn’t built-in. It’s not inherent in history.
I think it’s interesting you absorbed that notion as a child.
Especially as a child. You watch The Jetsons and you think it’s going to be like that. We’re going to fly around in cars and take little pills instead of eating. C’mon. I went to the World’s Fair.
Does the music you play change from performance to performance?
I have certain themes that I work with. If I played them back-to-back it would take four or five minutes. Maybe less. The amount of thematic material I have is very little but I improvise. There’s a lot of confusion because I put out an album called Silent Movies. Some people think I’m performing the scores from silent movies. I did take one or two scores. But the record was just an attempt. I should have called it Blind Movies. It was more of an analog for a silent movie than a score. It was musical pieces that fall between sound and image.
What’s the story about the original music behind The Kid?
Charlie Chaplin composed it. I found out after I had performed that he had left instructions that he only wanted his score performed with the piece. I feel a little funny about doing it. But on the other hand, it’s legal in the United States to do that. I think that my approach and my goal of doing it with a contemporary score does bring home some of the contemporary relevance of the film.
I didn’t like the original score so much. Do you?
I listen to it very little. When I’m working on a film score, if I get anything else stuck in my head I’m doomed. I generally do like his scores, but I do think they reflect the period in which they were composed. What’s interesting about silent film scores is that they were not synced to the film. They were composed for the film but not synchronized so there was a lot of slippage. You couldn’t time things to a fraction of a second like you can now. The composer couldn’t know whether it would go into a theater with a full orchestra or one with an organ or whether the organist was going to be drunk the day it was screened or whether the musicians would get bored after so many performances and start performing “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” during the romantic scene. All of which happened, by the way. You also had theaters with gifted musicians and after the 20th or 30th or 60th screening they would start to improvise. Because of this, there were a lot of unknowns.
How did that affect things?
Because of these unknowns, there was a much heavier demand on the acting. The acting had to communicate everything. The score couldn’t come to the rescue. The more I watch silent film in general, the more impressed I am that it was a golden age of acting, the likes of which have not been seen since. When we see contemporary films, a lot of things we think we see, we’re hearing. For example, a director had a long shot far away in a field but you were supposed to understand that they had read a note and their mood had changed. You couldn’t see the actor’s face. For all you knew, it was a stand-in for the actor. The director got the desired effect by having the music change. Let’s contrast that with Charlie Chaplin’s face that expresses everything. He did it with his eyes.
You’ve also written a score for The Docks of New York.
Yes, and that’s another good example. Josef von Sternberg was famous as the greatest director of actresses. There’s a story of this woman who has a brief affair with a stoker from a ship. He’s a very rough guy. The stoker marries her in a bar after meeting her for a night and she’s unsure if he’s serious. She very much wants him to be. There’s a scene in which her back is to the camera. She wakes up and he is gone. Another man comes in the room and he’s a bad guy and she wants nothing to do with him. She moves to the nightstand with her back to the camera and finds that the stoker has left a ten-dollar bill on the table. He’s treated her like a prostitute. With her back to the camera, she has to show this discover. Her heart is breaking but that she’s hiding it from the guy in the room. She does all of this — shows the discovery and her emotion and the repression of that emotion — with the back of her head. It’s a virtuoso performance that would have been left to the score to accomplish. But in that film, the actress accomplishes it through pure body language.
Does knowing that the actors can convey so much affect your approach?
I guess it has an effect. I don’t have to do everything but I do like to reflect the emotional, deep architecture of the film. I don’t respond to it, but I do like to augment it and underline it and highlight it in different ways. I was also interested in learning film scores because the music functions as a common language. We’re accustomed to confusing the idea of identity with the idea of culture. One person might be a punk rocker and say, “That’s my culture.” One person might have all these John Coltrane records and think that avant-jazz is their culture. I’ve noticed with film and over a huge segment of the world, there’s really a common language. It comes from 19th and early 20th century classical culture and it comes from opera. That’s the form that film people glommed onto in the early days of cinemas. It stuck. Everyone understands it. The dashiki-wearing guy whose record collection is nothing but jazz understands. The guy with nothing but punk rock in his collection understands that it’s scary when the 12-tone music starts. There’s a common language of significations that’s understood by a huge range of people. It’s very culturally relative. It’s not natural. If I’m doing a film score and there’s a mountain, I can do trumpets in an ascending pattern and that will symbolize mountains. If I want to want to show that the mountains are in Zimbabwe, I can have a kalimba playing after that. It’s a common language. I’m interested in that language, its chord changes and its subtleties.