THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Monday (June 30), $18. 416-870-8000.
With a name like the Cinematic Orchestra, you might expect Jason Swinscoe's swinging electronic jazz combo to be a major Hollywood player, competing with Randy Newman for most big-picture scores per year. Not so. Despite a massive love for film music, the British ensemble is only now making its soundtrack debut.
The group's most recent project is a soundtrack to Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent Soviet documentary, Man With A Movie Camera. The extraordinary storyless film is a kind of fly-on-the-wall look at life in an anonymous Soviet city, following citizens from dawn to dusk as they wake up, go to work in cigarette factories and behind telephone switchboards and then come home and unwind.
Even without music, the non-narrative is fascinating and compelling, as Vertov pushes the limits of period film with bits of postmodernism and death-defying camera techniques. The Cinematic Orchestra's soundtrack (released on CD and with the film as a DVD) is stunning. In many ways, this is the other side of the group's recent Every Day disc. Songs from that record are stripped down and stretched out on the soundtrack, and synched with perfection to the action on screen. If you didn't know better, you'd think Vertov and Swinscoe made the two components in the same room together, not 70 years apart.
"Vertov was a pianist himself and wrote a lot of notes about what kind of music he heard for the film," Swinscoe explains from Victoria, "and it was specifically very rhythmic and with a lot of repetition. That's where we took our initial cues from. Then we just watched the film over and over again, and the more we watched it, the more obvious it all became."
In many ways, Man With A Movie Camera seems like the perfect way into soundtracks for Swinscoe and company. By creating music for a film that already existed, they were freed from the typical Hollywood game of battling with production assistants to make music that agreed with their vision.
"I'd love to do more soundtracking work," Swinscoe says. "I think the right way to do it would be to collaborate with a director from a blank slate. We meet up, I give him some pieces of music I've been working on, he shows me some stuff, and we both go away and try to develop ideas.
"The soundtracks that I love most have that combination of people working together - Hitchcock and Herrmann, the Italian stuff, Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie - and you really get the impression that the music complements the film rather than someone saying, -Right, we need something emotional here. '"
Swinscoe speaks from experience. A few years ago he was asked to submit music for a new film by Toronto director Bruce McDonald. Judging by the botched final product, Claire's Hat, maybe it was a good thing that McDonald never called him back.
"I sent him about 17 minutes of music and he didn't even get back to me," Swinscoe scoffs. "I guess that's kind of a film thing, ego or something. It ended up that I had to chase him and be told that it wasn't on. I think some guy from Tangerine Dream ended up doing it.
"I've read a lot about people who make film music and how their music ends up being butchered. Maybe I don't want anything to do with it after all."