50 Years of Guest Musicians

Filmmaker Sam Green performs his "live documentary" The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller with musical accompaniment by the indie band Yo La Tengo, Sept 29, 2012.
Filmmaker Sam Green performs his "live documentary" The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller with musical accompaniment by the indie band Yo La Tengo, Sept 29, 2012. (Photo by Ed Dittenhoefer)

Early Days

Live music events didn’t make their way into Cornell Cinema’s line-up until the late '70s/early ’80s. Early events included visits by the Eastman Chamber Orchestra and the Eastman Dryden Orchestra from Rochester, performing with the silent films Peter Pan (1924) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), respectively.

Composer/ keyboardist David Borden, a former faculty member at Cornell and director/founder of Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company, a synthesizer ensemble started with the support of Robert Moog, began providing improvised soundtracks for silent films in the ’80s, and performed with a number of films, some of them shown in the Law School courtyard during the summer!

Dr. Philip Carli on the piano in Willard Straight Theatre
Dr. Philip Carli on the piano in Willard Straight Theatre

Richard Herskowitz also introduced audiences to composer/pianist/scholar Dr. Philip Carli, the staff accompanist at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester, who began accompanying silent films at Cornell Cinema in the late 80s, and has made regular appearances, some with a group he founded, the Flower City Orchestra, ever since. Carli also organized a special weekend event in the mid-90s, Les Choix des Pianistes, for which two of his colleagues, renowned silent film accompanists Neal Brand from London, and Gabriel Thibaudeau from Montreal, joined him for a lecture/demonstration about the art of silent film, and each performed with an international film of their choice. That same year, acting director Mary Fessenden invited him back to perform with the Museum of Modern Art's reconstructed 35mm print of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), a 3 1/2 hour extravaganza that Carli played without sheet music (as is the case for all the films he accompanies) and received a standing ovation from the awe-struck crowd.

The Clubfoot Orchestra and The Alloy Orchestra Debut

The Alloy Orchestra perform their score to Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS
The Alloy Orchestra perform their score to Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS

In 1989, the San Francisco-based group, the Club Foot Orchestra, pioneers of modern scores for silent film, who sparked a revival in the genre, visited Cornell Cinema to perform with Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). 

Their visit sparked a passion for the genre in then-manager, Mary Fessenden, who invited the Cambridge-based group, The Alloy Orchestra (founded in 1991) to Cornell Cinema for the first time in 1999, a few years after becoming director. The Alloy (Ken Winokur, Terry Donahue & Roger Miller) made annual visits to Ithaca, typically performing their original scores with two or three silent films each time, through 2019, when they announced their hiatus. Over the years they performed with over 50 different films, some in short film programs, including three different versions of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), their most popular score, which they presented at least ten times in Ithaca, typically to a sold-out auditorium.

21st Century Visits

The Mont Alto Orchestra performs with Buster Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN in Willard Straight Theatre
The Mont Alto Orchestra performs with Buster Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN in Willard Straight Theatre

During the first two decades of the 21st century, silent films made nearly a hundred years earlier attracted large Ithaca audiences thanks to live original scores by such groups as the Prague Symphonic Film Orchestra's Quintet performing with a new archival restoration of Gustav Machatý’s Erotikon: Or One Woman’s Perfume (1929) in 2000; the Tuvan throat-singing sensation Yat-Kha performing with Vsevolod Pudovokin’s Storm Over Asia (1928) in 2001; the Brooklyn-based chamber ensemble, the BQE Project, led by Tom Nazziola, performing with an early “talkie,” Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), to enliven the musical theatre scenes, in 2002 (the BQE returned again in 2004 and 2008 to perform with Buster Keaton’s films Sherlock, Jr. and Battling Butler, respectively);

BQE Project accompanies Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR (1924), November 13, 2004.
Brooklyn-based chamber ensemble, the BQE Project, performs their original score for Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924), November 13, 2004.

the San Francisco-based acoustic chamber group The Tin Hat Trio (Rob Burger, Carla Kihlstedt & Mark Orton) performing with the incredible insect and puppet animations of Ladislaw Starewicz (films from 1911–1925) in 2004; the Devil Music Ensemble (Brendon Wood, Jonah Rapino, and Tim Nylander), from Massachusetts, performing with the wacky western Big Stakes (1922) in 2004; another San Francisco-based group, the Beth Custer Ensemble, performing with the Soviet silent film My Grandmother (1929) in 2005; the Colorado-based group the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra performing with both The Cameraman (1928), starring Buster Keaton, and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), in 2010; and Swedish composer/musician Matti Bye performing with Victor Sjöström Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) (1917) in 2012.

