OsenToday’s film music traces its roots to the silent film era, when live musical accompaniment was the norm for this medium. The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-1075) earned his living as a pianist for silent films before writing music for the stage and for films. Old vaudeville venues like the Paramount Theatre in Seattle still display and use a relic of this pastime—a 1927 Wurlitzer organ. Japan was no exception in the developing genre of silent film music, attested by the early works of film directors Yasushiro Ozu (1903-1963), Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) and Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956), whose film “The Downfall of Osen” will be shown on November 14 as part of SIFF’s series at McCaw Hall.

Unlike the digitally recorded and edited music that is synchronized to the film, the screen ing of “Osen” will feature live accompaniment by the Aono Jikken Ensemble, who has created a unique niche in fusing the traditional elements of Asian and other indigenous music with modern compositions, including some improvisation. Pronounced “Ah-Oh-No Gee-Ken,” the name is translated as “blue field experiment,” named playfully after AJE member and Artistic Director William Satake Blauvelt (taiko, percussion, prepared string instrument, sound objects): “My last name (Blauvelt) is Dutch for ‘blue field’ and ‘Aono’ is the Japanese equivalent. ‘Jikken’ means experiment reflecting the nature of our work. It’s all a mash-up containing reference to my multi-racial/cultural background.” The group’s name also serves as a nod to composer Toru Takemitsu, who wrote the evocative film score for “Woman In the Dunes” based on Kobo Abe’s novel and was a founder of an avant-garde artists’ collective called Jikken Kobo.

Downfall of OsenOther members include Dean Moore (drums, cymbals, gongs, bells), Michael Shannon (cello, harmonium, glockenspiel), Naho Shioya (benshi narration, vocals), Esther Shugai (flute, fue, melodica, clarinet, harmonium) and Marcia Takamura (koto, shamisen, kaegum).

For the upcoming film, AJE utilizes a rich variety of Asian, Western and world instruments, similar to the sonorities of Balinese Gamelan music. These include traditional Japanese instruments like the koto, shamisen, taiko drums and bamboo flute; the Korean Kaegum; Indian harmonium; cello, flute, snare drum, cymbals, glockenspiel; “old-time” stringed instruments that have been altered in some way like the autoharp, hammered dulcimer, tremeloa and violin-uke. Also, invented instruments are featured such as the waterphone and bellwheel (made from a tuned bicycle and telephone bells).

In addition to the live accompaniment by AJE, the art of “katsudo benshi” narration for silent films in Japan presents another highlight to the screening. “The benshi (narrator) was a live performer who stood at the side of the screen and provided almost non-stop narration, voice characterizations, commentary and incidental remarks as the film was screened,” says Blauvelt. Because of modern audiences who may not have be aware of this aspect of narration, bilingual (Japanese and English) narration will be provided. Blauvelt adds, “Since early Japanese film was meant to have a narrator to help explain things and provide another layer of emotional resonance for audiences, it’s important to incorporate it.”

Other projects of the AJE include “Kioku,” a multi-disciplinary work drawing from theatre and dance with live music. “Kioku” is the third installment of an ongoing cycle of new performance works featuring Asian women who were marginalized by history and society—much like the main character of “Osen.” The project is scheduled for spring 2010. Currently, the group is on tour in Paris for the Festival D’Automne A Paris in the Odeon-Theatre de l’Europe collaborating with Ensemble L’Instant Donne, singer Duv Hule and narrator Isabella Rossellini in accompanying the film “Brand Upon the Brain” by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. According to Blauvelt, “It’s turned out to be one of those performance situations you dream about—a magnificent historic theatre that’s sold out with an involved, appreciative audience that loves what you’re doing…”

For tickets or more information on the event, call the SIFF box office at 206-324-9996 or visit www.siff.net/cinema. For information on the ensemble, visit www.anonjikken.net. AJE will also discuss the film in a free event on November 11, 7:30 pm at Jack Straw Productions; for more information, visit www.jackstraw.org..

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