Filmusik brings musicians, movies together on stage to create soundtracks
by: Christopher Onstott Clae Spratt with Subterranean Howl performs a live score to the 1927 silent film “The Unknown” at a Filmusik event, which combines film with live music, dubbing and sound effects into an original performance at the Hollywood Theatre.

Inside The Hollywood Theatre, Portland indie electro rock band The Subterranean Howl steadily stokes the musical fire as they rehearse playing to the climatic scene from the 1927 movie 'The Unknown.'

A silent horror film, 'The Unknown' features Lon Chaney as carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless and a young Joan Crawford as the carnival girl Nanon he hopes to marry. However, Malabar, a circus strongman, played by Norman Terry, eventually wins the heart of Nanon.

Which leads us to the horrifying final scene. As part of an act with Nanon, Malabar's arms are hooked up to two horses on treadmills, seemingly pulling him apart while Nanon whips them. However, after the jealous Alonzo stops one of the treadmills, the horse actually starts to yank Malabar's arm for real. Ouch!

Keyboardist Simon Milliman, drummer Jerrad Nash, bassist Aaron Moore and cigar box guitarist Clae Spratt steadily build a primal tempo as onscreen Malabar struggles to save himself. The band uses ominous yet almost poignant sound effects to scare the living daylights out of the audience, creating a soundtrack from scratch.

'Being in a rock band, in particular, I think it opens up corridors for you to branch out into,' Milliman says.

Nash adds the difficult part is hitting the correct cues as the band watches the movie on a monitor. 'The fun thing is the different dynamics of the music,' he says.

Coming up with music that enhances the written narrative and dialogue is the hardest part for the band. 'We're trying to avoid clichés,' Nash says.

'The Unknown' is the latest installment in the monthly Organ Grinders series at the Hollywood, according to James Dineen, owner of Criswell Studios in Northeast Portland, which collaborates with the theater on the series.

Dineen also hosts 'Sessions from the Box' on 107.1 FM KZME, which airs Thursdays at 5 p.m. and features local bands recorded at his studio.

Organ Grinders pairs bands with silent films and is an offshoot of Filmusik, which pairs bands with talkies, Dineen says, noting that Filmusik was the 2009 brainchild of Portland musician Galen Huckins. In Filmusik, bands and orchestras work with sound films by removing and 're-imagining' the soundtrack, he says.

The Subterranean Howl debuted its live soundtrack for 'The Unknown' on Dec. 15. The show drew about 60 people, and Milliman says he was satisfied with the band's performance.

'People's response was really overwhelming,' he says. 'One woman came up afterward and said she was so moved by the performance she cried.'

Milliman adds that playing live was a little stressful, laughing as he recalls when he couldn't figure out how to turn on the monitor that shows the band the film as they play. He had to sometimes loudly whisper as he cued the band when they got a little lost, he adds.

'It's a silent movie, so any kind of whisper people hear you,' he says with a laugh. However, things went well overall, and he found the experience enthralling.

'People were surprised by how perfectly they felt our music adapted to the film,' he says.

Filling every moment

In Filmusik and Organ Grinders, a variety of musicians create fresh aural interpretations of such films as the so-bad-it's-great sci-fi classic 'Plan 9 From Outer Space,' the spaghetti Western 'Death Rides a Horse' and the film noir 'Kansas City Confidential.'

'It might seem really easy when you see a band in a bar,' Dineen says. 'But when they're performing for a movie, they have to fill every available moment.'

Musicians who have collaborated on Filmusik projects or Organ Grinders include electronica artist Sugar Short Wave, Jazz West Multiverse, The Blue Cranes, The Classical Revolution PDX String Quartet, ECCE New Music Orchestra, the Opera Theatre Oregon Chorus, Heather Perkins and 1939 Ensemble, a duo featuring Jose Medeles of The Breeders and David Coniglio.

Filmusik has even used such local actors as Enrique Andrade - the baritone-voiced guy who tells you in Spanish how to get off the MAX train -to dub dialogue for foreign or animated films, Dineen says.

Filmusik has also created shows centered on video games, collaborating with the classic arcade Ground Kontrol in Northwest Portland to create Arcade-O-Vision. A live band improvises music as audience members take turns playing old arcade games projected on a 30-foot screen.

'People were kind of thrilled with it,' he says of Arcade-O-Vision, which debuted last July. 'It's a way of playing video games that's so far out of the ordinary that it really captivated people.'

Echoes of vaudeville

The Hollywood Theatre's history is one of the reasons Filmusik and Organ Grinders works so well, according to sound engineer D. Neil Blake.

'This theater was built for vaudeville performance back in the day,' he says. 'It's a big space, and low frequencies have room to develop in this space.'

Not to mention that because the theater was completed in 1926, it's configured to accommodate an eight-piece orchestra and an organist to accompany silent films.

'It harkens back to the original use of the theater,' Dineen says. 'This re-imagines the silent film era, bringing it into the age of rock and electronica.'

The next installment of Organ Grinders takes place at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13, in the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. Boston band Bent Knee will perform with 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,' a 1920 German silent horror film.

For more info on the people and places in the article visit these Web sites:,, galenhuckins .com,, and reverbnation .com/thesubterraneanhowl.

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