For the past several years, guitarist Marc Ribot, a New York-based player who's famous for having lent his talents to major figures such as Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, has played an original score to the accompaniment of the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid. The New York Guitar Festival originally commissioned his composition and he had to revisit the film to get an idea of how to approach it since he hadn't seen it since he was a "kid."
"[The New York Guitar Festival] actually suggested the film to me," he says via phone from his Brooklyn home. "I had seen it when I myself was a kid. They used to screen a lot of Charlie Chaplin movies on TV. I hadn't really looked at it since then."
When he saw the movie, which stars Chaplin as a guy who happens upon a "kid" and begins to take responsibility for the child even though he's not suited to be a father, Ribot says he fell in love with it.
"I was struck by the fact that when I had seen the film as a kid in the '60s, it had seemed to come from some ancient, prehistoric era of time," says Ribot. "When I see it now, it seems contemporary. Several experiences contributed to that change in my perception."
He says one key difference is that he's now become a parent and can identify with the frustration of trying to calm a crying kid.
"It's a common experience for most parents," he says. "You get this kid and plan and do whatever and then you come to a moment of truth where it's just you and the kid in the house and you're improvising. The kid is crying and you have to do something. No rule book or no expert's advice can prepare you for that moment."
Ribot adds that the film really resonated with him when he first performed alongside the movie in 2009 as the U.S. economy was collapsing.
"The world that the film depicts is one of really grinding poverty," he says. "Historically, the set of that film is one that Charlie Chaplin built. He rebuilt the street he grew up on in East London. He rebuilt it lamppost by lamppost and doorknob by doorknob. Watching it again in 2009 after so many other things had happened and after the more recent stock market crash, reminded me that no, progress isn't built in and it's not inherent in history. People lived like they did in the film and we might still again. Many people still were and many more might again."
Ribot says he works with several "themes" that are only a few minutes in length (the film itself clocks in at 72 minutes).
"The amount of thematic material I have is very little but I improvise," he says. "There's a lot of confusion because I put out an album called Silent Movies. Some people think I'm performing the scores from silent movies. I did take one or two scores. But the record was just an attempt. I should have called it Blind Movies. It was more of an analog for a silent movie than a score. It was musical pieces that fall between sound and image."
Chaplin himself composed the original score for the film. It's a bit overwrought and Ribot says he hasn't spent much time listening to it. And he says he feels a bit guilty that he's altered a viewing experience that Chaplin never wanted altered.
"I found out after I had performed the piece that he had left instructions that he only wanted his score performed with the piece," he says. "I feel a little funny about doing it. But on the other hand, it's legal in the United States to do that. I think that my approach and my goal of doing it with a contemporary score does bring home some of the contemporary relevance of the film."
Ribot says he's fascinated with the way in which some music resonates on a cultural level. It's something he's hyper-aware of as he's composing and playing music for silent films.
"There's a common language of significations that's understood by a huge range of people," he says. "It's very culturally relative. It's not natural. If I'm doing a film score and there's a mountain, I can do trumpets in an ascending pattern and that will symbolize mountains. If I want to show that the mountains are in Zimbabwe, I can have a kalimba playing after that. People who grew up with only kalimba music know that that signifies the mountain. A trumpet might signify 'what the hell is that?' It's a common language and I'm interested in that language, its chord changes and its subtleties."