Mini-orchestra will perform original silent film music at Ragtag Cinema

Monday, September 21, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:53 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 21, 2009

COLUMBIA — The music group Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra will perform an original accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s “Go West” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ragtag Cinema. 

Matthew Freundlich, associate programmer for the Ragtag Cinema, discovered Rats & People two years ago when the group first performed “Go West” for a film series at Webster University in St. Louis.

“It was striking that they were able to mix up various genres, orchestrate complex arrangements and also tap into the emotion of the film,” Freundlich said. “It was also rare that musicians under the age of 40 were performing and composing silent film accompaniment. I was very excited.”

By writing mixed-genre scores with instruments as varied as the violin and tape loops, Rats & People pairs its own contemporary style with these classic films.

Freundlich contacted Rats & People and arranged to have them perform their music for “The Last Laugh” for the Ragtag’s German expressionist series last October. His goal is to present these silent films to audiences as what they truly are — movies. 

The group has participated in competitions, namely participating in the Webster University’s film series in St. Louis. Matt Pace, a member of the band, explained that at a screening for the documentary “Silver Spurs,” some of the group’s current members met Mike Steinberg, program director for the series. 

“We usually watch a film a bunch of times before we actually start thinking about what we’re going to do with it,” said Pace, who plays piano, guitar and trumpet. “Then, we pick up on all of the themes by thinking of them as acts of the movie. The emotions are always more important to us than the action.”

Freundlich believes that new musical accompaniment, like that of Rats & People, can help bring out important details of these films.

“Context is important. The original music included tinkling piano scores. That was written for a 1925 audience and was appropriate for them,” Freundlich said. “But Rats & People's music complements the film. It gives a sense of the melancholy, loneliness and attitude in a different but much more interesting way.”

Rats & People has composed musical accompaniments for other silent films since “Go West,” including the German expressionist film, “The Last Laugh” and the Russian government-commissioned “Strike.” 

Keaton wrote "Go West" in 1925 as a comedy about a hapless city slicker who falls off a train near a ranch and tries his luck as a cowboy. It was the first silent film the St. Louis-based group used to develop its musical style.

“I think the term ‘silent film’ already marginalizes these movies. While the definition is accurate, it already has some type of stigma working against it,” Freundlich said. “Yes, Buster Keaton was a great silent filmmaker. But first and foremost, he was a great filmmaker.”

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