Sage Chapel Screenings

Silent Movies with Music in Sage Chapel
Silent Movies with Music in Sage Chapel

At the request of Cornell faculty member & University organist Annette Richards, Cornell Cinema collaborated on a screening of F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) in Sage Chapel, with live music by acclaimed silent film organist/composer Dennis James and his Filmharmonia Duo in the Fall of 2012. The experience of watching films in that space was so extraordinary that Cornell Cinema has done one or two screenings per year in the spectacular non-denominational chapel ever since, including more silent films with Dennis James, whose visits have been sponsored by the Dept. of Music. (James, who has been joined by several different musicians over the years, has also performed with The Hands of Orlac (1924), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Hamlet (1921) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).)

The Invincible Czars pose before their performance in Sage Chapel.
The Invincible Czars pose before their performance in Sage Chapel.

Other groups that have performed in Sage Chapel with silent films include the Austin-based group The Invincible Czars (performing on three occasions with Nosferatu (1922), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) and Phantom of the Opera (1925)), the electro-acoustic trio Coupler (Ryan Norris, Rodrigo Avendaño & Rollum Haas) performing with the German film Our Heavenly Bodies (1920), and Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, joined by pianist Marilyn Lerner, for a performance with The Yellow Ticket (1918) in 2016. Svigals returned two years later to perform in Willard Straight Theatre with The Ancient Law (1923), joined by silent film piano accompanist Donald Sosin in an event cosponsored by the Jewish Studies Program, who also cosponsored a 2020 visit (in Willard Straight) by legendary guitarist Gary Lucas, performing his original score with The Golem (1920).

More Than Silent Film Accompaniment

Animator Brent Green and musicians with program of his shorts. Sept 2008
Animator Brent Green and musicians (Brendan Canty, Fugazi • Jim Becker, Califone • Alan Scalpone, the Bitter Tears • Rodney McGlaughlin) with program of his shorts. Sept 2008

But live music performances have accompanied more than just silent films. In 2003, the Billy Nayer Show performed their soundtrack live for The American Astronaut, a space-western/musical directed by and starring Cory McAbee. In 2008, animator/artist Brent Green performed live narration to a program of his short films along with musical accompaniment by several indie musicians, including Brendan Canty from Fugazi. He returned in 2015 (along with Canty and others) to perform with his feature film debut, Gravity was Everywhere Back Then.

The Philadelphia-based acid folk group Espers formed a special iteration of musicians called the Valerie Project to tour and perform with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a 1970 Czech New Wave film, that heated up Willard Straight Theatre in 2008.

Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips perform 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.
Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips (formerly of Luna and Galaxie 500) performing their live soundtrack to 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (from their tour).

Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips (formerly of Luna and Galaxie 500), were commissioned by The Andy Warhol Museum and The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for the 2008 Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts to provide soundtracks for 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests for a spellbinding rock concert underneath images of Edie Sedgewick, Lou Reed, Nico and others from Warhol’s Factory projected on the Willard Straight screen for a sold-out show in 2009. The following year, the Polish Cultural Institute organized a tour for the musical group Sza/Za (Paweł Szamburski and Patryk Zakrocki), a Warsaw-based electro-acoustic duo, who performed their creative original scores (inspired by Polish jazz of the ’60s) with a program of seven early short films by director Roman Polanski.

