The Sound of the City
The Noise of Art

The Village Voice October 20 - 26, 1999

by Richard Gehr

The Sound of Silents
If the modest obligation of a silent-film accompanist is to serve the movie, Tom Verlaine succeeded admirably during his Arts at St. Ann's appearance on Friday, where he performed music composed for seven great short films mainly from the 1920s. Indeed, anyone expecting to hear the scorched-earth Fender narratives Verlaine unleashed in Television, or even the abbreviated tone tales of his solo career, would have been disappointed by these low-key duets with longtime guitar pal Jimmy Ripp.

Which isn't to say Verlaine can't establish or reflect a mood. The two guitarists worked within a limited yet often elegant grammar of drones, loops, echoes, and delays. Their music for Man Ray's Étoile de mer shimmered as Verlaine plucked isolated notes against Ripp's rapidly brushed strings, then later grew menacing during the animated expressionism of Dr. James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber's Fall of the House of Usher. All seven films (from the well-known Rohauer collection) suggested a dream cinema that Verlaine and Ripp complemented with undulating oneiric music. The duo most closely approached guitar wank during Carl Theodore Dreyer's They Caught the Ferry, a 1943 short produced by the Danish government to scare drivers straight. In Dreyer's wickedly amusing allegory, a motorbiking couple drag-races Death down a bucolic country road. Verlaine changed pace with some Duane Eddy twang and tremolo surf guitar before returning to minimalist mode for Ballet mécanique. Fernand Léger's film, a classic survey of mechanical and fleshy symbols set in repetitive motion, ends with a woman smelling flowers. As he played, you could almost hear Verlaine's hectically modern musical career itself coming to rest.