the alternative soundtrack DOVETAIL ORCHESTRA
INSegundo de Chomón’s 1909 silent short film
A Panicky Picnic, a pastoral outing for a meal in the woods turns creepy and surreal when mice crawl out of eggshells and worms squirm from a chocolate cake — frightening the men and their lady friend, who had just begun to enjoy one another’s company. The food, once luscious, is now an abomination, and the picnickers take cover under a large parasol, perhaps believing the sky is falling. Later, they arrive at a house where cooking pots grow ghoulish faces and ghostly muses dance in the fireplace.
This early entry in fantasy filmmaking is one of 10 silent shorts included in Dovetail Orchestra’s
Veil at SITE Santa Fe, Friday, Oct. 26, and Saturday, Oct. 27. Dovetail Orchestra, led by musician and composer Ross Hamlin, creates new contemporary scores for old movies. Veil is the second installment of this project. The first, Underscore, premiered at SITE in February 2018. Veil was created to match the mood of the Halloween season. The Friday-night show is followed by a costume party co-sponsored by Violet Crown Cinema; there is a cash bar for the grown-ups and free classic Halloween treats like candy apples and popcorn balls for the kids, as well as music by DJ Garronteed. Local writer and radio personality Julia Goldberg will dress as Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and serve as the judge of the costume contest.
De Chomón was a Spanish filmmaker born in 1871. He helped develop the Pathéchrome process, a stencil-based method of film-tinting patented in the early 20th century. He was a contemporary — and competitor — of Georges Méliès, a French filmmaker who pioneered many early special effects like dissolves and time-lapse photography. Méliès, who came from a financially well-to-do family, had a background in stage magic. As his interest in filmmaking deepened, he developed and patented, with Lucien Reulos, the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin, a cast-iron camera-projector that he used for a few years before others improved upon movie-camera technology. Three short films by each man are included in Veil. In The Four Troublesome Heads (1898), starring Méliès himself, the dapper filmmaker removes his own head and places it on a table, only to have it grow back several times.
“Some of the shorts are weird and dark,” Hamlin said. “In some of them, a little devil appears and messes with people. He jumps around, crawls out of the floor, and calls up his minions and stuff like that. But they are good for kids because they’re not scaryscary. Just a little bit unnerving. They didn’t have a lot of effects back then so they did a lot of gesticulating in order to convey things.”
Hamlin studied film scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He moved to Santa Fe in 2004 and taught in the Contemporary Music Program at the shuttered Santa Fe University of Art and Design from 2010 until 2018. He now teaches private music lessons and plays a few gigs a month with jazzoriented and experimental projects. He said Dovetail Orchestra’s first event at SITE Santa Fe was the most well-attended performance he’s ever given in town, where he hasn’t quite found the audience for his offbeat aesthetic. He would like to expand the moviescore project into Albuquerque and Taos. “The kids love it and the old people love it — even when the music gets really weird,” he said.
For Veil, Hamlin plays acoustic, electric, baritone, and bass guitars, the dobro, ukulele, trumpet, and keyboards. Lee Steck plays the vibraphone and drums, among other instruments, and Casey Andersen plays cello, upright and electric bass, piano, and keyboard. Hamlin explains that the piano is a “prepared piano” of the type used by composer John Cage. “It’s mostly a normal piano, but in the high register and the low register we’re sticking wood screws and chunks of rubber onto the strings to turn it into a percussive instrument.” Hamlin said the highlight of the live accompaniment will be sound effects performed by Daniel Carlton. The sound design has elements of old radio theater, such as the clip-clop of coconut shells to represent horses’ hooves, as well as computer-generated sound that is tracked to plot points contained in the individual films, such as explosions.
Among the other movies included in Veil is George Albert Smith’s Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903), in which a woman makes a mess of polishing shoes and somehow winds up trying to start a fire with a jug full of paraffin wax, which is highly flammable. She blasts up through the chimney and comes back as a ghost.
One of the lengthier shorts is the 1912 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Lucius Henderson, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Over the course of about 12 minutes, actor James Cruze repeatedly transforms his physicality and personality because of the effects of a drug that separates his character into two separate beings — one good and one evil. Vintage animation makes an appearance in The
Skeleton Dance, a Walt Disney “Silly Symphony” from 1929 that originally had music by Carl Stalling and Edvard Grieg. “I didn’t want to use the old music, so I just stripped it. The skeletons in a graveyard are dancing around, falling on each other, and playing on each other’s spines and rib cages. Their dancing helped me find a tempo,” Hamlin said. In another short piece from the same era, Bimbo’s
Initiation (1931), the dog-like character from old Betty Boop cartoons avoids being sucked into a cult of intimidating hooded men — only to be rescued in the end by a line of dancing Bettys. That, too, had what Hamlin called a primitive soundtrack that he removed and replaced with a new composition.
“It’s a good opportunity to revisit the early days of cinema — a simpler time in a certain sense — and marry that with a modern sensibility,” he said. “The films take on a different form. You’re going to be hearing elements of jazz, techno, folk, hip-hop, and experimental, soundscapey ambient stuff.”