There were no electric guitars or digital loop stations in the 1920s. But that didn’t stop musicians Clifton Hyde and Zach Eichenhorn from using them to accompany a 1927 horror film at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn yesterday.
“I have no problem with purists, I’m just not one,” Hyde said after a screening of Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) at the Williamsburg “cinema eatery,” part of Nitehawk’s Vamps and Virgins series of silent films. “It’s important for me, when I arrange all of these, not to do the typical thing.”
Hyde and Eichenhorn’s accompaniment was anything but typical. But the soundscapes they created were an exhilarating compliment to Leni’s Expressionistic “old dark house” classic, starring Laura La Plante as the beautiful heir to a dead lunatic’s fortune. From a subtle recreation of the sputter of the Universal Pictures plane logo, to a sassy bluegrass riff as a man secretly watches two women undress, to a cacophonous climax with Hyde pounding on the keyboard during a mad chase, the result was surprisingly effective, even for this purist.
The Brooklyn-based drummer added that he had “gotten into silent film only in the past couple years,” in part because of the Nitehawk screenings. THE CAT AND THE CANARY was his fourth film assignment with Hyde and their first as a duo.
For the strict silent film constructionists, there was plenty of moody pipe organ, sustained notes as characters tiptoed down shadowy corridors, and musical stings to punctuate Leni’s creatively creepy inter-titles. But there were also extended sequences of sampled ambient noise from Eichenhorn, reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s spooky scores for David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986) and Twin Peaks.
“I was creating a bed,” the percussionist continued. “And letting you sit in a pool of emotion.”
While the entire 80-minute film was not strictly scored, there were musical and sound effects signatures established early and reprised throughout. A particularly effective one was a ticking clock, a recurring theme in the movie.
“We watch the film together and we come up with the motifs,” Hyde said. “(Then) we improvise and lock them in together at different points. “
Hyde, who did double duty on keyboard and electric guitar – sometimes simultaneously – is also a member of the experimental music collective Blue Man Group. The 36-year-old native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi performs frequently at Nitehawk with a diverse collection of colleagues under the name Guizot (pronounced “GEE-zo”). And while he may take an avant-garde approach to silent film accompaniment, the art form is actually a family tradition.
“My great grandfather back in Mississippi played violin and organ for the cinema. That was his job in the 1920s and ‘30s,” he said. “But I don’t come from that period. I’m not a revivalist. I don’t have any desire to be.”
And what about the purists who believe silent movies should only be accompanied by period-appropriate instruments and music?
“They can like what they like, and not like what they don’t like. It doesn’t matter to me,” Hyde said, proudly defiant. “I come from a different generation.”
Perhaps as a reminder of this, Hyde made sure to mention his next assignment at Nitehawk before I left.
“I’m doing the silent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on Halloween night,” he said. “With a heavy metal quartet.”
For my coverage of the Nitehawk screening of IT (1927) accompanied by vocalist Mary Alouette, click here.