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Guitarist Alex de Grassi to Perform Live Score to Silent Film

Guitarist performing original score for Yasujiro Ozu’s silent film A Story of Floating Weeds in Columbia, Md.

Still from Floating Weeds
Alex de Grassi

Talk about doing it old school style. This is more like doing it old movie style. In the tradition of the silent movie era, guitarist Alex de Grassi will perform his score live for influential Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds at the Columbia Festival of the Arts on Thursday, June 17, 2010. The screening and performance will be held at Smith Theater at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md. The silent film was originally made in 1934 and the filmmaker is considered a major influence on contemporary directors such as Martin Scorcese, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch.

De Grassi, who has had a long career as a recording artist with Windham Hill and RCA Records and now releases albums on his own Tropo label, is not exactly reliving his own childhood in the movie theaters, because as a baby-boomer he saw the great silent movies by Chaplin and Keaton and company with recorded soundtracks, rather than accompanied by a live piano player or organist. And he had only a little experience doing soundtracks for films. “I had done a couple little small things,” he says. “I did a short art film in the early 80s, guys just out of film school and on a shoestring budget and it went to festivals and got a few little prizes. Then I did some documentary things for WGBH in Boston and Channel 4 in England. Nothing huge. I remember after I did a little bit of that in the mid-80s, I asked my attorney in LA, ‘How do I get more into this business?’ I was living in San Francisco at the time. He said, ‘Well, the first thing you have to do is move to LA.’ I just went, naaah. I didn’t pursue it very hard. But I have been enjoying doing this.”

The screening in Columbia is not his first time performing the score with the film. “In 2006 I was commissioned by the New York Guitar Festival to compose or improvise a score and perform live in Flushing Town Hall. That was basically David Spellman who was the director of the festival. I did it and it went over pretty well. Then I got commissioned again in 2010 to do a couple Chaplin films at Merkin Hall as part of the 2010 New York Guitar Festival. In between, I got asked to do this film [Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds] at the 2009 El Nora Guitar Festival at the University of Illinois. Now suddenly I’m finding that my agent is booking a number of these.”

The ironic thing is that he didn’t start out with a depth of knowledge about Ozu and this particular film. “I didn’t know it at all. The only constraint I had at the 2006 festival when I was commissioned to do this initially was…I believed they commissioned about six guitar players for that particular festival…they wanted to do all Asian films. I didn’t really know what to do. I started looking around at Japanese films, just because, well, I was born in Japan. And I thought that was an interesting connection. To be honest with you, I had only heard the name Ozu, the filmmaker. I sort of dug around a little bit. I found Ozu’s films and started watching them and when I saw this one, I thought, hey this would really work. By the time I performed it, I had seen the movie about 50 times.”

Given how much time he was destined to spend with the film in order to get the music right, you’d have to wonder what attracted him to the work of this influential but generally unknown filmmaker. “First of all, if you’ve ever seen the film, the photography is really stunning. You think, a black and white film in 1934, that’s the end of the silent era. You think, well, the photography was good, but the technology is not so advanced. Yet you look at this film, and you go, wow, this truly a beautiful film by today’s standards in terms of how it’s shot and the quality of the filmmaking. That really appealed to me.”

In addition, the story itself struck a chord with de Grassi. Even the title connected with him, because floating weeds is a well-known Japanese metaphor for people who are itinerates, traveling around the country, in this case a theater troupe. “The big story or plot here is the relationship with the father and son and the son who never knew that this was his father. I had some of that in my own life too. When I was a kid, my parents lived in Japan after World War II and I was born at the end of that time. We moved back [to the U.S.] and my father decided to move back to Japan. I didn’t know my father very well. So I saw a little bit of that. I just thought it was a brilliant film and beautiful to watch that I would be able to do something with it.”

Given the power of modern technology and sound reproduction, you’d have to wonder why he would feel compelled to perform it live, rather than simply prerecord the soundtrack to run with the film. The answer lies in the power of improvisation. “It’s an 84-minute film. What I did is write themes that have variations. I tied them to the characters. Each character sort of has a theme, not that it stays the same. Some of them I spent a fair amount of time trying to compose and lock to the picture just as you would if you were doing a motion picture recorded soundtrack. But I also left a lot of room for improvisation, especially with the longer scenes. I’ve performed it about four times now and it’s really changed. There are those same themes in it each time, but there’s enough improvisation that they’re quite different with each performance. I think that’s what makes it interesting.”