Academy Award nominated filmmaker Sam Green has visited with two of his “live documentaries” where he offers live narration to images and clips that are accompanied by live music. His first such performance was Utopia in Four Movements, an investigation of the meaning and status of idealism in contemporary culture, with a live soundtrack by Brooklyn-based folk act The Quavers (Catherine McRae & T. Griffin) and sound artist Dave Cerf in 2010. Green returned in 2012 to perform his "live documentary" The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller with musical accompaniment by the indie band Yo La Tengo (photo at top of page). The show sold out, as did a Q&A performance by YLT later the same evening!

The Books: A Live Multimedia Performance, March 30, 2010
The Books: A Live Multimedia Performance, March 30, 2010The Books: A Live Multimedia Performance, March 30, 2010

The American-Dutch duo The Books—guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto, and cellist Paul de Jong—performed with a program of their short, quirky videos in 2010, and the following year, cellist Kristen Miller performed her original scores to three classic films by pioneering avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren.

Contemporary filmmaker Bill Morrison, who works with decaying silent film footage to make his experimental films, collaborated with jazz musician Dave Douglas to create Spark of Being, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein;  Douglas performed the semi-improvised score and electronic soundscape created at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, live with his band Keystone, in 2011. Other work by Morrison, all of which features collaborations with noted composers/musicians (Decasia, score by Michael Gordon; The Miners' Hymns, score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson; Just Ancient Loops, score by Michael Harrison, performed by cellist May Beiser), screened in Sage Chapel, where the mesmerizing soundtracks, while not performed live, were accentuated by the Chapel's acoustics.

Philip Glass Ensemble performs Glass score to Koyaanisqatsi, Bailey Hall, Nov 2017 (photo: Randy Hendrickson)
The Philip Glass Ensemble performs live with Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi in Bailey Hall, a Cornell Cinema event sponsored by the Atkinson Forum in American Studies. November 3, 2017. (Photo by Randy Hendrickson)

Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra put together a special Psychedelic Cinema Ensemble to accompany & tour with Psychedelic Cinema: Ken Brown’s Light Show Films (1967 – 1969), an incredibly fun show of super 8 films which Cornell Cinema hosted in 2014. With support from the Atkinson Forum in American Studies, we were also able to host a very special screening of Godfrey Reggio’s cult film Koyaanisqatsi (1982), with minimalist composer Philip Glass’s famous soundtrack performed live by The Philip Glass Ensemble in Bailey Hall in 2017, an event attended by an audience of over 1000.

Cornell Cinema Also Featured Local Musicians

Natalie Merchant performs with Ithaca-based band The Horseflies after a screening of Dear Governor Cuomo, Nov 12, 2012. (photo: Ed Dittenhoefer)
Natalie Merchant performs with Ithaca-based band The Horseflies after a screening of Dear Governor Cuomo, Nov 12, 2012. (photo: Ed Dittenhoefer)

Local musicians, many with national, if not international, reputations, have also thrilled Ithaca audiences with their own accompaniments for both silent films and contemporary work.

Jazz musicians Hank Roberts and John Stetch offered a freewheeling soundtrack for The Open Road (1924), a fascinating travelogue through inter-war Britain, shot using an experimental color process, in 2007. Local gypsy swing band, Djug Django (Eric Aceto, Harry Aceto, Brian Earle & Chad Lieberman) performed original accompaniment with the classic Soviet comedy Bed & Sofa (1927) in 2008, and the Cloud Chamber Orchestra (Robby Aceto, Peter Dodge & Chris White) performed with Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) in Sage Chapel in 2014.

Eric & Mary Ross Ultimedia Concert. Sept 2014
Eric & Mary Ross Ultimedia Concert. With musicians Eric Ross, Trevor Pinch & Peter Rothbart. Willard Straight Theatre, September 12, 2014

In April '14, Dr. Park Doing (Engineering), who is also a musician in the local band, The Atomic Forces, presented "The Cultural Anthropology of TV Noise," accompanied by local musicians Michael Stark (keyboards) & Hank Roberts (cello). That Fall, jazz musician and thereminist Eric Ross, based in Binghamton, NY, fronted an Eric & Mary Ross Ultimedia Concert, featuring Moog synth expert Trevor Pinch and electro-acoustic composer Peter Rothbart, accompanying work by the late video/computer artist Mary Ross, whose work is part of Cornell’s Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art.

