INTERVIEW: Guitarist Marc Ribot on Playing for Silent Films and the Current State of the Music Business 

click to enlarge Newark native Marc Ribot is a guitarist and composer whose work has touched genres as varied as no wave, free jazz, soul and Cuban music. He last played locally 20 years ago at Hole in the Wall.

Newark native Marc Ribot is a guitarist and composer whose work has touched genres as varied as no wave, free jazz, soul and Cuban music. He last played locally 20 years ago at Hole in the Wall.

When it comes to musical genres, Marc Ribot is like the chameleon that turns different colors based on surrounding foliage.

The longtime downtown New York fixture is known for his atmospheric and inventive guitar playing with artists including Tom Waits, whose career he helped redirect with “Rain Dogs,” Elvis Costello, John Zorn, Wilson Pickett, Elton John, and the Grammy winning album “Raising Sand” from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

The 61-year-old Ribot just returned from Europe touring with the Young Philadelphians, a group of exciting players including guitarist Mary Halvorson. The band reinterprets old Philly soul and hard groove and just released an album “Live in Tokyo” in Europe, he says, which should be available soon in the States. Ribot also is known as one of the finest modern interpreters of free jazz great Albert Ayler, and he just finished recordings of John Cage organ music transcribed for guitar.

Ribot comes to Richmond to play solo at the Byrd Theatre, creating an improvised score to the classic silent film by Charlie Chaplin, “The Kid” (1921). For local musicians and observers, he’ll also offer a paid improv workshop at Black Iris at noon on the same day, Dec. 13.

Style: So how did you come to scoring “The Kid”?

Ribot: I saw the movie on TV when I was a kid and then later I was commissioned to score it for New York Guitar Festival [in 2009]. When I watched it again I was struck by a strange phenomenon. As a kid watching this thing, it seemed ancient, as old as the dinosaurs. When I was commissioned, it was just after the stock market crash and during my own experience of single fatherhood. When I re-watched it then, it seemed like contemporary film, or much closer. Which was odd. I realized it was partly because [of the restoration] but also I (and a lot of other people) had suddenly gotten the epiphany that the economic situation it described could happen again. People were going through it. I decided with the contemporary score to treat it as a serious film, even though there’s lots of humor in it. I’m not going for the yuk yuks.

Is it easy to keep the improvisation fresh after seeing it repeatedly?

Well, I’m quite into live scores. I’ve been doing a Soviet science fiction movie called “Aelita: Queen of Mars,” Josef von Strernberg’s “Docks of New York,” and three silent films by contemporary filmmaker Jennifer Reeves. I love performing with silent movies and I keep it fresh with a series of themes on which I tend to return, but the score is improvised. It’s not absolute; each performance is unique. In that respect, I’m not so far from a lot of early silent film presentations since the birth of the form. When people originally received “The Kid” it was accompanied by Chaplin’s original score. Most [reels] came with lists of themes and what they should be accompanied by for solo players. In some areas of country, the greatest jazz artists played in silent film theaters. You can imagine it must’ve been pretty great. I think that by the time musicians had done those recommended scores 10, 20, 30 times, they improvised. So I feel like I’m participating in a great film tradition. I think it took sound sync quite awhile to come back to the power of the experience of live music with silent film — if it ever did.

Someone turned me onto the guitar music of Frantz Casseus about a year ago — and it is just beautiful. I saw in your bio that he was your mentor when you were 11 years old. That is amazing. What was he like?

Yeah, he was a great guy. Haitian born classical guitarist and composer. Somehow he met my aunt and uncle in New York through mutual friends. My aunt was a songwriter. I think they helped connect him with an apartment. They became good friends and I believe shared a car with him [laughs]. They met through a mutual friend of my father’s who was a medical doctor and jazz pianist. My father and he interned at Harlem Hospital. So this guy knew Frantz through old jazz connections. [Casseus] had come to the U.S, in 1948. Frantz’s family was in Haiti, so he was happy to have someone to hang out with on holidays. We’d get together regularly for brunches. I was a kid, so I took it for granted. I remember he used to just sit and play guitar.

Frantz was a real gentleman, kind of a quiet. Deeply, deeply into his music. He made huge sacrifices to play guitar, to pursue his dream. But was happy to make them. His dream was to compose a classical guitar music based on the music of Haiti and that’s what he did. So he’s known today as the father of classical Haitian guitar. When he was starting out, to play classical meant to play European standards popular in France. But he had the vision to create a music that didn’t look to former colonial power, but was based on Haiti’s own traditions. Like Villa-Lobos inspired by Brazilian, or Bartok inspired by Hungarian.

I’ll be performing [Frantz’s music] in Port-au-Prince for a benefit [Dec. 6]. I’m involved in supporting the guitar program there.

What would you recommend for someone who wants to get into the music of Albert Ayler?

Oh wow. There are so many. “Witches and Devils” is a great small group recording, good place to start. Also great is “Albert Ayler live in Greenwich Village,” a larger group with wonderful material. Then, there’s one that is unusual for Ayler, it’s the only one he’s performing covers on – the vinyl is called “Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual” [reissued on CD as ‘Goin’ Home’]. It’s a shockingly beautiful record. Henry Grimes plays bass on it, and he of course is still alive, very much so, and performs with me in my trio with Chad Taylor.

You’re an outspoken voice for musicians’ rights in the digital age. What is your biggest concern for working musicians today?

I’m a member and I recommend musicians join Content Creators Coalition. There are chapters in a bunch of cities including Nashville, L.A., S.F., New York — it’s an advocacy group for musicians on digital issues.

My concern is simple: Although there’s been a mountain of hype to the contrary, you cannot sell what people can readily obtain for free. No industry can survive in competition with an open black market that doesn’t pay producers. Internet service providers are not held responsible because of a law that exempts them — the Safe Harbor Provision of Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In 1997, when it was drafted, this law made some sense because [internet-service providers] argued they had no way to police the millions of posts being made on YouTube. Today, it makes no sense whatsoever. YouTube has a way of policing — content ID software, made available to preferred customers. As it is now, every ISP should be held responsible if someone posts material; or issue a takedown notice. If you’re a major label you can afford to patrol and have stuff taken down — if you’re an indie artist or self-releasing you can’t afford to do this. The result has been, overall, that the industry has crashed. I’m a recording musician, I know.

Well hey what about streaming? Won’t that replace CD sales? Here’s my experience: It costs me at least ten grand to make a record. On the last one, I made a little over 300 bucks off Spotify. So if it’s supposed to replace CDs and downloads, I’m in big trouble. You don’t have to be a genius to figure this out.

I think David Lowery [of Cracker] has taken an unbelievable amount of crap, but basically he’s speaking the truth and has been for a long time. I support many of his positions. He and a number of other people have placed themselves in the crosshairs of the biggest publicity machines in the world. People like to harp on the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] as being corporate. But the entire North American music industry is worth between $7 and $14 billion. Google alone is $395 billion, and that’s one company. When we look at whose interest it is to keep content cheap and free, we’re looking at incomes of over a trillion dollars.

So Lowery and others have shown a lot of guts in standing up to very powerful, and somewhat vicious corporate interests. S

Marc Ribot performs Charles Chaplin’s “The Kid” at the Byrd on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 4:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $10 for children younger than 12. Jamesriverfilm.org. Ribot also will conduct an improvisation workshop at Black Iris Gallery at noon. Tickets cost $25 non-participant to $35 for participant which includes film admission. Visit 321westbroad.com.

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