De Grassi enjoys the feeling of interacting with the action and images on the screen. “I’ve cued it out enough to know what’s going to happen five seconds ahead of the audience. A lot of these themes might have four or eight bar themes, but I’ve got to play 16 or 24 or 32 bars in that time frame. I just leave the rest of it open, because I know, given a basic theme, I can improvise off it as well.”

Just because he’s done it before doesn’t mean he’s cruising or doing it by rote. “No, it’s not the same thing each time,” he says, chuckling. “For one thing, my memory is not that good for 84 minutes. It’s a long film and playing solo, it’s not like I can take a break and listen to the sax player. I don’t think there are pauses in my playing for more than about ten seconds and that only happens a few times. It’s not always extremely complicated what I’m doing. The point is to create a soundtrack that enhances the film and tries to underscore what’s going on onscreen rather than try to show off everything that you can do as a player. Sometimes it’s pretty simple what I’m doing, but it still requires intense concentration to keep or stay with the feeling of the film.”

Since getting the original assignment to do the score in 2006, de Grassi has tried hard to do his homework on the noted film director and has screened several of his movies. “The one movie I really want to see is the Wim Wenders film about Ozu’s life. But I’ve seen Tokyo Story and a couple others. He remade this film A Story of Floating Weeds in the 50s as a talking color film and it’s really interesting to contrast the two. I almost prefer the earlier one because there’s something stark about the black and white and the absence of dialogue. His career spans both the silent era and the talking films era, so it’s interesting to compare what he’s done between the two.”

The process of toiling away on a score, watching it over and over gave de Grassi a skewed perspective on the film, literally. “I worked on this film – the first time before I performed with it – for about a month on and off,” he recalls. “I’d watch it at home on my little screen on my laptop. When I got to perform it the first time at Flushing Town Hall, suddenly it was up on the big screen. At the soundcheck I had to stop playing a few times because I was overwhelmed at how amazing it looked on the big screen. The film is obviously very well preserved.”

Naturally, de Grassi came to appreciate the nuances of Ozu’s approach to filmmaking. “He didn’t do any pans, but he did a lot of dolly shots,” de Grassi says. “He kept the camera very close to the floor so all there characters look bigger than life. When you see it on a big screen, it’s very impressive. A lot of people come up to me after the film and with their mouths open and say the photography in the film is amazing.”

In the old days, the pianist or organist would be in a pit just in front of the stage facing the screen. It seems that things haven’t changed much nearly 100 years later. “I have to be out of the line of vision of everybody, so I’m typically stage-right, looking 15-20 feet away from the screen, looking up. The audience can see me. We’ve had a small light on me, with a dark blue gel to create some atmosphere but not distract from the film. You really want people to watch the film. If they want to, they can see me, but it’s more about the film and what the music does for the film than about my performance.”

De Grassi confesses that playing along to a movie like a lot of things looks easier to do than it really is. “It’s a lot of work to get it going, as I suppose writing and recording a soundtrack for a film would be. You have to practice it because you have to pull it off live. You spend a lot of time preparing for the first one, so you want to find more work doing it.” Apparently, he’s found a niche that may be exhausting and not necessarily lucrative, but is in the least intriguing. “I am kind of looking around for another one I can do. I’ve talked with one filmmaker friend who might do something with me. It would be fun to do something contemporary [in a film] that was created for that purpose and do a score for that. I think it would be fun to do something like that.”

De Grassi confirms that the score could well have a life beyond a few screenings at festivals and special events. “It would be fun to do it with the film on a DVD,” he explains. “But I haven’t investigated if any of the film companies would be interested.” In addition, de Grassi has considered turning his score into a good old-fashioned album all his own. “I have thought of that actually. I suppose what I’d do is pull something live from a performance or rearrange the music for that purpose. Sometimes when you’re doing it for the film you end up with a lot of short little cues. Still, it might make sense to rearrange it into something a little longer. I just haven’t quite gotten to it yet.”

In the meantime, the only way to hear it, the score, is to see it, the film. De Grassi is hoping to do more performances with the film in the future. To keep up with his activities, go to his web site.

Originally Published