CLUB FOOT ORCHESTRA – A Conversation with Richard Marriot

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Fans of silent film and Club Foot Orchestra can treat themselves to a marathon this coming Sunday at The Castro Theatre. The mini-festival includes two screenings of Sherlock Jr (1924) starring Buster Keaton, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and Nosferatu (1922). Club Foot Orchestra is comprised of Myles Boisen on bass, Cornelius Boots on woodwinds, Sheldon Brown on woodwinds, Beth Custer on clarinet, Chris Grady on trumpet, Steve Kirk on guitar, Richard Marriott on trombone, Gino Robair on percussion, Alisa Rose on violin, and is conducted by Deirdre McClure.
Click here to order tickets on-line: Club Foot Orchestra, 11/14

The Club Foot Orchestra premiered Richard Marriott’s Dr. Caligari score at the 1987 Mill Valley Film Festival. The Roxie Theatre was sold-out for seven performances in February 1988, the orchestra then took it to New Music America ’89. In 1991 Club Foot Orchestra performed the score during the Smithsonian Institution’s “Exhibit of Degenerate Art”, a re-enactment of the 1937 Berlin exhibit of art deemed degenerate by the Nazis. In 1996 the Orchestra performed the score at Lincoln Center.

The Nesferatu score, written by Marriott and with contributions by Gino Robair, was premiered in 1989 at San Francisco State University for the Bay Area Video Coalition Ceremony. The next two evenings it was persented at the Castro Theatre. Later that year it was featured on “Entertainment Tonight” with Leonard Maltin and performed at New Music America in New York.

Kino International used the Club Foot soundtrack for Sherlock Jr. in their release of the 35mm film. Turner Classic Movies schedules it frequently. The soundtrack is also used in a Broadway Asia production of “Race For Love” currently running in Beijing.

In a recent conversation with Richard Marriott, I wanted to know what he felt was the most important aspect of the entire event.

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Richard: The Bargain Matinee at one o’clock. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. The tickets are only $5 and everyone should bring some children. I’ve been extolling the virtues of that particular movie. Everyone loves how great Buster is. Not only that, but the incredible gags and his physical comedy is absolutely unequalled. Also, there’s a Freudian superstructure behind it – where all the little insults of his waking life are reflected back in his dream. He solves the crime and gets the girl.

Sean: Halloween Night I was at Davies Hall. Organist Dennis James accompanied the screening of the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore. The show opened with Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House. I was amazed – again! – by Buster Keaton’s athleticism, his ability to communicate a wide variety of emotions with an essentially deadpan face, and the fact he’s just so appealing.

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BUSTER KEATON

Richard: Buster has a pathos to him that is so endearing. It defines his character and everyone can relate to it.

Sean: In the sense of rooting for him.

Richard: Yes. In Sherlock Jr. there’s a scene where he actually broke his neck.

Sean: How do you fracture your neck and not know it?

Richard: I guess you get a lot endorphins happening. He was twenty-four at the time.

Sean: Tell me where the inspiration comes to complete a film score.

Richard: Dr. Caligari was our first film. We were playing nightclubs in California, especially San Francisco. This was the mid-80s, we played everywhere. Very unusual music – odd time signatures – 11/8 time, 5/4 time, atonal funk pieces, very few vocals. Most bands focus all the energy on a lead vocalist, theatrical things. And here we are – a bunch of accomplished musicians, we’re reading music. Where’s the visual appeal? We’re wondering what we should do. Maybe we should project images of surrealist paintings over the band? Something like that. One of our friends came up with the idea of doing takes from ’50s sit-coms and scoring them. We thought that was a really cool idea. That same night, Lily Tomlin was on Saturday Night Live giving the Dow Jones of Art trends. “Pop Art up twenty,” she says. “Op Art up thirty. Expressionism down twenty-six.” Then I turned the channel and found a screening of Dr. Caligari.

