The Sound of Silents

San Francisco Noise Tricksters Re-score and Re-edit "Haxan," as Well as Other Classic Films

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Dr. Prisoner: The Brain!

Sam talks with members of Dr. Prisoner: The Brain! Includes audio clips from their latest performance.

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Before the altar in a church, a group of nuns becomes suddenly unhinged, laughing, convulsing, howling-all as the Devil looks on from the sidelines, his tongue protruding like a stiletto. Each time the camera turns on the Devil, we hear a sickening yet comic trombone-like wail. This is "Haxan," a 1922 quasi-documentary film on the history of witchcraft, but "Haxan" is silent. The soundtrack is being performed live, in the old tradition of live organists accompanying silent movies. But unlike silent films of old, the ambient evil accompanying Benjamin Christensen's film comes from a guitar and synthesizers, operated by the three members of the band Dr. Prisoner: The Brain!

Performing last Saturday in the small gallery-like space known as Artists' Television Access, ferreted away on Valencia Street in San Francisco's Mission District, the band was set up in front and to the left of the audience, so that they were visible but also facing the screen. The players were Dr. Astronaut Body and Possum Carvidi on electronics, with Lester T. Raww on guitar. What screened, though, was no version of "Haxan" anyone has ever seen before. It had been re-edited specifically for the event by Dr. Astronaut Body, the leader of the group and an actual accredited film scholar (the "doctor" part is for real). Astronaut Body's version was re-sequenced, featuring conceptual cross-cutting and unnervingly decontextualized images. For example, the film's opening sequence of engravings and illustrations from old books was presented without any of the explanatory title cards, accompanied only by a wash of angry sound, so it was more spookshow than educational interlude.

Dr. Prisoner: The Brain!'s musical attack varied throughout the roughly hour-and-a-half runtime. Much of the time the three players contributed reverberating stabs of sound, with an occasional siren-like effect leaping out of the veritable wall of synth waves and guitar. Sometimes, Lester T. Raww's gutturally rootsy guitar would take center stage to set the mood for a scene. At times a driving rhythm added intensity to the action, but just as often the band invited disorientation through defiantly arrhythmic sounds and malevolent buzzing. The music explicitly matched with the action at only a few points during the film, such as when the band generated a rapid percussive pounding as a demon on-screen beat a small drum, or when a character's bugle call was soundtracked with an absurdly low roar.

Regarding their creative process, Possum Carvidi explains, "A lot of it is left to sort of react to the movie, and we probably saw the movie maybe four or five times before we played it. And we planned out a couple of things, like some of the obvious cues . . . but other than that, you just gotta feel it. And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and it's a big adventure."

But one of the most notable aspects of their sound was in fact beyond the band's control. Dr. Astronaut Body's keyboard produced bursts of a distinctive static-y white noise during the performance, complementing the ghastliness on-screen or else forming an aggressive backdrop for the other sounds. But Astronaut Body wasn't summoning his own carefully programmed noise.

"The keyboard that I have is possessed by demons," he says, "and one of the things that it does is it bucks its own programming and creates sounds that don't exist, by mixing other sounds up. And sometimes it will also just kind of create this white-noise roar that you can't control."

Why "Haxan?" "There are certain silent films that don't need to be screwed with in this way," Astronaut Body asserts. "But 'Haxan,' you can put any kind of score down on top of it and it's going to work, but a score that's as aggressive and atonal like this is going to work fabulously."

Indeed, viewed at home on DVD, the film is visually brilliant and structurally inspired, but the heights of humor and horror are modest compared to what the audience at ATA experienced.

During one particularly harrowing sequence, the film enumerates the various torture devices the Inquisition used to extract confessions from suspected witches. Among them are thumbscrews and the dreaded rack, but one image of a device consisting of wooden leg splints and a spike to be driven between them elicited an anguished scream from one audience member. Certainly, the pictures on-screen invite awful imaginings, but it's a safe bet that the blistering score played a role in that elevated response.

Dr. Prisoner: The Brain! is just one manifestation of a collective of local musicians, centered around the doomy bluegrass group the Pine Box Boys. As the Zag Men and the now-defunct Reagan's Polyp, these players and others have recorded as well as performed more traditional concerts, not to mention other film scores. Carvidi comes from an electronic music background; Astronaut Body is interested in electronic music and metal, and says he is inspired by "everything from Bartok to Sun Ra to Anal Cunt. It's all part of the stew." Reagan's Polyp, a self-described "avant-terror-noise-rock" group, was responsible for a re-scoring of the Led Zeppelin concert film "The Song Remains the Same." That's right, they don't just do silent films.

And even with silent films, their approach is one of irreverent provocation. Their first project, a reworking of "Nosferatu," featured obscene new intertitles, intended to make the film funnier. Lester T. Raww recalls of the earliest performances, "Because ['Nosferatu'] was a film that people knew, a lot of people came out. We did 'Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,' and had a lot of people out. We thought, okay, we're really creative, let's do something nobody's heard of. And then we did 'The Man Who Laughs,' and really started to get about seven people or so coming out to those shows." Next up is D.W. Griffith's epic "Intolerance." "We've talked about 'Birth of a Nation,'" says Raww. "You know, after they did it in L.A., and people picketed and protested ... I thought, San Francisco-it'll really go over well." ("That would need to be contextualized carefully," interjects Astronaut Body.)

On the origins of the film-scoring project, Astronaut Body says, "I have no idea how it came about. The first one ... occurred literally the week I moved here. It was already happening and I ... did not play, but watched it. And I don't remember whose idea it was to do this, but it just kind of picked up steam and we've been doing it at least once a year for seven years now."

Dr. Prisoner: The Brain! and its associated bands have exclusively performed their film-based works at the Artists' Television Access space in San Francisco. The venue feels at once intimate and alien, the perfect environment for experiences like Dr. Prisoner: The Brain!'s joyously addling score.

It's fitting that Dr. Prisoner: The Brain! blends noise with bluegrass and other styles-they're essentially updating a forgotten form of American folk music, the live film score. Indeed, there are a few theaters that still feature piano or organ with silent films, but in the age of DVDs the performative aspect of film screening is largely dead. In the capable hands of Dr. Astronaut Body, Lester T. Raww, Possum Carvidi and cohorts, though, it's alive-very much alive.


Sam Stander is the lead music critic. Contact him at

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