Six months ago, Geoff Gersh sat down to watch the silent black and white film Blancanieves. Before it even finished, he knew he wanted to rescore it for the Live Sound Cinema (LSC) series at Nitehawk Cinemas. “I like dark art movies and images,” Gersh said. “I just find it inspiring and this has a lot of that.”
The 2012 film, written and directed by Pablo Berger, “combines elements of Snow White (Charles Perrault, not Disney), Carmen, bullfighting, Bette Davis at her most frightening, and the grotesque,” Berger once explained to Interview magazine. Gersh describes the film, and his score, as “ambient and melancholy.”
After watching the show with Gersh’s score, I realized that live musical accompaniment immerses an audience in a film’s narrative in a way that nothing else can.
Gersh’s first rescoring of a film for LSC was 1927’s Academy Award winning silent film WINGS. For this film, he rescored every one of the 144-minutes, spending two months working on it in a hot loft in Brooklyn in July. “It’s not about saying, ‘Oh, this is better,’” explained Gersh.“It’s a different take, a different version, like covering a song.”
“We like to go against the grain, especially in silent films where there’s a very stylized genre of music. [Audiences] have a sound in mind. So I might do something completely opposite than what’s going on in the screen. You add more or less of a certain ingredient and it totally changes the flavor,” he elaborated.
During a tumultuous scene at the beginning of Blancanieves, for example, Gersh added droning sounds while Antonio Villalta was getting gored by a bull. The atypical choice of tone further heightened the audience’s tension by avoiding the comfort of an expected traditional frenetic accompaniment.
In contrast to his rescore of WINGS, Gersh created eleven of what he calls “events” for Blancanieves. The beginning and end have set events, but Gersh improvises in between those capstones by using hand signals to communicate the sequence of the other pre-programmed events. This also makes each performance unique.
Gersh’s process for rescoring a film involves watching the film multiple times, without sound if it is not already silent, and without an instrument. He listens for what begins to emerge in his head and eventually picks up his guitar. When he creates something that fits, he develops it further. “My scores in almost every kind of live musical setting involve a lot of improvisation. I love for things to happen in the moment for us and what’s happening in the moment [on screen and in the audience].”
Gersh has been marrying movement and sound for choreographers, filmmakers, painter friends of his for twenty years now. “I’m very thankful that Nitehawk has a series like this and is supportive of me and other bands that work here on an ongoing basis.” His involvement with Nitehawk began when he came to see another band perform for LSC and thought “I have to do this.” Gersh emailed the manager to express his interest and has been performing with his collective, Black Lodge, or his band Reel Orchestrette, for four years now.
Gersh and longtime collaborator Bradford Reed (pencilina, drums) formed Reel Orchestrette in 2012 as a band “dedicated to the art of live musical accompaniment to silent films.” Their next project is to develop the live score to the Films of Alice Guy-Blaché as part of the “SHE MADE IT” brunch, midnight, and special event series at Nitehawk Cinemas. Reel Orchestrette will perform on September 26 and 27 at 12pm.
Blancanieves is streaming on Netflix and Hulu.