Years ago I found myself in Martin Place in Sydney, sitting cross legged on a cushion laughing and boo-ing and clapping along as wild gypsy raconteurs Blue Grassy Knoll recreated the silent movie experience live. It was amazing, one of the most lyrical and gorgeous musical experiences I’d ever had. The guys have been doing this for more than 17 years, and now Mullum Music Festival offers punters a chance to be part of the show when they bring the Blue Grassy Knoll to the festival for a special live scoring of The General.
Mandy Nolan spoke with Gus Macmillan, composer, musician, sound designer, manager and producer…
How would you describe the musical dynamic of Blue Grassy Knoll?
We began in 1996 as a bunch of friends who played bluegrass instruments but didn’t really know how to play bluegrass music – we were playing our own tunes and brought a kind of punk energy to it. Humour was always an important ingredient to the music, but so was intensity and passion, and obviously there was something in the chemistry of our personalities that sparked the whole thing off because it all just clicked and kept clicking.
Once we started scoring for silent Buster Keaton movies it allowed the multi-instrumentalist members in the band to play instruments we were actually trained to play and add a few new sounds to the palette such as cello, flute, drums, tuba and clarinet, but with the same irreverent attitude. It also gave us a chance to work on our ‘serious-composing’ chops and write longer, more complex pieces rather than the three-minute punk-bluegrass songs we were playing in pubs.
That was 17 years ago now so we’ve matured just a little and also learnt to play a bit of authentic bluegrass along the way.
What first inspired you to score Buster Keaton films?
We started by wanting to write a silent film score, without knowing much about silent films, let alone having ever heard of Buster Keaton. My girlfriend at the time was a film student and she recommended we look at Our Hospitality, Keaton’s first full-length feature film. It was pure gold, and we didn’t bother looking any further. It felt like Keaton shared a similar irreverence in making his films as we did to making music – he seemed to be having lots of fun and wasn’t taking himself too seriously (despite the deadpan face). But also his sense of invention and amazing skills as a stuntman and actor meant we never got tired of watching him. Like all classic pieces of art, his films have layers and levels that allowed us to perform to them hundreds of times and always find something fresh and new. The music also evolved with each performance and, as we became more intimate with the film, we mirrored Keaton’s nuances musically.
I was at a performance at Martin Place years ago and was amazed how interactive, funny and wonderful the experience was… Everyone was gasping and making appropriate squeals of laughter in the right places. Why do you think these older, less complicated narratives still pack a punch?
I remember that gig! I think the security guards from the surrounding buildings came out and were watching from the edges. Buster seems to have touched on universal human themes that do not date – and we still empathise with his character on screen today. Somehow he tapped into something that was timeless. As well as that I think he was so far ahead of his time as a filmmaker that he has influenced hundreds of comedians, actors and directors since so that his films have a familiarity to them because so many people still draw on his aesthetic today. It’s hard to believe he was the first person to invent this style.
How did you prepare for scoring films? Have you gone back to some of the original music or at least the styles and remade it into BGK?
We’ve never listened to scores of the day, although sometimes we accidentally hear them if someone leaves the volume up on the DVD. We approach scoring the films as if they were contemporary films and we use all the scoring tricks of the trade, stealing from people like Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrman and John Williams in order to modernise Keaton, and also help tell the story on the screen. Watching these films in total silence can sometime be a puzzle because it’s not obvious how you’re meant to feel about a certain situation until the end of the scene. When we prepare to write the scores we begin by watching them in silence and try to unlock the pieces of puzzle, and then come up with music that can signpost things aurally in advance and let the audience know what’s going on, as well as adding our own commentary about the situation as it unfolds – and of course doing our own musical gags to cap off the Keaton comedy. I think we provide energy and momentum whereas sometimes the original scores were a bit one-paced and clunky – hopefully we can make the funny scenes funnier, the sad scenes sadder, the love scenes lovelier and the chase scenes faster and more frenetic, whilst all the time respecting what Keaton was setting out to achieve.
Can you tell me about the most sensational experience you’ve had presenting a Buster Keaton film to a live audience?
It’s hard to single out just one highlight. The film-scoring gig has taken us all around the world over the last 17 years – we’ve played a three-week season of shows on Broadway in New York, as well as touring to Beijing, London, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Cape Town in South Africa, Seoul, Edinburgh, Ireland and Europe. It’s always interesting to see how universal the reaction is in every culture. Definitely one highlight that comes to mind was a couple of outdoor shows we did at the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House in the late 90s in front of 6,000 people. But more often than not it’s the little gigs in small venues that are memorable – where audiences sit very close to the band and become so completely raucous we can hardly hear ourselves play over the top of the laughing and cheering. Festivals usually create that kind of vibe, by the way.
What about when things have gone pear shaped, or wandered off the tracks?
In the early days we used to travel with the film on 16mm, and as we toured it got more and more worn out and often we weren’t sure if it was going to make it to the end of the film without breaking or jamming up. Usually our projectionist would be sweating bullets, poised with a pencil near the intake spool in case it started to all reel out onto the floor. Another time, in our first season in the Melbourne Town Hall, we all had to be evacuated by a security guard, band and audience, mid-tune, 10 minutes from the end of the film because the building was on fire. And in Canberra the laser disc just froze on a frame. Simon jumped up and made an impromptu speech, summarising the film so far, speculating on what may or may not happen in the next scene, and telling a few funny stories about venues catching on fire and projectors jamming up, until it was fixed up, and 10 minutes later we were off again. Many in the audience thought it was part of the show!
What should we expect for Mullum Music Festival?
We’re bringing our score to The General, which was Buster Keaton’s most famous and highly regarded film, complete with train chases and epic Civil War battle scenes, plus Buster’s incredible stunts and beautiful humour. We premiered the score for the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010, and like Keaton it is probably our best work as well. It’s a mixture of Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Guns of Navarone, and as such we get to play some seriously epic music… There’s lots of gags as well and all up it is a great new addition to our repertoire. We’re really pumped to be coming up your way and can’t wait for the lights to dim and the projector to start whirring so the band can crank up the music and watch Buster strut his stuff again.
Blue Grassy Knoll perform at Mullum Music Festival, 21–24 November.
For tix and program info go to www.mullummusicfestival.com.