Phillip Johnston's Transparent Quartet
For the second time in three years, Phillip Johnston and his Transparent Quartet swung through Charlottesville for a Virginia Film Festival performance. In '99, Johnston and his Quartet performed music for films by the French director Georges Méliès. This year, Johnston revisited the first original score he wrote for silent film: music for Tod Browning's 1927 silent, The Unknown. (Johnston recorded the score with his band Big Trouble in 1993 for Avant.) This year, the festival chose masquerades as its theme, and the dark fable of a film paired with Johnston's schizophrenic score could not have been a better fit.
The film recounts the exploits of Alonzo (Lon Chaney), a lovestruck, conniving and thoroughly unlikable knife thrower who may or may not have arms. This tale of circus performer love and missing limbs traces the knife thrower's attempts at winning the heart of Nonan (young Joan Crawford), a woman who suffers a pathological fear of arms and the advances of her second suitor, the hug-happy strongman Malabar. The film builds into a wild, spectacular climax, involving in no particular order: conveyor belts, bull whips, out-of-control horses and a potential public de-limbing of one of the main characters.
Johnston's darting, fanciful music complemented Méliès' charming films (the Transparent Quartet recorded Johnston's Méliès music as The Merry Frolics of Satan for Koch in 1999). Here Johnston performed a score with a different vibe for a very different film. Johnston's score admitted plenty of fanciful passages, but in keeping with the decidedly more earth-bound and blacker elements of the Browning film, he wrapped them in dissonance, drone and tension. Johnston incorporated more traditional jazz forms into this performance than he did with the Méliès project-most notably ballad features for his soprano sax-but overall, his music clinged tightly to the film's bizarre psychological landscape. When Johnston's sax skipped playfully over the bassist Dave Hofstra's intentionally clunky rhythms, or Joe Ruddick's saloon-style piano passages collided with Mark Josefsberg's vertiginous vibe-play, the music commented simultaneously on the superficially pleasant nature of a scene (sunshine, the chance for love) and the dastardly machinations of Chaney's Alonzo-conveyed with the twitch of an eyebrow or an aside to his midget sidekick.
The addition of drummer Lou Grassi not only made the Quartet a fivesome, but also added a fair degree of volume and propulsion to the music. Grassi's heavy hand threatened to overwhelm Johnston's delicate music here and there, but those were the rare moments that the music ever distracted from the film. With The Unknown, Johnston pulled off a double coup. He and the Quartet, in perfect sync with the action on-screen, generated commanding creative music that actually enhanced the viewing of a film.