UnSilent Cinema | New York + Los Angeles

UnSilent Cinema | New York + Los Angeles

Since 2004 David Spelman has commissioned outstanding musicians to compose and perform scores to accompany classic and underappreciated silent films. Early cinema has influenced generations of filmmakers and continues to inspire audiences today. Spelman’s belief is that it is impossible to appreciate silent film’s power and charm without recognizing the contribution of musical accompaniment.

A bridge from the early 20th century to today, UnSilent Cinema connects film masterpieces with contemporary musical culture.

The series began at New York City’s Merkin Concert Hall and in 2016 Spelman partnered with Martin Fleischmann of the Los Angeles production company Rum & Humble to bring the series to Downtown L.A., sponsored by Arts Brookfield, the cultural arm of global real estate corporation Brookfield Property Partners.

Musicians featured have included Bill Frisell, Bon Iver, My Brightest Diamond, Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Daedalus, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Jimmy Tamborello (The Postal Service), Marc Ribot, Kaki King, Alvin Youngblood Hart, David Bromberg, Dan Zanes, Califone, James Blackshaw, Gyan Riley, Steve Kimock, Alex de Grassi, Chicha Libra, Buke & Gase, Redhooker, Brandon Ross, Leni Stern, Callie, Henry Kaiser, Toubab Krewe and Keller Williams.

Films scored include features and shorts by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Georges Melies, Josef von Sternberg, Yasujiro Ozu, Harry Everett Smith, Wu Yonggang, and Teinosuke Kinugasa.

The Financial Times wrote, "the New York Guitar Festival has given acclaimed guitarists the task of composing a live score to a series of silent films. It’s a trickier exercise than it sounds. The temptation, as guitarist Marc Ribot observed last week, is to create a literal soundtrack – a twang for a punch, a cascading scale for a tumble down the stairs. But this method has a tendency to kill the joke. Better, Ribot said, to take the long view and create a mood." And in describing Justin Vernon and Chris Rosenau's music for Charlie Chaplin's 1917 Easy Street, it wrote, "their nostalgic, legato accompaniment allowed the serious commentary of the film to emerge."

KCRW, National Public Radio's flagship station for Southern California, described the series as “a mash up of historic films with the music of the future — yet another example of the explosion of free and innovative cultural events overtaking Los Angeles, and DTLA in particular. Cutting-edge silent films from a century ago are paired with scores from some of the hottest and most innovative musicians today.”

Acoustic Guitar observed, "the concept of pairing silent films with live guitar accompaniment might seem incongruous—after all, most original scores for silent films were written for the piano or for orchestras. But during the Silent Films/Live Guitars events at this year’s New York Guitar Festival, the two mediums interacted brilliantly."

Flavorpill called the series "unique," while the Village Voice described Spelman's pairing of folk legend David Bromberg with Charlie Chaplin as an "inspired choice."

A partial list of film titles includes:

Fatty Arbuckle: "Coney Island" (1917)
Fatty Arbuckle: "The Garage" (1920)
Fatty Arbuckle: "Out West" (1918)
Fatty Arbuckle: "Oh Doctor!" (1917)
Charlie Chaplin: "Easy Street" (1917)
Charlie Chaplin: "The Immigrant" 1917
Charlie Chaplin: "The Kid" 1921
Charlie Chaplin: "One A.M." (1916)
Charlie Chaplin: "The Pilgrim" (1923)
Charlie Chaplin: "Shoulder Arms" (1918)
Buster Keaton: "Balloonatic" (1923)
Buster Keaton: "Cops" (1922)
Buster Keaton: "The Frozen North" (1922)
Buster Keaton: "The Goat" (1921)
Buster Keaton: "Go West" (1925)
Buster Keaton: "The Neighbors" (1920)
Buster Keaton: One Week (1920)
Buster Keaton: "The Scarecrow" (1920)
Buster Keaton: "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928)
Teinosuke Kinugasa "A Page of Madness" (1926)
Georges Méliès: "The Impossible Voyage" (1904)
Georges Méliès: "A Trip to the Moon" (1902)
Yasujiro Ozu: "I Was Born, But…" (1932)
Walter Rutman: "Berlin: Symphony of a City" (1927)
Keisuke Sasaki: "Dkudan Hanayome" (1935)
Harry Everett Smith: "Early Abstractions" (1939 - 1956)
Josef von Sternberg: "The Docks of New York" (1928)
Wu Yonggang: "The Goddess" (1934)

Wall Street Journal 2016 review

Los Angeles Times 2016 feature

Los Angeles Downtown News 2016 feature

Wall Street Journal 2014 feature

Financial Times 2010 review

Acoustic Guitar 2010 review

Bomb review

Capital New York feature

Wall Street Journal 2012 video interview