Seattle Musicians Score 'The Hitchcock 9' at SIFF

We talk to local performers about the process of scoring the director's early silent films.

By Mike Lydon July 15, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t always the Master of Suspense. In the 1920s, before he crafted classics like Psycho, Vertigo, and The Birds, he was just another young director trying to find his voice. “Hitchcock was trying all sorts of different styles to define who he was as a director, but his technical skills are still there,” says SIFF Cinema programmer Clinton McClung.

The Hitchcock 9, part of the largest restoration ever undertaken by the British Film Institute, offers up newly restored prints of the nine oldest surviving Hitchcock films. The movies screen at SIFF Cinema Uptown July 26–28, accompanied by all-new live soundtracks composed by local musicians. SIFF hopes the project will promote a conversation between past and present art culture while taking advantage of Seattle’s bustling music scene.

We talked to some of the participating musicians about their approach to scoring Hitchcock.

Diminished Men — Blackmail (1929)

McClung was quick to associate the dark, brooding sound of Diminished Men with a classical Hitchcock thriller. The instrumental band’s approach: a jazzy noir soundtrack in the style of Quincy Jones and the classically trained film musicians of the 1960s. “If the score is too heavy, it will override some of the subtleness of the film,” said the band’s drummer, Dave Abramson. “A few of the themes that we’ve come up with have some darkness and some edginess to them without being overpowering.” Watch for a classic chase through the British Museum.

Lori Goldston — The Ring (1927) and The Manxman (1929)

Best known for touring with Nirvana, cellist Lori Goldston has built up an extensive resume scoring films for more than two decades. She returns to SIFF to work her magic on two Hitchcock romantic dramas. “I've always loved the tension between the creepy atmosphere and the bizarrely idealized vision of everyday life,” Goldston said. This isn’t the first time she has taken on Hitchcock's work. Goldston performed a score for The Ring in a series at the O.K. Hotel several years ago. This time around, though, she is preparing her own rendition of “awful, raw, violent” themes to accompany the film, and intends to leave a very personal stamp on the audience that they wouldn’t get from any other screening.

Hitchcock gets tipsy on Champagne.

Leslie McMichael — Champagne (1928)

“Harps always get stereotyped,” griped harpist Leslie McMichael, but she is deadset on proving the naysayers wrong with her bubbly score for the equally light-hearted Champagne, Hitchcock’s most cheerful silent picture. There is no murder, no mistaken identity, and not even a Hitchcock cameo, but this romantic comedy about a spoiled heiress and her rebellious lover is almost tailormade for McMichael’s playful style. “It’s just an effervescent film, and the harp is definitely capable of bright, sparkling music. But I’m also using pedals and bent notes to create sounds more akin to blues or ragtime,” she said.

DJ James Whetzel — Downhill (1927)

Don’t tell Seattle DJ James Whetzel what a 1920s film score should sound like; he’ll have none of that. The electro-acoustic artist keeps every kind of music imaginable in his toolkit, from Indian classical to old-school hip-hop, and he intends to use them all in his setlist for Downhill, Hitchcock’s earliest exploration of guilt and consequence. “Sometimes I’m going to do something that flows with the mood in a very obvious, simple, straightforward way,” he said, “but sometimes it’s going to have an intentionally meta level of commentary.”

Miles and Karina — The Pleasure Garden (1925) and Easy Virtue (1928)

Drawing on their experience scoring The Adventures of Prince Achmed (the oldest surviving animated film) for the Northwest Film Forum, David “Miles” Keenan and Nova “Karina” Devonie are developing a nostalgic composition of classic 1920s-sounding melodies, with hints of swing, to play alongside Hitchcock’s melodramatic directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden. They're even thowing a hardy dose of toy piano and kazoo into the mix. “We know that both film and music on their own are completely compelling. But when you put the two together, something else happens that I’ve never experienced in any other format,” Keenan said. “It engages more parts of your brain; it’s better than drugs.”

The Hitchcock 9
July 26–28, SIFF Cinema Uptown, $15–$20; $125 series pass.

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