Tonal shifts from the tuning of an electric guitar fizzled out as the reed of a tenor saxophone was softly moistened, producing light sounds to hold onto in the darkness of the Barbro Osher Theater at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on Nov. 12. With a final click of an effects pedal, the grainy texture of black-and-white 35-millimeter film cast light into the theater, beginning this year’s CineSpin.
Making its in-person return, this annual event pairs a silent film with live musical accompaniment from local musicians. It’s all too easy to forget the creative process involved in film scores, but improvisation adds another layer. By giving musicians visibility, CineSpin not only showcases creation in the making, but revives the fading tradition of silent films accompanied by live music.
This year, “My Grandmother,” a 1929 Soviet silent film directed by Kote Mikaberidze, was selected to fill the screen. With elements of surrealism and absurdity mixed into live-action and stop-motion animation, the film readily plays on the senses. It follows a lazy bureaucrat as he gets fired and attempts to regain employment through seeking a letter of recommendation from a reputable benefactor, “a grandmother.”
Positioned just below the screen, UC Berkeley alumni Gabriel Sarnoff (guitar and vocals) and Miles Tuncel (saxophone and bamboo flute) added their own twist on the film through live improvisation and composition. Challenging traditional jazz expectations, the duo is known for building on the foundations of jazz through experimenting with genres ranging from folk to electronic, giving CineSpin a fresh vitality.
Liquid-like effects, reverberated screeches and sequences of notes rolling into erratic patterns gave voice to the world in which bureaucrats slide backward up stair handles and make exaggerated gestures in oversized chairs. Rather than directly mirroring the film, Sarnoff and Tuncel played with contrast to create an exchange of meaning between the sounds they produced and the visuals that were projected.
Just before the bureaucrat hung himself, Sarnoff relied on the stripped-down strums of his acoustic guitar and the warmth of his voice, anchoring viewers amid crooked shots of stop-motion dolls with gaping mouths. Once the bureaucrat’s wife and daughter entered the scene, dancing beneath his hanging body, the hum of Tuncel’s saxophone trickled in as Sarnoff returned to his Gibson electric. Warped effects heavily contrasted the previous raw acoustics, and they flung viewers back into irrationality as the bureaucrat un-hangs himself and joins his dancing family.
At times, the music sounded foreign from the instruments they were coming from, adding to the absurdity and challenging the viewer’s senses. Other times, the sounds and visuals seemed inseparable, as if this was the score that always accompanied “My Grandmother.”
When the bureaucrat goes looking for a “grandmother,” he comes into contact with a nude statue. Prompted by a cigarette butt carelessly left on the floor, the statue jumps to life, accusing the bureaucrat of breaking the rule and guiding him to the trash can before returning to his static position. The whisper of Tuncel’s bamboo flute added a dizzying effect to this already dizzying scene, feeling as though the statue’s ability to come to life rested on the sounds of the flute.
Similarly, as the bureaucrat squatted low — attempting to collect the infinite amount of cigarettes that suddenly appeared across the floor — Sarnoff’s contorted guitar picking brought a ludicrousness to the bobbing bureaucrat. It gave a fleeting sense of life to the film that, because of its improvisation, can never again be repeated.
The audience was welcomed to shift its focus from the film’s visuals to Sarnoff or Tuncel — their faces lit by the screen, bodies folding into the sounds rising from their vision.
As the film came to an end and the credits faded away, the screen returned to its original blankness, but Sarnoff and Tuncel remained on stage, standing erect as they overlooked the audience. They invited an energy of playful vulnerability that danced through the eyes and ears of each attendee, opening a shared moment of presence and inimitability, leaving the audience in early anticipation for next year’s CineSpin.