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Songs of the Silent Age

Club Foot Orchestra
Anne Hamersky

Club Hoppers: The Club Foot Orchestra weds silent cinema to bold new music.

The Club Foot Orchestra sets cinema classics to daring new music

By Christa Palmer

The nondescript, two-story building at 2520 Third St. provides an outsider with few clues to the cauldron of creative ferment that once percolated within its walls. The building that now houses a cultural center was at one time home to the vibrant, underground scene at Club Foot, a meeting ground for an eclectic collection of musicians and artists devoted to blending the refined aesthetics of high art with the uninhibited energy of performance art and pop culture.

Experimental music stalwarts such as Tuxedomoon, Snakefinger and the Residents once passed through, but few groups at 2520 Third St. have proved to be as durable and versatile as San Francisco's Club Foot Orchestra, an ensemble that even pays homage to its birthplace with its name.

Since its inception in 1983, Club Foot Orchestra has become a cultural oddity that still intrigues its audiences today, setting brand-new scores to classic films from cinema's silent age. This November at the Castro Theatre provides another opportunity for all those who have thus far missed out on the Club Foot experience, as the orchestra presents a live musical accompaniment to the haunting masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Buster Keaton's sublimely wacky Sherlock Jr.

At certain points, Club Foot's modern scores will echo Kurt Weill or Stravinsky, as beautiful melodies and eerie chords flow into one surreal black-and-white scene after another. One reviewer called it "the most opium-drenched melody" he has ever heard. And according to artistic director Richard Marriott, the orchestra's ominous music can be traced to the group's origins at the Third Street club, which he saw as a haven to express his visions of matching classical conservatory training with the then-current styles of punk music and experimental rock & roll.

Club Foot Orchestra's origins date back to 1981, when Marriott, a classically trained aspiring musician from Minneapolis, moved into the apartment above Club Foot. For Marriott it was a dark time, with many friends and acquaintances succumbing to heroin overdoses.

"It was a popular hangout," Marriott says of the club. "Anything from drug parties to orgies happened there regularly. I subleased from the guys who started the club, and one of my jobs was to lock up the place. Aside from the punk bands that passed through and performed, there were a lot of people who I came in contact with that had conservatory training like myself."

Club Foot Orchestra's music to this day remains arranged in odd time signatures, which create landslides of maddening melodies and evoke mania of out chaotic sounds. But while audiences have grown to appreciate Club Foot's frolics through space-jazz, swing and cabaret to Eastern European melodies, the group's initial forays into mixing genres left many listeners perplexed.

"When we played for an extremely alternative audience our music made sense," Marriott recalls, "but when we played for a conservative, straight audience people would say, 'What do I do? Do I dance, sit? Is this a concert?' We were looking for something that could give us a definition for what we were doing."

Conductor Deirdre McClure joined Club Foot Orchestra in 1990, and she remembers Marriott expressing his frustrations with the audiences he encountered in the 1980s. "Richard had the whole notion that they needed to reach a larger audience," McClure says. "When you do art, it's very frustrating when you know it's good, but it's really difficult as an artist and especially a musician when you aren't touching the people."

For awhile Club Foot Orchestra showed slides of unusual art behind them during performances, but this was not capturing the dreamlike essence of the music. Frustrated with only reaching small club-going audiences, Marriott wanted a visual tool to express the surreal aspect of the band and expose his music to larger audiences. The group's experimentation with accompanying music to silent films proved to be the medium that would accomplish Marriott's aspirations.

In May 1987 Marriott's vision finally clicked into place, when he turned the dial of his TV and by chance caught a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Marriott believed that the film's ethereal and expressionistic sets were the perfect backdrop for his idiosyncratic melodies.

"This was the same day that I was expressing the reality of my frustration to one of our fans, [MTV and Duck's Breath Mystery Theater personality] Randee of the Redwoods," Marriott says. "I was telling him that we weren't able to reach a larger audience, and Randee suggested that we take outtakes from 50 sitcoms and score them. And later that day, while watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I made the connection. To score the imagery and sets of the film seemed like the right thing to do."

Before he knew it, Marriott was composing the music that would accompany Robert Weine's 1919 masterpiece. Through connections with a friend, Marriott learned that Caligari was set to screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 1987, so he went on hiatus to a cabin in Northern California where he worked on an original score to accompany it. It was sunset and the weather was ominous and foreboding when Marriott began working. The wind was blowing hard and the door on the cabin suddenly flew open.

"I was shocked and I closed the door and I got working again on these scary chords and then I feel this hand on my shoulder, and it was this wet, drafty hand," Marriott recalls. "And that chill from the other world or the feeling from this draft of the dead that I felt on my shoulder and around me is what I wanted to capture in those chords."

Whether or not Caligari's spirit actually touched Marriott will never be known, but nonetheless the work that grew out of the experience proved to be a tremendous success at the festival. "It was way beyond what we had experienced at the club," Marriott says. "Our audience was all ages, all ethnic groups, suburbanites, urbanites--our show was for everybody. With the film the image was so eternal; it was exactly what I wanted it to look like. It works on a real allegorical level, and critics and audiences loved us."

Since Club Foot Orchestra's first experience with live musical accompaniment to Caligari, their greatest notoriety has come from other soundtracks for films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, Sherlock Holmes Jr. and Pandora's Box , with the group playing the scores live for audiences as the images flicker behind them. Another claim to fame came last year with the opportunity for the members of the orchestra to collaboratively compose music for The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat, a TV remake of the original Felix cartoons. This was their first foray into the daunting realm of Hollywood.

Club Foot Orchestra also has presented its work to enthusiastic audiences across North America, including engagements at the Smithsonian Institution, the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center and the American Moving Museum of the Moving Image. Today's Club Foot Orchestra lineup is Richard Marriott (trombone, trumpet and keyboards), Steve Kirk (guitar), Beth Custer (clarinets and keyboards), Sheldon Brown (woodwinds); Nik Phelps (reeds), Myles Boisen (bass), Chris Grady (trumpet), Elliot Kavee (percussion), Catharine Clune (violin) and conductor Deirdre McClure.

Just as subversive as they were in 1980, Club Foot Orchestra's evolution from young experimenters to now highly skilled virtuosos demonstrates their amazing ability to improvise in any style and to compose with odd nuances. And although the scene at Club Foot no longer exists as it did in the '80s, echoes of voices and music from this unique hub at 2520 Third St. may still be heard through the legacy of Club Foot Orchestra's bizarre and eccentric melodies, bringing a punk spirit and "hand of the dead" eerieness to entirely new audiences.

Club Foot Orchestra will perform Nov 22­24, Fri­Sat 7pm, Sun 2pm and 7pm, $10 gen., $5 child, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 621-6120 and ongoing Mondays, 9pm, $4, at Bruno's, 2389 Mission St, 550-7455.

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From the November 1996 issue of SF Live

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