Silent night: Cuong Vu performs in front of D.W. Griffith’s 1928 movie Battle of the Sexes during the May 3 Palace Theatre showing at the Syracuse International Film Festival. Michael Davis photos.
Sparseness was the word for the night.
Griffith’s jazz-age look at a golddigger—not the 49er kind—unfolded in
a time-faded, cigarette smoke-filled haze, where scenes mostly stuck to
single, simple rooms and were set with but brief screen inserts of
written dialogue. “I want you to see my new bathing suit,” one said,
when floozy Marie Skinner flaunts herself for her prey, William Judson
(Jean Hersholt, namesake of the Oscars’ Humanitarian Award). Judson is
a wealthy real-estate tycoon who follows Skinner’s bait into an affair,
and all the way into a jazz nightclub, where watching him shower her on
a fateful night with $20 and $50 bills—no small currency 90 years
ago—happen to be his wife and children.
The tension of the preceding minutes is
articulated in a combination of woozy horn, nervous pitter-pattering
cymbals and pulsing bass, and crescendos in near-chaos when Judson’s
wife (Belle Bennett) spots him dancing with his blond paramour. The
shock—Clank! Plunk!—cripples the brass into a breathless wheeze, and a fainted Mrs. Judson is ushered out off the dance floor in sudden silence.
Judson and Skinner (played by Phyllis
Haver, who chased a couple millionaires herself during her tragic
life), are oblivious, and their revelry in spite of the quiet theater
watching them is powerfully metaphoric. Vu used silence to the same
effect at several other points during the 90-or-so minutes, so the
improvisation-heavy score had the feel of distinct songs. Pervading it
were his trademarks as a player: ribbons of floating lines, strung in
huge arcs over the rhythms, doctored with effects like reverb and echo
with the help of effects pedals connected to his amplifier. His style
can probably be likened to Pat Metheny’s, the jazz guitarist with whose
group Vu won the 2006 Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, for The Way Up (Nonesuch).
But Vu’s floating, sustained sounds came off a little different in the context of his trio: less innocuous, more rock’n’roll. Takeishi, with long black hair veiling his face when he slouched, played a compact, beat-up electric bass
sans headstock, which he fed through his own effects pedals. At times
he’d kneel over to fiddle with the knobs amid his own drone oceans,
like an Asian Hendrix inciting his equipment toward flames. Drummer
Poor’s fills sought the drive in even amorphous passages, furrowing the
textures with taps, clangs and cracks with one limb on the pulse.
The sometimes uneasy-feeling music of
the trio embodied the characters’ turmoil well, especially Mrs. Judson,
who was a prototype for all future June Cleavers: cheerily subordinate,
blaming herself when hubby strayed. Son Billy and daughter Ruth (Billy
Bakewell and Sally O’Neil, respectively) are her emotional foils,
viewing Dad’s transgression as an opportunity to steer him right. For
Ruth, this means feigning love interest in Babe Winsor, a sketchy “jazz
hound” who is Skinner’s partner-in-crime of sorts. Dad loathes Winsor
for earlier suspicion that Skinner is two-timing: “You’re disgracing
the whole family!” he screams at Ruth, via screen dialogue. “It’s too
late, Daddy, you already beat me to it!” Ruth replies, the tension
peaking in doom, doom, doom death-plods. And then the score recedes into pensive waters, in sync with Dad Judson returning home.
However, Vu’s score doesn’t totally
resolve itself when the movie does; the sunny tone the plot leaves on
is basked in ominous whir. But behind the rock-informed atmospherics,
for those listening obsessively enough, were yet more textural shifts,
and yes, all sorts of new and old jazz elements. After the movie, an
audience member asked Vu if he’d tried at all to invoke the feel of
jazz circa 1928 during the nightclub scene. He replied simply, “no,”
and smiled ever so slightly.