Silent Film Ensemble Baffles with Surrealist Production

Anne Pride-Wilt, Staff Writer

What does a lemon have to do with a woman’s smile or with a key that transforms into a knife? On the surface, nothing. It’s the space below the surface, however, that the Silent Film Ensemble seeks to excavate, the kind of subconscious associations that are often overlooked. The Silent Film Ensemble’s Saturday night presentation of “Lemons, ‘Professors,’ and Dancers” in Warner Concert Hall was all about uniting disparate images with music in an attempt to create an experience that transcended its components, and, to an extent, it was successful. After all, the experimental music and the surreal silent films it accompanied were both rendered interesting by the other. And yet, one had to wonder whether if anything important was being conveyed, or if the project was merely reveling in its own weirdness.


Previously known as the Cut-It Ensemble, the group is composed of nine Conservatory and double-degree students ranging from first-years to seniors who improvise live experimental accompaniments to silent films. In this case, the short films were uniformly bizarre and unsettling, as was the music performed by the ensemble, robbing listeners of the traditional reference points of melody and musicality. The product was a double whammy of disorientation, as the human urge to hunt for patterns was frustrated both by the buzzing, beeping score and the highly surrealistic nature of the films.


The six films span a wide range of time periods from 1896, with George Méliès’s The Haunted Castle, to 1969, the year of Hollis Frampton’s Lemon, to the contemporary, with a silent film titled Rim Ram by ensemble member and Conservatory senior Charles Glanders. While some films were grounded in recognizable images — a lemon, a woman, a knife, the ocean — others, particularly Woody Vasulka and Brian O’Reilly’s highly abstract, synthesized “Scan Processor Studies,” contained only the merest suggestion of the familiar, giving the whole presentation a nightmarish, disconnected aura.


Considering that the ensemble is affiliated with the TIMARA department in the Conservatory, it should come as no surprise that the music, although presumably created to some degree by the instruments present on stage, was presented as wholly electronic. Just as with the films, the music, which was ostensibly the point of the presentation, was as hard to pin down. While we may primarily be familiar with melodramatic, cue-heavy orchestral music as the backdrop for a silent film, the music eschewed the limitations of tradition in favor of the avant-garde. The music provided no emotional cues for the audience members, instead leaving them to piece together whatever emotion it could from the bizarre interaction of noise and screen.


There was nothing fun or pleasant about The Silent Film Ensemble’s presentation. On the contrary, it was frightening and disorienting, an absurdist vacation from the real into a mental space where the rules of cause and effect did not apply. There is something to be said for the occasional break from reality, but the problem inherent to “Lemons, ‘Professors,’ and Dancers” was that the form it took was solely that: a break. While such a stunt may be worthwhile simply for its disorienting quality, the viewer leaves with no interesting ideas or revelations. The only thing the viewer takes with him or her is a sense of discomfort and confusion.

Weirdness for weirdness’s sake can only take you so far. While all the performers were certainly technically talented, the program focused heavily on the bizarre with little attention given to actual substance. The lemon, the woman’s smile, the key — the only connection between them is the startling disconnect they create between them and the audience.