Music for a film

Nineteen Thirteen’s “Infinite Prelude”

By - Jun 8th, 2011 04:00 am
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Photo courtesy Nineteen Thirteen

Sometimes, the best filmic music is so suited for its visual counterpart that it is almost unnoticeable. Unless you’re listening for it, it is subsumed by the partnership, patiently accenting moments note by note. And then there are those moments when ambient music steals its way into the foreground of film, as in Philip Glass’s piano for The Hours, or Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for Requiem for a Dream. The Chamber Rock ensemble Nineteen Thirteen distills the feeling of this climactic film-music rush without the partner of a film, stealing audiences away in concentrated, creeping fashion with a combination of patience and incantation.

Janet Schiff, Scott Johnson and Victor Delorenzo’s Nineteen Thirteen is willing hypnosis, at the hands of capable guides. I sat down for a conversation with the members of the group in Delorenzo’s comfortable East side cottage studio to discuss the project.

The genesis of “Chamber Rock”

At the group’s center is composer and cellist Janet Schiff. Schiff comes from a musical family; her mom was a classical pianist, her grandmother a vaudeville organist. When Janet was a small child, she drew a picture of the instrument she wanted to play. Based on that picture, she was given a guitar. “I was disappointed,” she admits. However, Schiff made the best of the situation, playing the guitar with a coat hanger for years until her parents figured out what instrument she actually needed to play. From there, Schiff went onto formally study cello with masters at the Milwaukee Conservatory and later at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. Composing, she said, “started happening for me at 19.”

The newest member in the group is Victor Delorenzo, a Milwaukeen with a seasoned history. A jazz drummer and former member of Theatre X, Delorenzo was also the drummer for the Violent Femmes, and spent decades writing, playing and touring the world until the band dissolved several years ago. Milwaukee is still the place he calls home, and with his new found free time, he had been hoping for something meaningful to come along. One day Schiff called him to sit in on one of Nineteen Thirteen’s improvisational sets at Circle A Café. He brought his snare and a floor tom, brushes and bundle sticks. After that experience, he was sold on the project.

Photo courtesy Nineteen Thirteen

Delorenzo is the percussionist counterpart for Scott Johnson, a local drummer and artist who plays a full drum kit, but not in the way you might expect. Johnson’s playing is mostly malleted (think Beach House), and is very affected by both his experience playing with other kinds of drum tones (including the Timpani) and his senses of timing, composition and color, honed through years of filmmaking and editing. Johnson describes a shift in his sound after studying experimental film.

“I learned about the sounds that one doesn’t play.” This taste for silence is something you can hear in a Nineteen Thirteen set, and Scott claims that audiences can smell it too. Victor laughs. “I like that,” he says.

Dynamic Improvisation

The combination of Johnson and Delorenzo’s playing yields a dual channel stereo cave of beats inside which Schiff’s cello sings. Repetition, elaboration and conversation are the foundational elements in the music. Classical, intricate phrases of cello are interlaced and looped, building melodies like the narrative action of a story. Dueling drum beats articulate individually and are made to interlock, like characters caught in relations with no end.

The ritual of Nineteen Thirteen’s music is magic at times, accessible to those who want to participate. There is no human voice and no lyrics, which Schiff says allows for “accessibility… and a lack of subjectivity” that is often imposed through the presence of singers. However, Schiff beams when she tells me, “I am singing.”

Though repetition is the mode, the music is also unpredictable at times — the group wants it that way. Driven perhaps by the combination of Johnson’s love of space, Delorenzo’s history with jazz, and Schiff’s degree in psychology, in performance it feels as though they are each still waiting to see what the other is going to do. The same is true in conversation. When I asked the group which filmmaker, in their wildest dreams, they would love to compose for, Janet cues Scott with a mouthed, but otherwise inaudible suggestion. They look at each other.

“David Lynch,” says Johnson. Delorenzo is already agreement before another word is spoken.

In performance sometimes this dynamic gives way to improvisation that is transparent, with calculated slaps of cello and percussive mugging that comes across as unselfconscious and trusting. The classical base of the music is trod upon with enthusiasm, expressed particularly by Delorenzo. “Though we do stick to the page, at times we obliterate the page,” he says, chuckling.

Though his role in the trio is fairly new, Delorenzo has a lot to offer this group. He thinks large-scale about where 1913 can go. “You’ve got to come with a confidence beyond your home town,” he tells me. He knows that there are places beyond Milwaukee to reach audiences. Say, Europe, for example.

Schiff assures me that the music comes from this landscape, as well as the lives these players have lived in and around Milwaukee. Close your eyes when listening to Nineteen Thirteen, and you see images of this place, the bleakest and best parts: a droning of grays, overlayed with cycles of light and sweeps of wind that leave you shivering. Life pent up inside something stark. Sudden shocks of blossoms.

“(It’s) a little bit of heaven and a little bit of hell” says Victor, laughing.

“That’s earth,” says Janet.

Nineteen Thirteen just released an EP, Infinite Prelude, which is available for listening and downloading on See them live at the Jazz Estate ( 2423 N. Murray Ave.) on Thursday, June 9 at 9:30 p.m.

Categories: Classical

0 thoughts on “Music for a film: Nineteen Thirteen’s “Infinite Prelude””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Third Coast Digest and Elisabeth! Please find the Infinite Ep by Nineteen Thirteen on iTunes and Amazon online music stores.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Elisabeth. Well done. — Strini

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well done and well deserved. I’m loving seeing this here!!! Beautiful cover photo too!

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