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Devil at the Gate

Giving voice to Red Heroine
By BRETT MICHEL  |  September 5, 2008

WHERE’S THAT ERHU? You can’t see it here, but you might hear it this weekend.

If the name Devil Music Ensemble conjures an apparition of musicians accompanying Rupert Julian’s adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1909-’10 serial Le fantôme de l’Opéra, then you might not be surprised to hear that such an outfit exists. And though Boston bandmates Brendon Wood, Jonah Rapino, and Tim Nylander have yet to achieve the fame of Cambridge’s Alloy Orchestra (or accompany Julian’s 1925 film, as Alloy have), they have spent the better part of a decade composing and performing soundtracks for silent films, creating their own brand of musical alchemy.

This weekend, they debut their latest work, an original score for the sixth (and only surviving) episode of the 13-part Chinese serial Red Knight Errant, Wen Yimin’s 1929 silent Red Heroine [Hongxia], the oldest extant martial-arts film. It will screen on Friday at the Chinatown Gate (on the vacant paved lot on Hudson Street) at 7:30 pm as part of the “Films at the Gate” free outdoor festival, and then on Saturday in Somerville’s Union Square at approximately 8 pm.

So, where did “Devil Music” come from? “Well, there are a couple of stories,” Rapino tells me. The main one has to do with George Crumb’s Black Angels (Images I): 13 images from the dark land. It’s really amazing music, composed during the Vietnam era. ‘Devil-music’ is the name of a piece of one of the movements.”

“That’s the more sophisticated version,” laughs Wood. The “real story,” he confides, involves a lazy afternoon spent cranking Van Halen’s Fair Warning after school. “I was playing the record pretty loudly when my grandmother comes in yelling, ‘What’s that devil music?!’ I knew right then that that would make a great name for a band someday.”

That day came in 1999, when Wood formed the rock band Devil Music with Rapino and Nylander. But the film influence didn’t creep in till a couple of years later. Rapino: “We used to play at AS220 in Providence. Brendon was a fan of Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d’un poète, and he installed a monitor on stage showing the 1930 film “purely as a backdrop to our playing.” In 2002, Devil Music Ensemble (“We added the ‘Ensemble’ after we started playing live accompaniment for films,” says Wood, “since we sometimes bring in more musicians”) performed their soundtrack to René Clair’s 1926 film Le voyage imaginaire during the “Celluloud” series at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

It took the trio two weeks to compose a score for that film. The process leading to this weekend’s performances, on the other hand, took three and a half years. Wood spent a year making midnight phone calls to the China Film Archive in Beijing, “dealing with a bureaucratic nightmare” before ultimately giving up. Real progress wasn't made until last year, when Alex Zhang of the Boston Asian Community Development Corp. (sponsors of the Ensemble's upcoming month-and-a-half long tour of the U.S.) was able to obtain a sanctioned copy of Red Heroine from distributor PolyAsian. (The film has screened in the US just once before, as part of UCLA’s “Heroic Grace” wuxia, or “knight-errant swordplay,” series.)

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    Decades before women took center stage in the one-two punch of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill , King Hu (1932-1997; the subject of a retrospective at the HFA) put swords in the hands of a soaring heroine in Come Drink with Me.
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