Marc Ribot Talks Scoring Chaplin’s The Kid and His New Album

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I call Marc Ribot and hear the sound of “4-3-2-1,” the k-os song rather than a ring. I’m calling to talk to Ribot about his upcoming live performance of his score for Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Ribot is famous for having music that runs a wide gamut from rock, free jazz and no wave to traditional Cuban. He’s also widely known for his collaborations with legendary musicians like Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, and has worked extensively as a sessions guitarist with many musicians including Brother Jack McDuff and Wilson Pickett. If he’s said to have a style, it might better be defined as a defiance of style.

And his history with film scores is just as rebellious. Before The Kid, over the course of his career, he’s scored and performed on scores for a variety of other films from big-budget fare — Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and the independents — Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, to small experimental projects like The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves. But Ribot has made no secret of his contentious relationship with the process of film-scoring and has said that some of the best scores he’s done were for films “where the director was dead.” While we hope this isn’t the last of Ribot’s scores, maybe his statement bodes well for The Kid.

How did this project come about, composing the score for the Charlie Chaplin film? It was originally proposed by the New York Guitar Festival. In fact they even proposed the film. But I really wanted to do it because I had seen the film years ago. And I liked it. So I did it once at Merkin Hall in fact it was commissioned. That was in January [2010]. And this is only the second time I’ve done it.

What was the process like? It’s a semi-improvised score. I wouldn’t say it’s through-composed. I have a couple of scenes improvised, and some parts are just pure improvisation, but I have seen the film like probably 150 times or something like that. Maybe it just seems that way. But to prepare for something like this, I’d watch it at least once a day. I prepared for it by just playing to it.

How long were you working on it? For a couple of months actually. Sometimes more than once a day. And some of the themes are themes I’ve written for other films, and like I said I use them in a film-music way. I simplify them greatly. It’s amazing how little information works with film.

What kind of research, if any, did you do before getting to work on the score? I did not use Charlie Chaplin’s score [which he created in 1971] as a reference. I admire his score greatly, and his writing greatly, but I did not want to use that as a reference because my interest in this, as with everything else, comes from doing a particular reading. And my particular reading of this film is as a contemporary film. This is kind of striking to me. When I first saw the film as a kid — like 45 years ago — it seemed really old. It seemed ancient. It was kind of walled off in this ghetto of the past. So much so that the content of the film seemed funny even when the characters weren’t being intentionally funny. It seemed inherently funny for something to be that old. Whereas, when I look at it now, I don’t see old. I see a contemporary story about a single father in economically really hard conditions. And I don’t think it’s only that I’ve changed. And it certainly isn’t the film that’s changed. It’s the same film. Perhaps it’s partly me that’s changed. [Laughs].

I think it’s also that I started working on it just after the stock market collapsed, which was one of several shocks that people I know have lived through. I mean, famously, 9/11, the stock market — not that the people I know had that much invested in the stock market, but when something like that goes down, we are, a lot of us, affected by it. I mean I’m doing fine, I have no complaints. I got back from Bologna the day before yesterday and I’m leaving for Australia a week from Friday. And that’s how it is.

You’ve done a lot of scores. Is it something you see yourself continuing to do? I had originally thought that at this point in my life I would be working more in recording. And you know the record industry is down by like, it’s lost 55%, and there’s no end in sight. In the last ten years it’s shrunk. All these things together, a lot of the people I know, how’s it pronounced zeet-geist, zeit-gheest—

—zeitgeist? Whatever [laughs]…it’s occurred to people that that environment of the thirties was not another planet. It happened here, and could happen again, and could happen to us. I don’t think it is happening to us, now, I’m sitting here on the front stoop of my lovely apartment in Cobble Hill, you know but, ah well, I don’t feel like that’s because of the nature of the universe. It’s because I’ve been lucky.

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Let’s not discount talent. Well, a whole lot of people with a lot of talent were camped out in situations similar to the character Charlie Chaplin depicted in his films. Anyway, I think a certain wind has blown. I don’t know what it is. But it enables a different viewing of Charlie Chaplin’s work and other silent films of the thirties.

Conversely, a funny thing happened while I was working on the film. I was also developing some of the material for a record that I’m recording that’s going to be released probably in September on Pi Records. It’s going to be called Silent Movies, comprised of themes from a bunch of different things I’ve written for films real, imaginary and otherwise.

Will it be a collection of music written for film like Shoe String Symphonettes ? Some of the album is taken from actual film scores. For example some of it is from a film called El HenerralThe General — by Natalia Almada, which is in fact playing tomorrow night at MOMA. I recommend it highly. Others are for films that I in fact turned down because I stopped doing film scores for complicated reasons…

Complicated reasons? What would those be? Well, complicated reasons known as…directors. [Laughs]. But then sometimes I’d write music to the films anyways, I’d get ideas. And other times I just wrote things that sounded cinematic or suggested a visual complement. Anyway, the key thing about this record is not the scores. It’s solo guitar versions of themes. So, it’s a solo guitar record. Rather than calling it Silent Movies, I should have called it Blind Movies. [Laughs] All the songs have in common that they’re a visual analog, they’re visual music somehow or music that suggests in the same way that an image can suggest a sound and a sound can suggest an image. And that was its border.

How did the process of creating the album of mostly faux-scores compare to creating the score for The Kid? In working on [Silent Movies], it took time, it took effort, and I recorded and wrote a bunch of stuff and you don’t make money off that kind of record — or almost any kind of record now. And what was funny to me was that the process of making a record had this quaint antiquated feel. It felt like I was making a silent movie. It felt like I was doing an anachronism. Actually spending money and working on a record is a kind of anachronism. So, I thought that was funny that the silent film felt contemporary but making a CD felt ancient. The economy of it has been blown up. You don’t have to be Milton fuckin’ Friedman to know it’s kind of hard to sell what people can get for free.

You’ve said that one of the big challenges facing a musician scoring film is that there needs to be a return to themes, and that most scores these days end up sounding like “90-minute segments of MTV.” How do you develop themes for your scores? Film scoring is an essential part of cinema, and it’s a part of cinema that works — when it works — completely unconsciously. When you hear a great score after the movie, you’re unaware you heard anything. Because for it to work so well, for it to really work, the score marries itself to the image so that you actually think you’re seeing what you’re really hearing. And the effect is so good that even though I’ve professionally played on probably 50, 60, 70 film scores maybe more — and I’ve scored a number myself — I still have to go back. If I want to study a score, I have to go back and check out the film a second time. I can’t watch the movie and really get the score at the same time. So, because it’s unconscious, unfortunately, the people who control much of the industry now are unaware of how this works. And so they think, ‘I don’t need that.’ And a lot of potentially decent films have been ruined by music directors who think they can put together their record collection and have a film score. In a word — let me use a strong word — bullshit. [Laughs].

Why do you think this is happening? Because the studio system was much maligned. People who knew something about movies were in decision-making positions. Now you get a bunch of lawyers deciding how you’re going to spend a budget. And well, you know how that works. There’s an emotional language that is necessary for film-scoring. And I’m sorry it goes past three chords, unless your film happens to inhabit the emotional language of three chords.