Ross Hamlin's Dovetail Orchestra visits the silent film era

In 1991, local musician Ross Hamlin was living in Minneapolis where, he says, he caught Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas performing a live score to the 1915 silent film Das Golem. It planted a seed that Hamlin carried with him from Minneapolis to Boston, where he attended the Berklee School of Music as a film score student, and graduated in 1996. "When I first saw Gary Lucas, I thought, 'I have to do this shit,'" Hamlin says. And now he has.

Hamlin's upcoming event Underscore, and its band, Dovetail Orchestra, are the results of that seed: a trio, featuring Hamlin and multi-instrumentalists Scott Jarrett and Lee Steck, that performs live alongside a series of silent film shorts. "A lot of it is written out, but some of it is improvisational," Hamlin says. "We're catching live cues and physical moments, so if someone falls down the stairs, we're going to make the appropriate noise."

In total, Dovetail Orchestra accompanies eight obscure or classic silent films with an array of musical styles. Hamlin rattles off a list including jazz, metal, rock, techno, dub and—for lack of a better term, he says—"Americana." The films are surely bizarre and include the uncomfortably magnetic 1912 Russian Film The Cameraman's Revenge (wherein filmmaker Wladislaw Starewicz used stop-motion techniques to animate dead insects riding bikes or having sex), 1922's Frogland (another from Starewicz about frogs who pray to God for a president and instead receive a stump) and Mary Jane's Mishap (a dark 1903 British number from filmmaker George Albert Smith about a goofy housewife who haunts her friends).

Each Dovetail member tackles multiple instruments as well, from traditional guitars, bass and keys to what Hamlin calls a "prepared piano," a method by which an everyday piano is transformed by altering the strings inside with foreign materials, thereby making it more of a percussive instrument. "John Cage did it in the '50s," Hamlin explains. "There are no tricks of the trade; it's literally just us watching things and knowing them well enough to make it happen."

This is a great direction for Hamlin, who tells SFR he struggled in music school with the nature of the film score. To expand, try watching a film without music and notice how you aren't quite sure how to feel. Hamlin says he's always found the nature of film scores to be manipulative, a stance that proved challenging for Berklee instructors who felt scores should err toward the traditional. "We're doing stuff [with Underscore] that is traditional, but stuff that's not, too," he says. "It's nice to have fun with some of the clichés, though."

Not only does Underscore seem like a welcome change from run-of-the-mill shows (Hamlin says he's done with playing in bars for the moment, and brother, we hear you), it speaks volumes to SITE's new direction post-renovation. Here we have something completely different than the usual fare, created by a local musician and existing in an art space that is generally known for challenging offerings. Not that Underscore is lacking cerebrally, just that it seems like it'll be wild fun; Hamlin is, of course, a celebrated weirdo.

Even better, with eight films, the running time still only hits about an hour. "I've seen Metropolis done like this, and I've seen similar things, and I get bored," Hamlin recalls. "I think it's nice they're short." Additionally, local liquor store Susan's Fine Wine and Spirits has partnered with SITE and Hamlin to provide a special drink menu for the evening including, Hamlin says, a signature cocktail he created called The Cameraman's Revenge. What's in it? "You'll see," Hamlin quips coyly.

Fingers crossed for no dead insects. Crickets are maybe OK.

But, I digress.

Hamlin hopes to eventually add more films to the project and eventually take it on the road. "My hope with that would be to get in touch with local musicians in these places and perform with them," he says. "I'm certainly open to that." For now, though, it's born here all its life, and ready to provide a tantalizingly strange event.

Underscore: Dovetail Orchestra
6 pm Friday Feb. 16. $10-$15.
SITE Santa Fe,
1606 Paseo de Peralta,

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