• Ellen Lueck

An Evening in Vallejo with the Club Foot Modern Machines and Metropolis

Updated: Jul 27, 2019

Photo by Ellen Lueck

As I roamed around the Garden of Memory festival in Oakland several weeks ago (see previous post), I was happy to run into fellow gamelan enthusiast and Bay Area-based composer, Richard Marriott. I explained that my family and I were considering a move to southern Solano County, and he exclaimed that he had a show coming up at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo as part of the Empress Theatre Film Club. His band, the Club Foot Modern Machines, would play his score to accompany the complete version of the 1927 classic silent film, Metropolis. He confirmed that there is a bourgeoning art and music scene in Vallejo worth exploring. On Saturday, July 20th, my partner, Matthew Welch, and I crossed the Benicia Bridge to check out the 6:00pm show.

We didn't know what to expect, but even 30 minutes before opening credits, the historic Empress Theatre was hopping with people: people milling outside on the sidewalk, people grabbing concessions in the lobby and lounge, and chatting with each other. Club Foot Modern Machines had also performed to a series of shorter experimental films at 4:00pm, and it was clear that many of the Film Festival attendees had also attended that. (Welch and I had childcare to arrange, so we missed the earlier films.) By 6:00pm, I would estimate that there were about 100 people in the audience. After purchasing our tickets ($20 per person), we headed straight for the orchestra section and connected with Marriott.

Richard Marriott has been active as a composer, instrumentalist (winds), and electronic instrument inventor since the 1970s. Along with being the inventor of the Modified Casio, Marriott has become well known for his modern scores for silent film. I first became aware of his work back in 2009 when I watched the 1935 Bali-based silent film, Legong: Dance of the Virgins, featuring a newly composed score by Marriott, which was commissioned by the Bay Area's own Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Back in 1991, Marriott first premiered a score for the heavily edited, 82-minute version of Metropolis, and then prepared it for the complete 156-minute version in 2013. This 2019 score was updated, and includes the Modern Machines, one of the highlights of the whole Metropolis-with-Club-Foot experience.

In case you are unaware, Metropolis is a classic German expressionist film, created between WWI and WWII, which explores the relationships between people and machines, and capitalism and labor. It is a work of great science fiction, and it's message resonates loudly even today—especially here in the Bay Area where the distribution of wealth is uneven, to say the least. If you want to know more about the film, there is a plethora of information, analysis, and criticism on the internet, so have at it.

Gino Robair on percussion. Photo by Ellen Lueck

Here are the highlights from the Club Foot Modern Machines:

Marriott's score itself was a wonderful mix of melodic material—Messiaen-esque moments of emotional uncertainty, snippets from Stravinsky—quality improvisation, and coordinated electronic and acoustic sound design. The instrumentation allowed for many types of musical moments: Winds (trombone, flute, played my Marriott), electronics (Marriott), violin (Alisa Rose), Percussion (Gino Robair), keyboards (Kymry Esainko), and Modern Machines, which consisted of whistle, foghorn, siren, and other ambient sounds (performed by Matt Heckert and Kal Spelletich, Shannon O'Hare and Obtainium Works).

Alisa Rose's performance was particularly memorable, as she fluidly shifted between reading from the score and improvising. Her sound—a little lively, a little mournful, lyrical, with a touch of grit—which she developed through her dual fiddle and classical backgrounds, was perfectly suited for the silent film's gripping, emotional landscape. Percussionist Gino Robair was kept busy throughout the film playing his array of gongs, bowls, xylophone, and cymbals. His good work added a significant element of detail and realism to the sound design.

The Modern Machines were the instrumental steam punk stars of the show. The foghorn, the siren, and the steam whistle had moviegoers in the far back row of the large theater covering their ears at times. The volumous, alarming Modern Machines added a particular thrill to the Metropolis experience that one rarely encounters even in expertly crafted, mainstream talkies. I have a particular appreciation for music that produces some kind of physical reaction in me, and the Modern Machines definitely brought that. It was a wild ride.

If you haven't yet, go check out a show in Vallejo!

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