RPM Orchestra has been improvising its way through the underground hype music scene in downtown Phoenix for a few years when it came up with the idea of composing original pieces to accompany the silent films as they run.
They tested the waters at FilmBar in 2011, performing as a score for “The Unknown,” a 1927 horror film starring Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, a circus geek who throws knives at his feet, and Joan Crawford as a carnival girl. his dreams.
As Pete Petrescu, who founded the orchestra as a studio project in 2008, recalls, “We’ve had such a positive response to this premiere, we’ve set a 10-year goal of, ‘Hey, we want to play Orpheum Theater indoors for the next decade.'”
They found success last October, reviving their score to “The Unknown” at the downtown Phoenix theater.
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How to see the RPM Orchestra at the Orpheum
The RPM Orchestra returns to Orpheum on Sunday, May 8, for a live performance accompanying the screening of “Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate,” a 1915 silent film directed by Mario Roncoroni and written by Giovanni Bertinetti.
It’s a movie they’ve been wanting to see for a while.
“We were basically just waiting for the day someone would digitally redesign it,” Petrescu says.
“It’s an Italian movie, so we were hoping that if someone rephrased it, they’d put in English subtitles. In 2019, someone already did. So we promoted it to the top of our list.”
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How RPM Orchestra chooses a movie to record
“Filibus” is the first part of RPM Orchestra’s 2022 residency in silent film recording at the Orpheum Theatre, with the quintet returning Tuesday, September 6, for another show.
“We combine traditional instruments with homemade instruments and sound effects to give an experience that is completely immersive, as if you were there at the time of the movie, and you experience it as it happened,” Petrescu says.
Film selection is determined in part by availability and whether a copy of the film is of sufficient quality to be shown in the theater.
Next, Petrescu says, “It really varies from movie to movie, as far as what draws us to a particular movie.”
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“First rehearsal is kind of a hot mess”
A lot of times it comes down to the story, whether it’s a horror movie or a comedy.
“They are timeless stories,” Petrescu says. “The humor is still funny. The horror is still terrifying. The stories translate. Hopefully with our score, we emphasize the tone of each particular film to truly bring out the tone of the woodwork.”
The scores tend to cluster in the course of two or three exercises.
“First rehearsal is kind of a hot mess,” Petrescu says. “The second rehearsal, we put it together. And the third rehearsals, we kind of run it as close as possible to the live performance before we give it in the theater.”
In that hot mess of first rehearsal, they spin the film and improvise the score as they go.
“As a group, we kind of get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and we use that as a starting point for the next training,” Petrescu says.
“So we have a basis. And as we go on, we take notes as far as if there are specific melodies, that kind of thing, kind of blocking out scene by scene.”
It’s just a foundation, though.
“Once we enter the stage, we improvise on the original improvised foundation we laid,” Petrescu says. “So he’s not 100% set. Even between those last rehearsals and on stage, there’s some difference.”
Petrescu sees many similarities between live movie scores and other work he does with his self-described pilot project as the industrial Americana diesel-punk quintet.
“When we do mixed-media shows, we might work with a dancer,” he says. “Whatever we’re playing on, we’re recording the movement. It could be on screen. It could be dancers. So the process isn’t all that different.”
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The orchestra behind the film scores
RPM Orchestra organized their first show at a laundry that didn’t know the show was happening.
“I put together a CD of demo music in the studio,” Petrescu says. “And when it came time to release a CD, I felt like I needed a live band.
“I started by poaching two members of one of my favorite local bands, World Class Thugs – Jim Dustan and Jocelyn Ruiz.”
The rest of the players have come into place over time as Erik Hunter completed the current quintet (which also includes Vic Void) in 2014.
Their latest CD, “Revved Up,” is available on Bandcamp. Two of the four tracks were captured in silent film screenings – “Punishment” at Bar in 2018 and “Unknown” at the Orpheum Theater last October.
It makes perfect sense for Petrescu for a local audience to embrace the concept of film scores.
“I don’t think anyone has seen anything like this in Phoenix,” he says.
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Why are dozens of silent films so visible?
But they are actually part of a much larger network of musicians.
“There are a few hundred bands around the world that record silent films,” Petrescu says. “There is actually a directory of silent film musicians on the Internet.”
Petrisko credits his interest in introducing silent films to modern audiences.
“It’s such timeless movies and people don’t see them because they hear ‘Oh, silent movie’ and it seems very disconnected from our tumultuous world today,” Petrescu says.
“But there is a way to reintroduce that kind of thing for a modern audience to enjoy, too.”
When asked if there is a level at which film scores would make recording their music easier, Petrescu shares a different theory.
“I think what we’re doing makes silent films a lot easier,” he says. “And if by chance the people who come to see the scores for these films become more interested in experimental music, that’s a good thing, too.”
The RPM Orchestra at the Orpheum Theatre
when: 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 8.
where: Orpheum Theatre, 203 W Adams Street, Phoenix.
Acceptance: $16; $11 for kids.
details: 602-262-6225, pccticketing.com.
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