Marc Ribot can lurch from noise-skronk to deranged fuzz-rock to weirdly, surf-inflected future-folk—not only between his different bands and projects, but sometimes from track to track on the same album.
Alongside an extensive set of solo work and as John Zorn’s guitarist of choice, Ribot has also shown a keen interest in film music: sometimes writing scores, sometimes playing on them, and sometimes recording instrumental music that has been likened to film scores. (By way of explaining his ruminative 2010 record Silent Movies to me in an interview, he stipulated: “The songs are movies.”)
The project that brought him to MASS MoCA last weekend was his live score for Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 classic The Kid. It’s actually a series of composed themes the guitarist weaves together throughout an extended improvisation on solo acoustic guitar.
He opened with an unexpected, half-hour solo set. The first song found him playing with head down, swaying back and forth as he held his guitar close, running his left hand up and down the fretboard as if playing a musical version of Whack-a-Mole, seemingly in a trance while hopping from tempo to tempo, technique to technique, wringing from his axe a bit of engrossing chaos.
A revelatory reading of John Coltrane’s “Dearly Beloved”—a composition Ribot has played with his full-band Coltrane interpretation project Sun Ship—was a true delight, as he went from hatchet-chopped chords to tightly laced lead lines, summoning much of the force and visceral sublimity conjured by the best practitioners of free jazz. Ribot also played the finale of Silent Movies, “Sous le ciel de Paris”—transforming it from the brassy daydream of Edith Piaf’s version to a rainsoaked meditation just this side of mournful.
The Kid, a story of single motherhood, poverty, and the malevolently meddling presence of the state, was Chaplin’s first feature-length film and the moment when he really started to hit the sweet spot between slapstick hilarity and pathos that came to be known as the Chaplinesque.
Sitting unlit beneath the enormous, outdoor movie screen, Ribot viewed the film from a device resting on his music stand. He evoked the despair of the young mother as she reflects upon the baby she gave away with high-pitched notes and squeaks, sometimes rubbing his fingers quickly over the strings.
But much of the score was in the quieter, meditative zone of Silent Movies, as the guitarist’s finger-picking fell into a subtle rhythm with the film, sometimes underlining visual cues but really just breathing in time to the poetry of Chaplin’s melodramatic triumph.
Part of the pleasure of this special evening was sitting among a few hundred audience members—including not a few children—who seemed completely taken by the film, breaking into frequent laughter and rewarding the happy ending with many a sigh and a healthy round of applause. And one of the most significant avant-garde guitarists of the past few decades just happened to be sitting there in the dark, weaving a sometimes-anxious, frequently-pretty tapestry of gentle accompaniment that felt of one piece with the film.
Ribot prefaced the film by announcing it was “time to disappear.” It’s a testament to his ever-resilient artistry that, through his soulful musical empathy, this guitar master did just that.