UnSilent Cinema dumps the player piano and sets Chaplin, Keaton to new electronica and indie music

Go to a screening of a classic silent film and chances are it will  be accompanied by a single piano player cranking out tunes influenced by ragtime, jazz and various vaudevillian sounds. But a two-day film fest in Los Angeles aims to update silent classics with a more contemporary soundtrack.

UnSilent Cinema, a series of free outdoor screenings to be held at FIGat7th downtown this week, pairs contemporary musicians with classic films by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, among others.

Grammy-winning blues guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart will provide accompaniment for Fatty Arbuckle’s 1918 western satire “Out West,” and electronica musician Jimmy Tamborello will score Keaton’s 1922 comedy short “Cops.”

“It’s about bringing new audiences to early cinema,” says David Spelman, who helped organize the festival. “The musicians have written their own scores. We selected this group for their creative and emotional range of musicmaking.”

The idea of scoring old films to new music is something Spelman has pursued for some time. An organizer of the New York Guitar Festival, he began commissioning musicians to compose scores to accompany classic silent films as part of the Silent Films / Live Guitars series. This year, he is bringing the idea to Los Angeles in collaboration with Martin Fleischmann of the L.A. production company Rum & Humble.

The series gives fresh attention to an often overlooked part of early film: Musical accompaniment, which often varied from theater to theater, from upright pianos to full orchestras.

“It’s impossible to appreciate the power and charm of silent cinema without acknowledging the contribution of the musical accompaniment,” Spelman says.

The first night of screenings, on Thursday, will be guitar-centric, featuring Hart (a musician Spelman describes as “ferociously creative”), along with polymath guitarist Marc Ribot, who will supply a score for Chaplin’s “The Kid,” the actor’s unforgettable first full-length feature film as a director.

Friday will be devoted to indie sounds and electronica, with L.A. musicians such as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Daedalus, Callie and Tamborello scoring various films, from Harry Smith’s “Early Abstractions,” a series of animated pieces, to Chaplin’s “One A.M.,” a 1916 comedy short that shows a drunken man futilely trying to move around his house.

“One A.M.” is particularly suited to music, says Spelman: “The great Russian ballet choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, after seeing this film, called [Chaplin] the greatest male dancer of the 20th century. It’s a comic tour de force.”

What would Chaplin think of seeing his films set to underground electronica?

“Charlie Chaplin wrote scores for some of his films,” says Spelman. “I would argue that if he were alive today, he’d be embracing synthesizers and samplers. He was always wanting to break new ground. He was a great modern artist in that regard.”

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UnSilent Cinema

When: Thursday and Friday evening; pre-screening activities (happy hour and a DJ set) kick off at 5:30 p.m.; screenings at 8 p.m. 

Where: Fig@7th, 735 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles

Info: artsbrookfield.com

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