Mary Lorson, Signals.
Singer/songwriter Mary Lorson & local musicians perform Signals, a multi-media presentation that is part-memoir, part-concert, and compelling portrait of an artist and her family, February 20, 2015.

The multi-media performance, “Signals,” by singer/songwriter Mary Lorson, offered a portrait of her family, and was performed by Lorson and several other local musicians in 2015. Locally-based band The Horseflies, who have toured with Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs, graced our stage with Merchant in 2012 following a screening Dear Governor Cuomo, made by activist filmmaker Jon Bowermaster, in which the Horseflies appear. The event was a fundraiser for the Finger Lakes Clean Water Initiative.  

Anna Coogan & Tzar accompany Aelita
Anna Coogan & Tzar accompany Aelita: Queen of Mars

Organized by the local film festival, Ithaca Fantastik, Cornell Cinema hosted local composer/performer Tenzin Chopak, who teamed up with Peter Dodge and Bill King to perform an original score with Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Japanese silent A Page of Madness (1927) in 2016. Another commission by Ithaca Fantastik paired vocalist/guitarist Anna Coogan & the duo Tzar (Michael Stark & Brian Wilson) with Jean Epstein’s House of Usher (1928), which premiered at the local art house Cinemapolis. It was re-envisioned as a theatrical work by artistic director Sam Buggeln for The Cherry Arts space. Mary Fessenden subsequently invited Buggeln to restage it at Cornell Cinema as a multi-media rock opera in 2018. Prior to this, Coogan & Tzar had been commissioned by Cornell Cinema to provide a score for the pioneering Soviet sci-fi film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) in 2016; both events were stellar!

Guest Musicians (1970–2020)

  • Alloy Orchestra
  • Baraka Kwa Wimbo
  • Beth Custer Ensemble
  • Billy Nayer Show
  • The Books
  • David Borden & Mother Mallard
  • Marija Bosnar
  • BQE Project
  • Neal Brand
  • Matti Bye
  • CAGE (Cornell Avant-Garde Ensemble)
  • Candy Pants
  • Brendan Canty
  • Philip Carli
  • Dave Cerf
  • Tenzin Chopak
  • Cloud Chamber Orchestra
  • Club Foot Orchestra
  • Anna Coogan
  • Billy Cote
  • Coupler
  • Dean & Britta
  • Devil Music Ensemble
  • Djug Django
  • Peter Dodge
  • Dave Douglas and Keystone
  • Johnny Dowd & Kim Sherwood-Caso
  • Eastman Chamber Orchestra
  • Eastman Dryden Orchestra
  • Mark Goldstein
  • Electric Golem
  • Eric Feinstein
  • Filmharmonia Duo
  • Flower City Orchestra
  • Howe Gelb
  • Golden Arm Trio
  • Brent Green
  • Phil Greene
  • Genevieve Grenier
  • Drew Hankels
  • Hesperus
  • Frederick Hodges
  • The Horseflies
  • Invincible Czars
  • Dennis James
  • Ritsu Katsumata
  • Marilyn Lerner
  • Walt Lorenzut
  • Mary Lorson
  • Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes
  • Jennie Lowe
  • Gary Lucas
  • Leslie McMichael
  • Natalie Merchant
  • Kristin Miller
  • Momenta Quartet
  • Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
  • Philip Glass Ensemble
  • Powerdove
  • Powerdove Solo
  • Prague Symphonic Film Orchestra's Quintet
  • The Quavers
  • Hank Roberts
  • Eric Ross
  • Small Sails
  • Christopher Shaw
  • Donald Sosin
  • Michael Stark
  • Richie Stearns
  • John Stetch
  • Alicia Svigals
  • Sza/Za
  • Michael Tsalka
  • Gabriel Thibaudeau
  • Tin Hat Trio
  • Transit New Music
  • Tzar
  • The Valerie Project
  • Brian Wilson
  • Ken Winokur’s Psychedelic Cinema Ensemble
  • Doug Wyatt
  • Yat-Kah
  • Yo La Tengo