Americans are used to imports from China, but not many products go the other direction. When Boston's Devil Music Ensemble began their quest to write a live soundtrack to the 1929 Chinese silent film Red Heroine, they never would have guessed that they would someday find themselves in Beijing accompanying the first screening of the film in decades.
BEIJING-BOUND Before Devil Music Ensemble travel to China to perform their Red Heroine score live at the Jue Festival of Art later this month, the trio will screen the 1922 kung-fu film and play their accompanying music this weekend at MassArt.
But that's exactly what will happen later this month in the Chinese capital and in Shanghai, where Devil Music Ensemble — their members also double as a rock outfit simply called Devil Music — have been invited by the Jue Festival of Art to perform their well-travelled soundtrack to the oldest surviving complete silent kung-fu film. The band have performed the music more than 80 times in live settings across the United States and Europe, but this is the first time they'll stage it in the world's most populous country.
For those unable to make the trip abroad, Devil Music Ensemble will host a special screening and performance of their stunning soundtrack this Saturday at MassArt. It's the perfect cap to a seven-year voyage that will end up where it all started.
READ: "Devil at the Gate: Giving voice to Red Heroine," by Brett Michel
"I called the Beijing Film Archive at one in the morning," says Devil Music Ensemble's Brendon Wood, reflecting on the band's four-year effort, beginning in 2005, to get a copy of the film. "I felt like an ass. I didn't know how to begin this conversation, but I needed to find somebody who could help."
After gaining national attention with their live scores (notably for silent horror films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the 1922 Western Big Stakes), Devil Music Ensemble were eager to sink their teeth into something different and new. A silent kung-fu film offered all of the promises and challenges worthy of a musical holy grail. By 2009, the trio had secured the rights to the obscure classic and were ready to begin scoring what would be their sixth major silent film piece.
"The funny thing is, silent films were never really silent," says Wood. "There was always an accompanist." The trained composer remembers catching the silent film bug as far back as the mid-'90s, when he witnessed Television guitarist Tom Verlaine play to several film shorts at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, Virginia.
Unlike most film scores, which are written by a single composer, works by Devil Music Ensemble are composed collaboratively by its trio of multi-instrumentalists: Wood (whose primary instrument is electric guitar), Jonah Rapino (electric violin), and Tom Nylander (percussion). "We sit down with popcorn, beer, and notebooks," says Wood. "We watch the film, talk about where the film is changing, the characters, the ideas, etc. In all of our soundtracks there is still evidence of Devil Music as this rock thing — who we are as three musicians together — but we can play with these other sounds to emphasize what the film is."