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Silent films, modern rock in Costa Rica

From the print edition

Charly Fariseo likes to unwind at home by rehearsing music. He’ll strum his guitar or play his keyboard while watching a movie on television. During one of his jam sessions, Fariseo noticed something curious. The music he played fit exactly what was happening on the screen. 

Fariseo proposed an idea to his band H7G: Let’s do a side project where we score silent films.

Together with the help of Mi Butaca Cine Club (My Seat Film Club) those musical interpretations can be heard this month at Teatro Variedades, in downtown San José. On Monday evenings, Fariseo and his bandmates invent a contemporary soundtrack for the classic silent films.

“We have certain basic ideas after already having seen the films,” Fariseo said. “But it’s on the fly, all of it is improvised. We don’t have a direct script for these movies.” 

The progressive rock outfit won over fans during its first performance last Monday, a showing of “The Phantom of the Opera” (1924). Once the screen faded to black, the almost 200 moviegoers in the audience responded with an ovation. 

One elderly man told the band he preferred this soundtrack to what he heard when he first saw the movie many years ago. 

Three shows remain for the “Reinterpretación Musical en el Cine Mudo” (“Musical Interpretation of the Silent Film”). Tickets cost ₡1,500 ($3). Each show begins at 7:30 p.m., and concludes with a forum hosted by the Cine Club and H7G.

This Monday, the band will score Herbert Brenon’s “Peter Pan” (1924). On Sept. 17, another Brenon classic, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), gets the present-day musical treatment. The final show, on Sept. 24, will feature three shorts: Charlie Chaplin’s “A Dog’s Life” (1918), Buster Keaton’s “The Playhouse” (1921) and the first ever sci-fi film, Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). 

After the shorts, the band will step into the spotlight and play a concert to close the series.

Until then, members of H7G remain obscured in the darkness of the building. Teatro Variedades, the oldest theater in the country, was designed for stage performances in 1892. In the front right-hand side of the theater, a nook was built for musicians accompanying a play.  

Last Monday, from that corner, members of H7G accelerated the music’s tempo as an enormous chandelier crashed on top of Paris opera patrons in The Phantom’s most famous scene. And when Lon Chaney’s phantom removes his mask, revealing his decaying face, the band stretched the tension by playing several woeful chords. 

Every month, the Cine Club picks a new theme to showcase at Teatro Variedades. In August, French and German embassies contributed films for a Franco-German series. Past subjects have included Italian neo-realism of the 1940s, the surrealistic visions of Luis Buñuel and the wordless classics of Charlie Chaplin.

The focus always has been on vintage cinema from the early- to mid-20th century. But this month, the club wanted to add a modern twist to the shows – and also pay homage to the silent pictures of the 1910s and ’20s. During those decades, large theaters employed orchestras to provide the soundtracks of silent movies.

Gonzalo Montero, of the Cine Club, said the organization experimented with the concept of live music once before. In March 2011, the club played the first-ever Costa Rican movie “El Retorno” (The Return) for a week straight. A pianist inside the cinema provided the soundtrack to the silent film from 1930. 

But with this new program, Montero wanted to “modernize the classic cinema.”

“We could do the same and have a small orchestra. But how interesting would it be to do this with a more current approach,” Montero said. “In the ’20s, the orchestra was the popular music. Now the [modern equivalent] is a progressive rock band.” 

For each movie, the band uses guitar (played by Ignacio “Nacho” Durate), bass (Mario Duarte), drums (Mariano Vidor) and piano and synthesizer (Fariseo). 

The progressive rock genre is best known for odd time signatures, abrupt tempo changes and precise musicianship. But the goal for H7G at each theater performance is to disappear. By each film’s midpoint, as the music merges with the images in the movie, moviegoers “should forget there is a live band playing in the theater,” Fariseo said.

Keeping up that illusion for an hour and a half is the group’s toughest challenge. The audience adjusts and relaxes to this one-of-a-kind experience. While H7G’s four members face the endurance test of staying alert to everything that happens on screen. 

Says Fariseo: “We don’t have time to eat any popcorn.”

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