Sean: While Expressionism is down twenty-six?!

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Werner Kraus (Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), and Lil Dagover (Jane)

Richard: As you know, its painted sets are really over-the-top. The Communists were in control in Berlin at that time, so it was a kind of wild free for all. They hired some of the leading Expressionist painters to do the sets. This was during the Spartacist movement. The screenplay was by two anti-war activists and it’s as subversive as you can get. Basically, it takes this esteemed doctor – actually just a charlatan at a side show – who is getting people to commit murder for him.

Sean: What is the objective for the murders?

Richard: To see if he can get his somnambulist to commit murder.

Sean: So the motivation is not about selling body parts or piecing them together to construct some new guy, like Frankenstein?

Richard: No, though that’s equally subversive, I guess. They’ll be getting to that soon – and what a piece of work it was!

Sean: But while you were watching Dr. Caligari, something got sparked in you to come up with this score.

Richard: It was the sets. They appealed to that visual element I’d been looking for. I didn’t go towards wanting to score movies necessarily. It was just simply the fact that it was the right visual that described the sound.

Sean: Let’s consider the scene you have up on YouTube where Caligari summons the somnambulist, Cesare, to take questions from the audience. Your score is absolutely linked to the immediate dramatic tension and telegraphs to what we know or sense lies ahead. How does that happen for you as a composer? Where does this seemingly natural flow of musical narrative come from?

Richard: Being confronted with the movie. We all know the movie language, we’re veterans of watching film and television. The same for opera – we all know the narrative flow. Originally, I was enticed by accompanying the visuals. But the narrative flow brings out the song.

Sean: Have you made any changes since to your 1987 score?

Richard: Not with Caligari. I tried that with Nosferatu. About five or six years after I wrote the score, there was a section I thought was a little weak and wanted to fix it. The stuff I put in was not as good as what was already there. It’s just like writing a song or an article. Sometimes you’re in such a mood – a kind of obsessive place – when you were doing the original creative act that, when you try to get into it again, it comes across as a little bit stiff.

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MAX SCHRECK — As Graf Orlok / Nosferatu

Sean: So what’s on the dock these days? What films are you considering?

Richard: We are doing a new score in February, probably Battleship Potemkin.

Sean: You are really tackling the tough Classics.

Richard: There’s a reason why they’re Classics. They are easy to write for because they’re just so good! You end up looking at the film hundreds of times.

Sean: And Potemkin is one you can live with through that process?

Richard: That’s right.

Sean: Are you at all celebrity-oriented? My real interest in silent film came about when I was a kid. There was this great half-hour TV-show called Silents Please, hosted by Ernie Kovacs. It was in documentary form, featuring a particular classic starring a major celebrity. As the film progressed, the narrator provided the details of the plot and various points of trivia about the stars and the making of the film. The music was compelling, the title cards were intact, and the celebrities were glorified. I remember in particular Son of the Shiek with Rudolph Valentino and The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks.

Richard: What a great idea. I would love to see these shows. Fairbanks is someone we’re looking at. Many of his romantic films aren’t available on DVD. In March I’m going to be in residence at the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood working with the UCLA archives. They’re talking about restoring a Clara Bow film. She is wonderful. I called up Tim Lanza at the Douris Corporation, they have a lot of silents that have not been put onto DVD. He was the one who suggested the Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad. It’s a kind of film we really haven’t done. Phantom of the Opera has some of those elements of big and popular films from the Twenties, but certainly the Fairbanks films are even moreso that way.

Sean: It’s all that stuff about the featured celebrity, especially when their names appear above the title. So, you and the orchestra have quite a marathon this Sunday. How do you guys keep yourselves up and the energy flowing through four separate shows?

Richard: We make sure we get a lof of sleep! We’ve just done five days of rehearsing. We won’t be doing a lot of rehearsing at the last moment.

