Saturday, February 26, 2011

Silent is golden: Miller unveils Deren scores

Kristen Miller’s new obsession started quietly — appropriate, considering the media — seven years ago, even though nothing really came of it until last year. She had been hanging out in Gloucester with Brian King, from the band What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?, a band rooted in folk and blues, but filtered through cabaret and alt-rock, and a frequent Miller collaborator, working on a project — a long-form experimental piece. They had been at it all morning and decided to take a break. King told Miller, an innovative cellist with three albums under her belt, that he wanted to show her something, so he fired up the DVD player and played “Meshes of the Afternoon,” a silent film by Maya Deren, who famously said she could make an entire movie for what Hollywood spends on lipstick. This film, of course, was not Hollywood by any stretch. It is stubbornly interior, a film that inhabits the world of dreams and myth, attempting to tell a life story in less than 15 minutes with little in the way of linear plot and without a word being spoken. It “reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience,” Deren said in her program notes for the film’s premiere in 1943.  The experience was a revelation for Miller. “I was speechless,” she says. 
Then they screened a second shorty, “At Land,” in which a woman, Deren, washes up on the beach and begins an exploration of her new surroundings in a story told with a fractured narrative with dream-like logic. Now Miller was “completely hooked.” The attraction? The subject matter: love, loss, abandonment, sexuality. The technique: stunning visuals, a surreal approach that says much more than is immediately obvious, the quick cuts and disorienting montage editing. The movement, the gestured acting. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that Deren, an exotic Russian beauty just 25 years old at the time she made these films, was pretty easy on the eyes. Plus the fact that, even now, she remains, in many ways, a mystery. King suggested doing an original soundtrack for the Deren films, but Miller’s personal and creative life were pretty full at the time.

For seven years, the project remained on the back burner, but was never forgotten. And this week, Miller, who has put out two albums in the past year, will perform original scores against the backdrop of three short Deren films. It is the opening salvo in Women Making History, a four-week project at the Actors Studio to mark Women’s History Month. Other programs include “Asking for It,” a one-woman show by Joanne Rush, and “The Clean Room,” a masked comedy by Leslie Pasternack, returns with an encore performance.  The series closes with a performance by Liz Frame and the Kickers.

Miller, who has been turning the cello on its head for years, mixing hypnotic African rhythms and Eastern melodies with rock attitude, vocabulary and gear, started throwing ideas for the Deren project around last July, shortly after releasing “Walk,” her third solo album, which was recently named one of the Top 20 discs of 2010 by Metronome Magazine.  The project got a big boost when Robert Newton, the guy behind the Cape Ann Community Cinema, offered Miller off-hours use of his Gloucester theater to screen the film and compose. Miller debuted her score to “At Land” three months later at Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, opening for Alloy Orchestra’s like-minded score for Fritz Lang’s classic silent film “Metropolis.” Then life got busy.

Miller collaborated with Tom Eaton on “Winter Loves Company,” a holiday album with four traditional tunes dressed up in new arrangements, and six originals, with recording and promoting gobbling up all sorts of free time. Then the holidays came and went, then January, pretty much a total loss for everybody trying to accomplish anything besides shoveling snow, and pretty much the same deal with the beginning of February. And now it’s a Monday morning, just two weeks before the premiere of the Deren pieces, and she’s not quite there. She needs to make a couple of tweaks to her score for “Ritual in Transfiguration,” a surprisingly complex film, especially considering its length, about 15 minutes, about desire and, ultimately, regret. Usually this is just about when she would be freaking, at least a little, but she’s not. She knows where she is, where she has to be and how to get there. Maybe an hour’s work. “It’s what the film wants,” she says. “It’s what the film needs.” She calls the work “the most compelling project” she has ever worked on.

 It’s difficult to categorize the music. “Each film really creates its own mood, and so the three scores are very different from one another,” says Miller. “But they are all very melodic and very lush — definitely not classical. In two of them, I use crystal glasses as part of the score. There is some looping in them, but also a lot of freestanding material. I would also say, intense. They are very intense, emotional, sensual.”

For the Women Making History show, a major fundraiser for the Actors Studio, Miller will also debut a related project —  one that pairs extant footage from Deren’s unfinished 1943 film “Witches Cradle,” recut and reassembled by Newton, and Miller’s cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These).” The film features Marcel Duchamp, the French surrealist painter in the inner circle of Deren’s NYC cool kid clique, which included Andre Breton, John Cage (who appears in “At Land”)  and Anais Nin (who appears in “Rituals”). She never finished the film and, judging by surviving footage, did not spend a whole lot of  time with it. The finished piece will play like a music video — a creepy music video. Miller is also collaborating with Newton on a documentary about the WPA murals in Gloucester, contributing Miller takes on three Depression-era songs done in her style, but with only strains of the melody coming through.

Miller, who is also performing in a duo with Eric Ott, will also perform the program March 13 at Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester. She will also play a solo show  March 18 at FINCH Coffeehouse, and participate in Artisans in the Open March 25 at Fowles.  And maybe, at some point, she’ll get back to that experimental piece with What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN:  Cellist Kristin Miller will perform an original score to three silent films by filmmaker Maya Deren at the Actors Studio. The show begins at 8 p.m. March 4 and 5, and at 3 p.m. March 6.Tickets for all performances are $18 for adults, or $15 for students and seniors. The show is the first in a series of programs to celebrate Women’s History Month. Here is the schedule:

Week One: Cellist Kristen Miller will perform an an original score to a series of 1940s silent films by avant garde filmmaker Maya Deren. Performance/screenings will be at 8 p.m. March 4 and 5 p.m. and at 3 p.m. March 6.

Week Two: Actress Joanna Rush brings “Asking for It,” a poignant, razor sharp dynamic one-woman comedy described as “ invigorated, inspired, and, strangely, healed” by Time Out New York.  Performances are at 8 p.m. March 11 and 12, and 3 p.m. March 13 in the Actors Studio.

Week Three: Leslie Pasternack returns with an encore performance of “The Clean Room,” a full-length one-masked-woman show featuring Bridhina, a cheerfully disoriented patient  and Stupino, the gentle janitor.  Performances are 8 p.m. March 18 and 19, and 3 p.m. March 20.

Week Four: Rockin’ party with Liz Frame and the Kickers at 8 p.m. March 26 in the  Tannery, Mill #1 Atrium.
Tickets for all performances are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors. For more information, call 78-465-1229 or log onto, The Actors Studio is located Tannery, Mill #1, Suite 5, 50 Water St., Newburyport.

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