It’s almost a decade since Pablo Assandri and Martin Boyer first organised a film marathon in an occupied studio in Zurich. Today, their “Institute of Incoherent Cinematography” (IOIC) regularly invites musicians from the experimental scene to perform live music for silent films, both in Switzerland and abroad. The two founders of the IOIC spoke with swissmusic.ch – about their musical curiosity, the difficulties of exporting the art of silent film, and their plans for the future.
What is “incoherent cinematography”?
Pablo Assandri (P.A.): The concept refers to a film by Georges Méliès, Le voyage à travers de l’impossible. In it, there’s an “Institute of incoherent geography”, which undertakes “journeys through the impossible”. It was an Italian film scholar who called Méliès’s own art “incoherent cinematography”. We thought the name was fantastic, especially because it combines the serious and the playful. We take films without any integrated sound, and unite them with music.
In 2010, you started your talking film marathons that last for several days. What prompted you to add silent films with live music to your programme?
P.A.: Even a marathon of talkies is a major event, because it offers an experience that’s removed from the everyday. You come together and can make cross-comparisons with different films. If you combine this with live music too, it acquires a unique character, especially when you use improvised music. Both types of event appeal to a cinephile audience. But you can naturally expand the number of interested people by also attracting those who will come just for the music. Those people sometimes regard the films themselves as mere visual extras.
Marathon of the arts - IOIC Silent Film Festival 2013
More than just grey-haired, silent-film pianists
There’s an overarching topic for every silent film marathon. What’s your aim in this?
P.A.: Other silent film festivals primarily show freshly restored films with a historical musical accompaniment. We wanted to proceed in a thematic way, not least because it’s a lot easier if you also want to attract people besides the nerds. To this end, we accept that there might be films we can only show in DVD quality. That’s why we’re looked at a bit askance by the silent film community. We have a completely different approach, and we also work with a different type of music. We work with musicians and bands who have a specific sound.
One of your aims is to present “cultural and social variety” in your programmes.
M.B.: That has the advantage that you can introduce people to types of music they wouldn’t listen to at home. For example, we might have a noise band play at a film podium where the audience is otherwise used to classical music or traditional jazz. If the audience ends up enjoying this combination of the film and the unusual music, then you’ve opened up a door for them in a different direction.
How do you bring your musicians and your films together?
P.A.: For our marathons, I usually watch a few hundred silent films, making lists according to certain topics. Then I decide on the overall theme. The next marathon, for example, is all about “life and death”. Some 13 ensembles have already agreed to take part.
M.B.: We also attend a lot of concerts to see what’s happening out there.
P.A.: Ideally, we take on musicians who have nothing whatsoever to do with silent films. Then we give them a film they would never have imagined, but which we think could suit them. Then you just hope that something new will come out of it.
With regard to your regular guest musicians at the IOIC – can you discern any development in how they approach making music for a silent film?
P.A.: There are musicians in the pop/rock world who aren’t necessarily great improvisers, but have created more of a band sound. It’s trickier to find the right film for them. Then there are the improvisers. You could really give them any film at all. But the danger with them is that you end up with the archetypal grey-haired, silent-film pianists who could provide music for any old film, but always sound more or less the same. You can prevent that by putting them together with different musicians every time.
Journeys into the unknown
You also organise events outside Zurich – up to now, you’ve been active elsewhere in Switzerland, in the rest of Europe, in China and Africa, including countries that have no tradition of silent films. Do you notice any differences in how local musicians approach their material in these countries?
P.A.: In China, for example, they show a lot more respect for the cultural heritage of the silent film, because they know that they more or less destroyed their own in the Cultural Revolution. Over there, we set up an improvising orchestra with musicians from both Switzerland and China. The Chinese musicians kept more to the plot and were better prepared.
How did that function?
P.A.: At the start it was tricky – we had communication problems. They have a completely different approach to dealing with other people, and to how they work. It’s not easy. But there was also friction among the Swiss musicians – between those who came more from the electronic scene and those who were into free improvisation. But the results that emerged were really great, and so was the feedback we got from people. In recent years, we’ve managed to achieve a massive increase in audience numbers for silent films in Zurich. But in China, it’s completely different. Cinema there is either completely commercialised, or not at all. If you show a silent film – especially one with experimental music added – people freak out.
The man who moved the mountain ( The IOIC China Tour 2012)
M.B.: Then there’s the case of the Méliès evening I organised last summer in Kampala. It was difficult to find a venue over there, and it was also hard to find an audience that was interested in what we were offering. Europeans in Uganda tend to live in an expat bubble, so the audience in the end was a Western one. The musicians were local, and they played traditional music to the film. They did a great job and found it really exciting – but no one there had experienced anything like it.
Weren’t you able to generate any interest among the local population?
M.B.: It’s difficult if you only do it piecemeal. Most people never go to the movies. There are kiosks where you can load up movies on a USB stick, and you watch them at home or in improvised “cinemas” in shacks. In general, they don’t have a cultural scene like we do here. Now and then there’s a big festival, and they have their own pop music that’s an acquired taste. But there’s hardly any classical music – just a few music schools that might give a concert twice a year. Then there are clubs that have live music. Ten well-trained musicians stand on a stage and play hits from the past 50 years for four hours at a time, and the public acts like they’re at a party on Ibiza.
Nevertheless, you’re planning something new in Africa …
P.A.: This is something we’ve always wanted to do, but it’s a long-term project. The problem with Africa and silent films is simple: there aren’t really any. There were only a few missionaries or Europeans who went south and made films. But you can’t show missionary films in Africa. While we were doing our research, we came across the film Der Afrikaflug (“The flight over Africa”) by Walter Mittelholzer. He flew his seaplane from Tiefenbrunnen in Zurich all the way to Cape Town in 77 days in 1926/27. That was a big media event at the time in Switzerland. The film romanticises Africa, though in a racist manner that would be impossible today. You can’t leave it like that – it’s the ethnology of the 1920s, in which everything’s a bit contrived after the manner of the “noble savage”. Our idea is to work through this indirect racism in a critical manner, instead of celebrating Mittelholzer as a hero of the people like he was back then. We want to have three places where the main events will be staged: in Egypt, in South Africa and in Ethiopia. We have no idea exactly when we’ll be able to realise it. For now, we’re going on a research trip to check things out.
Next dates on www.ioic.ch