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BUSTER KEATON and KATHRYN McGUIRESherlock Jr., (1924)

Sean: Do you and the other members of the orchestra do other work as instrumentalists?

Richard: Yes, most everyone is totally busy with their own projects. Beth Custer has a film that she tours the world with called My Grandmother, a Georgian film from the Twenties. Gino Robair is deep into the music industry. He was editor of Electronic Musician Magazine for years. A lot of people are involved with teaching. Steve Kirk teaches at the Blue Bear School of Music. Alisa Rose is one of the best bluegrass fiddlers in the world. Sheldon Brown, a fantastic instrumentalist, has developed a quarter-tone scale on his alto saxophone. He can play 16th-notes at 120, we say – 24 tones per octave. He’s a virtuoso and an incredible composer.

Sean: Where do you guys generally rehearse?

Richard: We’ve done some rehearsing at Guerrilla Recording, a studio in Oakland which our bass player Myles Boisen has. Myles has been nominated for a Grammy for his engineering with people like Tom Waits and Kronos Quartet. Chris Grady, our trumpet player has also played with Tom Waits.

Sean: Are you looking to have your scores published?

Richard: Actually, what happened with Sherlock Jr. – In China, they have a theme park devoted to Broadway musicals. They licensed the Sherlock Jr. score for one of their new productions. I can imagine something like that going forward quite easily.

Sean: I’m always interested in the earliest influences of professional musicians. What were yours? What or who got you over to music and sparked your imagination that eventually leads to producing complete scores for silent film?

Richard: When I was a little kid I liked dinosaurs. Do you remember Fantasia?

Sean: First thing that came to mind.

Richard: The dinosaurs of Fantasia and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring have always gone together for me. Dinosaurs to kids are like passion – no holds barred.

Sean: Were you drawn to a particular instrument?

Richard: I’m pretty much of an omnivore as far as instruments go. When I was growing up I played trombone. Then I joined Rock bands and suddenly I was playing saxophone and trumpet, toured around Europe. I studied classical flute, started playing shakuhachi, then got involved with all these Indonesian gamelans and started playing the suling. This summer I played the Bali Arts Festival. My group played to 15,000 people.

Sean: Does that crowd know about your obsession with silent film?

Richard: The way I got involved with Balinese music – in 1999 I was approached by Gamelan Sekar Jaya in Berkeley. They knew about me writing for silent films. They wanted me to score a 1933 silent film from Ball, Legong, Dance of the Virgins. It’s a beautiful film – red and green Technicolor. It looks like the old National Geographics. So I wrote it for Balinese gamelan – string quartet, trumpet, and clarinet. It was premiered at The Castro Theatre in May of 1999. Now it’s on Netflix, so is Sherlock Jr. Both films are shown on Turner Classics.

Sean: What’s coming up on the performance calendar?

Richard: We’re coming back in February with The Battleship Potemkin, then Metropolis on May 20th at the Montalvo Arts Center. Meanwhile, we’ll be doing some new films – maybe a Douglas Fairbanks romance – in March, down in Los Angeles.

Sean: March feels like being just around the corner for coming up with a new score!

Richard: It is. First – we have to get through this coming Sunday.

Click here to order tickets on-line: Club Foot Orchestra, 11/14

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NOSFERATU, 1922

THE SCHEDULE:
1:00Sherlock Jr (dir. Buster Keaton, 1924) Incredible stunts, Outrageous gags, Primitive American Surrealism! Bargain Matinee! Adults $10, Kids (12 and under) $5.
4:00Sherlock Jr
6:00 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Weine, 1919) The first Expressionist film and is often considered one of the most influential movies of all time. Dreamlike plot and nightmarish sets.
8:00Nosferatu (dir. FW Murnau 1922) The first and greatest vampire movie. One cannot fail to be chilled by “the glacial draughts of air from the beyond.”

All shows open with Felix the Cat Woos Whoopee
Tickets: $14 Single Show. $24 Festival Pass.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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