Author: Izzy Pottinger
Aelita: Queen of Mars is showing this Thursday, March 24th, at 7:15 pm at the Cornell Cinema. Anna Coogan & TZAR (Michael Stark and Brian Wilson) performing their original score to the film. $11 general ($15 at door) $9 students & seniors ($13 at door). Advance tickets can be purchased here.
I’ll wager half of my student loans that you have never seen a silent film that was truly silent. Imagine that, 90 to 180 minutes without a score to accompany, intensify, and sometimes guide our emotions. Before the advent of sound technology, many musicians made their living scoring and performing during films. After the advent of sound, there’s scarcely a film that feels complete if it doesn’t have music telling us when to feel elation or terror. Today, in order to really appreciate the rich heritage of cinema pre-sound, musicians like the band TZAR and Anna Coogan craft a sound very different from their usual work. When they performed at “Fall of the House of Usher” last year, their music melted into the story. Willie B, Tzar’s drummer, provided a gentle heartbeat to accompany his bandmate’s, Mike Stark, lithe piano melodies. Anna Coogan’s operatic voice rose with conviction, clinging to the room as the film moved frame to frame. It seemed so natural for the musicians to be there, supporting a silent film, that I was surprised to hear what their other music projects actually sound like. I caught up with Willie and Anna to find out how their other professional work interacts with their scoring, and what to expect when they perform accompanying “Aelita: Queen of Mars” this Thursday at the Cornell Cinema:
Iz: When and why did you start performing? How did you end up doing Film Scoring?
Anna: I started training to be an opera singer at a pretty young age, but outside of the occasional school talent show or competition I did not perform much until my early twenties, when I started playing in Seattle’s open mic scene. I almost always love performing. It’s such a rush, it never gets boring, and you never really know what is going to happen. It really breaks up any adult-life monotony.
Willie: TZAR has been playing together since 2006. The last time we did a performance to a film for Cornell Cinema was in 2013. We wrote an original score to René Clair’s “Entr’acte” and “Paris Qui Dort”. We teamed up with Anna last year did “Fall of the House of Usher”. We have been in the music community here in Ithaca for a long time playing in various venues. We were looking for new ways exploring to express ourselves. Writing original compositions for film seemed to be a great way to push ourselves as artists.
Anna: I ended up meeting the founder of the Ithaca International Film Festival (Hugues Barbier) last summer at the Westy (a bar downtown), when we were all relaxing and tossing beanbags in the courtyard. I had seen Mike and Brian (Tzar) perform a live film score a few years ago, and was dying to try my hand at one. That ended up being “The Fall of the House of Usher”, which we performed last November. The best gigs I’ve ever gotten usually come from a chance encounter with someone in a completely non-music related environment.
Iz: How do you think this performance will be different from “Fall of the House of Usher”?
Willie: With the House of Usher, Anna wrote a lot of the compositions. This time around it was more of a collaborative writing process.
Anna: Well, for one, it’s an utterly and completely different movie. “Usher” was unrelentingly dramatic and heavy from basically the first minute, which is great for the kind of music I tend to write. “Aelita” is much lighter, and has several extremely complicated plot elements, several murders, Soviet propaganda and early science fiction…basically; the heavy, over-the-top operatic approach we took to Usher just wouldn’t work here. We performed Usher on the night of the attacks in Paris, and many people were aware of what was happening as they entered the theater. It was a VERY dark and intense night for all. I think Aelita will be more playful (and god willing not such a dark day for the world), more of a romp, lots of history and fun sci-fi and upbeat tunes.
Iz: Have you played a stage like the Willard Straight theater before? Is there anything that excites you about the space?
Willie: Willard Straight is a great place to play because it’s not a stage that was build for music necessarily. I enjoy the challenge.
Anna: I’ve played one additional time, with local musician Mary Lorson. It was such a beautiful space, and it’s such a rare treat to play in a theater. Most gigging musicians spend an inordinate amount of time in bars.
Iz: Silent movies are almost never actually silent. What do you think music adds to the cinematic experience?
Anna: The pacing of these movies is so different than modern films. There is no sex, no drugs, and of course, no dialogue…. Basically made for a different era of attention span, back when Wagner was setting the pacing on things. But even back in the day, they were expected to have music, just as modern movies are heavily scored. It’s nice to have more than one sense involved in the experience, and the music allows you to get into the zone and let the movie really wash over you. Even when watching the films for the first time, I found it challenging without hearing some sort of music in the background, so I ended up listening to a bunch of new releases while watching “Aelita” the first few times.
Willie: Yes, music does add to the cinematic experience for sure. The challenge of conveying what’s happening on screen musically is a welcomed one. Trying to start watching any film from the beginning without sound. Then turn the sound on 10 mins later.
Iz: If you had to categorize your music outside of your work with film, where would you place it?
Anna: My own music is somewhere on the spectrum between indie rock and experimental music, depending on the song and when I wrote it. I started as a folk-country singer, so that inflection and vibe still creeps in from time to time. We (myself and drummer Brian Wilson AKA Willie B) have been experimenting recently with using the operatic vocals and synthesizers in addition to guitars and drums, which has been pushing things in different directions. The film scoring has opened up a whole world of ideas and music I’d never even considered possible.
Willie: TZAR sound is inspired by the avant-garde, electronica, film noir, jazz, & eastern soundscapes . Teaming up with Anna adds a new dimension, adding voice and guitar.
Experience Anna and Tzar live at the Cornell Cinema as they perform their original score with Aelita: Queen of Mars!