In silent-film days, the noises that accompanied mute flickers didn't emanate solely from derbied men plunking away at upright pianos. In some theaters, professional storytellers -- in Japan, they were called benshi -- interpreted the screen play for the audience.
These days, the only unprerecorded sounds you'll hear during a movie come from the guy behind you who won't shut up. The art and technology of motion-picture sound have advanced to levels hardly imagined even a generation ago, capable of capturing perfectly everything from the roar of a full orchestra to a pin-drop in the Library of Congress -- spinning an acoustic cocoon with an aesthetic agenda.
In the world of underground cinema, such circumstances are not taken for granted. In 1998, Providence-based puppeteer and filmmaker Xander Marro found a way to marry the intrinsic appeal of film's locked-in visual artistry to the energy of live, improvised performance. Adding a postmodern sensibility to the accompanist traditions of the silent-film era, Marro's Movies With Live Soundtracks series has screened short original films and videos and lent them voices with everything from actors and singers to live prank phone calls, barking dogs, an ensemble of snare drums and a talking mechanical pony. Any sound will do, as long as there's "no mechanically predetermined audio synchronization."
Now for the first time the six-year-old series is on tour, for a month-long roadshow encompassing 17 cities in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. On Thu., Sept. 2, Marro and five fellow traveling film- and noise-makers join local kindred spirits Greg Pierce, Scott Carney and Jacob Ciocci for a show at the Melwood Screening Room.
In recent years, special silent-classics-plus-live-music events, featuring groups like the Alloy Orchestra, have each drawn hundreds to Pittsburgh theaters. Marro's Movies With Live Soundtracks falls more to the experimental end of the spectrum, often eschewing traditional screening rooms for venues including a supermarket parking lot and city alleyways.
The films too are idiosyncratic. For her part, Marro -- a perennial performer at Pittsburgh's Black Sheep Puppet Festival -- presents "The Further Adventures of Lady Longarms in the Land of Love," a 10-minute, live-action fairy tale on 16 mm about one of Marro's alter egos finding herself in a strange land, in the company of a fortune-telling owl and menaced by bloodthirsty polar bears. The soundtrack is Marro's vocals and drumming, plus electronic soundscapes.
Joe Dery, meanwhile, does live Foley work (sound effects) for his short; Matt Brinkman provides electronic accompaniment for his puppet narrative; and Ben Coonley offers "Win Loss Column," a film about baseball's seventh-inning stretch with live narration, cell-phone chatter and keyboard.
Aside from being raw, intimate and improvisational -- everything a typical prerecorded soundtrack isn't -- Movies With Live Soundtracks is also different every show. That's a way, perhaps not incidentally, of revealing the vital role sound plays in conditioning our response to movies, in which the image is conventionally regarded as all-important. Fresh noises, in other words, can make you read the same picture in an utterly different light. "Two nights ago," says Marro by phone from Montreal, "one of the pieces was really funny that had never been funny before."