Chops: Marc Ribot and Antonio Sanchez on the Art of Improvising to Film

Guitarist and drummer explain their approach to improvising music to accompany film

Antonio Sanchez image 2
Andrea Boccalini

Antonio Sanchez, jazz drummer and film composer

When Antonio Sanchez recorded his score for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the uniqueness of the situation led him to assume that this would be a one-time thing—after all, solo drum improvisations are hardly common in film soundtracks. But that very idiosyncrasy, combined with the film’s Best Picture Oscar, opened a new career path for Sanchez as a soundtrack composer (his most recent work has been for the Epix TV series Get Shorty). Four years after Birdman’s release, he continues to tour the world accompanying the movie live.

“Iñárritu wanted the score to be improvised and very organic,” Sanchez says, “so that’s what I do live. I try to maintain the dramatic effect that was achieved originally, but every performance is completely different.”

Live film scoring presents a unique context for a jazz musician: While the performance aspect offers the same opportunity for in-the-moment creativity, it’s coupled with the unchanging demands of a motion picture. An orchestra playing along to Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings has to nail the familiar dramatic moments from those well-known soundtracks, but an improviser is tasked with capturing the emotional beats of a film without the guidance of notes on paper. “I’m neither improvising freely nor am I reacting to the image,” says guitarist Marc Ribot, who has performed live scores for Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, among other silent classics and new experimental films.

“It’s not about what you feel,” Ribot says. “It’s you collaborating with the director, even if the director’s been dead for 50 years, to enable the audience to feel something. When a score is done perfectly, it disappears and you think you’re seeing what you’re actually hearing.”

That creates a conundrum when playing for an audience that arrives at least in part to “see” the artist in question. But Ribot places himself wholly in service of the film, keeping the lights low and himself to one side of the stage, well out of the viewers’ sightlines. “What I hope people experience when I do a live score is that they watch the movie and have an experience with the film,” he says. “If they’re listening to me like it’s a concert, then I’m fucking up.”

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Whether composing a score that will live with a film for its entire existence or preparing to create music that will accompany it for only one night, Sanchez stresses the importance of getting the film into one’s head in a detailed way. “It’s a huge difference when you know something really well,” he says. “It’s the same thing as playing with a live band: If you kind of know the music and are reading it on the bandstand, then your playing is going to be a bit handcuffed by your lack of knowledge. But if you know the subject really well, you can start taking liberties here and there that still serve the music and take it deeper. If you know the work of art intimately, you’re going to be able to extract way more juice out of it.”

Marc Ribot fronts his Songs of Resistance at 2018 Winter Jazzfest (photo by Jati Lindsay)
Marc Ribot fronts his Songs of Resistance at 2018 Winter Jazzfest (photo by Jati Lindsay)

“Just watch the movie a lot,” Ribot says. “The way I work with a film is I watch it, a lot, and I perform with it. My composed scores start out as live scores in my living room, and my live scores wind up continuing the process of watching the movie and doing what I think it needs. In either case, whether it’s on paper or in my brain, what I wind up with is a bunch of sonic ideas for what sounds I’m going to use, and usually with a bunch of motifs.”

Another key decision is the instrumentation that will accompany the film; both Sanchez and Ribot play solo, which the guitarist says allows for both musical flexibility and staying true to the demands of the image. “In pure non-film group improvisation, the music follows its own logic,” he explains. “In improvisation with a film, the music has to follow the logic of the film in real time, and sometimes has to anticipate and foreshadow the events of the film. One of the weaknesses of group improvisation is its inability to have sharp corners or sudden unison changes.”

Regardless of the ensemble format, the most important consideration is to stay in time with the film, keeping the emotional shifts of the music synced to the scene playing out. Both Sanchez and Ribot position themselves so that they can see the big screen, but they also have a video monitor with timecode close at hand. That’s especially important during Birdman, when at two points Sanchez has to exactly mimic the playing of an onscreen drummer (played by Nate Smith).

Though best known for his eclectic experimentalism, Ribot insists that any aspiring film composer or accompanist become intimately familiar with the tradition of Hollywood film music.

“Most of the world grew up with Hollywood film,” he says, “so the language of film scoring is our common culture. Someone that has in their record collection nothing but John Coltrane and free jazz, and someone who has in their record collection nothing but country-and-western, and somebody that has in their record collection nothing but hardcore punk can all sit down in a movie theater and understand exactly what it means when the horns ascend in fifths, and they all cry when the violins come in. So I’ve found the literacy in the language of classic film scores to be helpful, and the language of them is remarkably consistent and effective.”