Sunday, November 8, 2009

Matti Bye Ensemble @MoMA, Nov. 7th

File this under completely random experiences.

Bestest Boy's good friend Karen Violista had been jonesing to get together, so I happened upon a listing for a Swedish film called "Körkarlen" aka "The Phantom Chariot" aka "The Phantom Carriage" at the Museum of Modern Art, which screened this 1921 silent film last night with live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble, a trio from Sweden. I thought it could be the perfect random activity for our group -- something for the cinéastes (which we all are), with a live music element (for Karen and me), and Swedish (for Bestest Boy and his mom). I got tickets for our group, armed with a newfound ability to pick up tickets for MoMA events for practically free (thank you, corporate membership). After a nice vegan dinner, we descended into the subterranean auditorium excited for what was to come (well, as excited as Swedes get, anyway).

The musicians were set up on the floor in front of the seats, stage right, reminding me much of the time I caught Yo La Tengo when they too played a live soundtrack to some film. After some introductory words by a Swedish dude explaining that this film has been long-beloved by his country, they got into it. Unfortunately, 10 minutes or so into the program, the band halted and called for a mulligan. Bestest Boy guessed the disruption had something to do with the projection of the film being too fast for silent films -- like the film was probably shot at 18 frames per second, whereas the projection was probably running at 24, so the musicians had to play faster than they were supposed to. Eek! It's nice dating a film guy -- you learn something new every day... =)

So they started over, and from there, things went on without a hitch (so to speak). The film itself was pretty interesting, especially keeping in mind that this came out 88(!) years ago. It employed some great imagery with decent special effects for the time as well as intriguing storytelling structure involving flashbacks. Basically, the central character, a man named David Holm, is an alcoholic who abandoned his family and was a dick towards this nice Salvation Army girl named Edit, and is doomed to be the next in line to drive this phantom carriage which picks up all the dead, à la the Grim Reaper. It is a Dickensian tale filled with much regret and some redemption -- kinda like A Christmas Carol except bleaker and with more drinking and tuberculosis. (I use "Dickensian" because I know it'll piss my brother off. He thinks it's overly pretentious of a word.) And way cooler than the Jim Carrey flick that's out now.

However, more crucial to me was the score provided by the Matti Bye Ensemble. Since this was a silent film, and the occasional words on the screen were in Swedish with subtitles that suffered from bad placement (a bit too far below the screen for viewing comfort), the music to me was of tantamount importance in bringing along the viewer. The trio used a variety of instruments, including a piano, an organ, xylophones, violin, saw, guitar, banjo and some percussion, which were central in creating the various moods. And even when my tired head decided to lean back and miss some of the visuals, I was still able to soak in the ambient music, which did not intrude into the experience at all. It was a perfect mix, Karen felt.

After the film, we lingered outside before going our separate ways, and we were able to chat with the musicians a little bit. We complimented their presentation and talked about how nice it was that they depended on minimal sound effects and relied more on instrumentation, and their leader, pianist Matti Bye himself, agreed that it was important to let the music itself come through without any distraction. Nice folks.

Anyway, if you're searching for something different to do this afternoon, the ensemble is at it again, with a different film called Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages.


Based on my two recent visits, the film crowd at the MoMA seems to be different from the noisy bunch you'd usually find at a movie theatre. Gone are the Milk Duds and tubs of popcorn and rude cell phone users; instead, the audience seems to be comprised mostly of senior citizens, Europeans and hipsters, with a healthy dose of eccentrics. Being that my office is just a block away now, I think I'll be checking out the film schedule more often now, as well as becoming intimately familiar with the museum itself. And all for free. =)


Donald Sosin said...

Hope you will come by for another silent film, "L'Argent," this Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. Quite long but excellent. I will be playing the piano.
Best wishes
Donald Sosin

D. Kwiat said...

Hi Qbertplaya....

Agreed. First time out to see a silent film and was so impressed, both by the movie (which was strikingly "modern" and visually crisp) and the Matti Bye ensemble. Dare I admit it, I was almost moved to tears. Ok, enough with my overt sentimentality. Thanks for the blog post; I was searching for other people who might also have seen the show. Best-