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In a Silent Way

The Silent Music Revival paints old celluloid with new sound.

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Silent movies were never really silent. Before the advent of talkies, most film screenings were accompanied by live music, whether a solo pianist or a full ensemble.

Jameson Price has taken his love for silent films and updated the music for contemporary audiences with the Silent Music Revival. And what began amongst a gathering of friends in Price's apartment has evolved into a monthly live music and film event at Gallery5.

Initially, local DJs spun vinyl records to the film, until local band Mermaid Skeletons revealed the possibilities of live music. “I showed a film called ‘The Tempest,'” Price recalls. “A woman goes to see a fortune teller to find out if her lover has died at sea and he gets magically whisked back [to land] because the fortune teller controls the waves.” The visual elements of the film meshed so well with the oceanic melodies of Mermaid Skeletons that Price was hooked.

Fast forward almost four years and the Silent Music Revival has been seen at several different venues in Richmond. While Price worked in South America last year, Jessica Harsh and Courtney Klein served as hosts in his absence. Behind the curtain once more, Price's outlook has changed. “I'm coming into it with a fresh mind and trying to not be as strict,” he says.

While musicians often will watch the movie while they play and then improvise with it, such as last month's act the Diamond Center, Price has never allowed musicians to see a film before the event. He won't reveal a plot synopsis, but he usually offers basic hints, including the length, so they can practice their set time and general mood. “When Jonathan Vassar [performed to] ‘Menilmontant,' I told him, ‘Just so you know, the film is kind of dark,'” Price says. “Otherwise, I want it all to be a surprise.”

Lately, Price has explored the idea of having the reunited Homemade Knives write a complete score to a film, which they seem more comfortable with. Price just has to find the right film.

Many of the films he'd like to use for Silent Music Revival, such as “Metropolis” or “Haxan,” have been chopped for DVD purposes. The event was started using reel-to-reel projectors, but economics led Price to switch to digital. “If you wanted to find ‘Camerman's Revenge' on eBay, it's $75 to $100,” he says, “whereas on DVD it's $10.” Because the event's free, there's very little in the operating budget.

Other films Price would like to screen are extremely difficult to find on DVD, such as silent cartoons, or don't pass politically correct muster. For example, “The Hearts of Age,” the first film by Orson Welles, features actors in blackface. This was included as a way to mock the practice, because Welles famously hired black actors when it was still controversial in Hollywood. But because it's an avant-garde film, the point easily could be lost. Since Price provides a brief prologue for each film, he may have just attracted more controversy (Harsh and Klein screened the film without discussing it beforehand, with no complaints).

What Price can never plan is the way music, lyrics and film have the ability to synch up in strange and coincidental ways, a la “Dark Side of Oz” — Jonathan Vassar singing “follow me into the forest” while the film flash-backs to a little girl playing in the woods, or Issac Ramsey of Swordplay rapping through a dream sequence of “red to blue to green” while the film screen changes colors.

Price's ultimate dream is to screen the 1924 Erich Von Stroheim film, “Greed,” while the Richmond Symphony performs an avant-garde soundtrack. “A feature film that's two hours long is a lot to ask from a band,” Price says, “but the symphony's used to it.” S

Silent Music Revival returns to Gallery5 on July 25. Amazing Ghost will perform to the 1928 film “Uberfall,” directed by Erno Metzner. The 8 p.m. event is free.

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