Guitarist Rez Abbasi Crafts New Soundtrack for 1929 Silent Film ‘A Throw Of Dice’


Rez Abbasi composed a new score for the 1929 silent movie A Throw of Dice, which is due out Oct. 18. It was the guitarist’s first time writing for film.

(Photo: John Rogers)

Composing can reflect the progression and transformation of a writer. And that’s particularly true when the music requires coordinating multiple people and artistic mediums.

Both long-tail development and creative payoff are apparent on New York guitarist Rez Abbasi’s A Throw Of Dice (Whirlwind), a fresh soundtrack to the 1929 silent film of the same name. Nearing its centenary anniversary, the film’s black-and-white images are energized with audible modernity by the bandleader and his Silent Ensemble as they effortlessly support the original footage and mark the album as a paradigm of evolution.

The recording meets the film’s sonic needs, but as an artist who’s traversed several cultural and musical milieus in his career, Abbasi makes clear that A Throw Of Dice doesn’t stop at functionality.

The guitarist recently spoke to DownBeat about how scores serve a different purpose today than they did 90 years ago, how silence functions in film, and the merger of jazz and Eastern musics.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

The score for A Throw Of Dice was commissioned back in 2017, so what are you feeling now that it’s done, as opposed to when you started?

I’m usually not proud of myself, but in this case I am extremely proud of myself. [Musicians], usually we’re not proud of things. But with this—it’s my first film score. And the film came out around 1930 and it’s based around the Mahabharata—one of India’s two epic poems in Sanskrit—that was written supposedly in the 8th century B.C. So, I’m grappling with some historic content here, and it makes me a little more proud that it came out strong.

How differently did you approach writing for this film as opposed to one that would have included audible dialogue?

Addressing the silence with the score for a silent film, I think involves a very different sense of perception from applying silence in just a musical context.

When I tried dropping out the sound [in the score] for more than 10 seconds, it really felt awkward—as if something were deleted—and that’s something that never happens in modern film. Most of the material that’s written is for background music to other sound elements. With the silent film, there’s really no background anything.

I think the silence itself almost becomes gravitational. I felt like I had a real influential hand in the outcome of the film as presented in 2019, because I was able to almost be another actor. The score takes on the role of being another actor. There’s a huge potential to create something that will enhance the film and work on its own as a compelling listening experience, which was ultimately my goal. [Conversely,] there’s this potential to overcompensate for silence, forcing too much of your own personality onto it.

Where did you draw the line between traditional jazz-oriented elements and the nondiatonic tonal systems associated with Eastern music?

I’ve always shied away from creating “exotic” sounding music for the sake of it, but with this project I kind of embrace exoticism. So, it was really enjoyable to feature in one scene, for instance, sitar, guitar, bansuri flute, drum set and acoustic bass. Then, switch to electric guitar, tenor saxophone, cello and mridangam for the next scene. This really brought out all the knowledge I’ve ever had in music and more in fact, because the characters, the plot and the unfolding of the movie had a lot to do with how I would start an idea or what tempo I would start an idea in.

I think tempos were one of the keys to success in this [project.] Since it’s silent, it’s sort of like the music really needs to be juxtaposed to the tempo of the scene. For instance, one tempo came from the actress’ blinking eyes, and that was really interesting because playing it in real time, it was really easy to speed up or slow down. There’s no metronome. There’s no counting [the beat] off. It’s her eyes counting it off. So, the characters really became the conductors of tempo. And that was really something we all had to practice.

[Additionally,] 30 percent of the score is improvised, which is great because there’s always going to be these surprises within every [live] performance. And that’s where a lot of the jazz elements come from, other than a lot of harmonic progressions, chromaticism and what not.

In what way do you think blending older visuals with polished, modern sounds impacts how the work is experienced?

I think the main idea was to enhance the film and not take away from it, while keeping it very compelling as a listening-only experience. Sometimes in modern film, there’s so much background music—[and] I’m talking about general film scores—that I personally wouldn’t want to hear them solely as a listening experience. They’re subservient not only to the movie they’re [supporting], but also to the director. I didn’t have to deal with the director, so I could make my own moves and use my own criteria. It’s almost nonanalogous to writing for modern film.

How do you think exploring Eastern music theory can help jazz musicians or students with composing and improvisation?

There are ways to apply Indian classical knowledge to jazz without sounding Indian. My emphasis, [both] throughout my life and in [my] book New Dimensions in Jazz Guitar, is on a bunch of ways that I learned to do that. Everybody seems to be learning more about Indian rhythms and that’s great. But melodically—emphasizing certain phrases [and] notes, practicing scales in a different way than just running up and down them, really emphasizing certain notes in the scale, respecting the scale as a melodic vehicle rather than a way just to learn [an] instrument—these are some basic, elementary differences. They’re concepts that can serve you for a lifetime, as opposed to just saying, “Here’s 10,000 scales.” DB

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