Devil’s Music for a Red Heroine Robert Nott
Get a load of this description of the silent kung-fu movie Red Heroine: “A marauding band of bandits/military men raid a town and kidnap a bunch of women and the main character, whose grandmother gets killed in the melee, but she’s luckily rescued by the cliche of the gallant kung-fu hermit with a fake white beard and is taught military skills and is gone for a while, and then there’s some intrigue between family and military men, and in the end the Red Heroine comes back, kicks a lot of ass, and pretty much saves the day.”
That’s straight from the musician’s mouth — in this case the mouth of Jonah Rapino, a member of the musical trio Devil Music Ensemble, which is touring the country playing live music to accompany the rare 1929 action film. Red Heroine, the only surviving episode of a 13-part serial called Red Knight Errant, plays on Tuesday, Sept. 30, at The Screen, with Rapino and his colleagues Brendon Wood and Tim Nylander performing their original score.
Formed in 1999, Devil Music Ensemble (which took its name from part of George Crumb’s composition Black Angels: Thirteen Images From the Dark Land) creates soundtracks for contemporary pictures and scores for classic (and often forgotten) silent films. Rapino chatted with Pasatiempo by phone as the group headed west through Kansas toward Colorado one day last week.
Pasatiempo: You’ve scored and recorded music for several silent films, including the John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde  and the offbeat Western Big Stakes . How does the recording-
studio experience differ from playing these scores live?
Jonah Rapino: The process begins the same way that it ends — with the three of us in a room figuring out how to “think” this music to the film. Well before we record, we go on the road and play the thing a million times and work out the kinks and drop some music and write some on top, so by the end, we’re right back in the studio to record it.
The best thing about playing live is the worst thing about recording: when you make a mistake playing live, it’s over. You go on and forget about it. In the studio you worry about your performance because it’s being recorded for the annals of history. Playing live is actually less stressful. And each show’s different. It’s all about the energy of the people who are there and how they react to the film. It’s nice when we’re close enough to the audience to see their faces when they’re laughing or falling asleep.
Pasa: Do you also have to watch the film while it’s playing?
Rapino: Absolutely. With a new film like this, I have to pay a lot more attention to what’s going on. We’ve done the Dr. Jekyll scores and scores of times, so I barely watch that film anymore. I’ve seen it over 50 times, so basically I just look up whenever I need a visual cue, and then I’m off again. After a while you definitely stop watching the film.
The fun about Red Heroine is that it’s new. At the beginning I don’t look at the film so much. I’m looking at my sheet music, the keyboard, five or six different instruments, changing the level on our volume, and then we sink into it and organically interact with the film so the cues are tighter and the temps settle down to the proper speed so the next music cue happens exactly with the next scene cut. And when I look back up [at the film], I’m noticing new things. I just noticed that there’s a fly crawling up the back of one character in one scene. It’s great to discover something like that in a film like this.
Pasa: You’ve done a Chaplin film [Modern Times], some well-known horror films, an obscure Western, and now this. How do you choose your movies?
Rapino: We do our own independent research, but we also put out a call to friends, film buffs, movie historians, asking for suggestions. A friend e-mailed us after seeing a listing for a silent martial-arts film and said, “What do you guys think of this?” We thought, This could be interesting. We’ve never heard of anyone doing a score for it; it could be fun to write a kung-fu soundtrack. We tried in vain to get a copy for a year and a half. Our initial source was the UCLA Film & Television Archive. They showed Red Heroine for the first time in America in 2003 as part of a traveling film festival. I got some information from them for a contact in China — the Beijing Film Archive in China, a government agency owns the rights — and we got nowhere for a year and a half. We were doing other projects in the meantime, and I went to a kung-fu film festival in Boston, and one of the organizers, a woman I knew, said, “Jonah, why doesn’t your band do a soundtrack for a silent martial- arts film at our next film festival?” I said, “We’ve been trying to do this for a couple of years. Help.” And she did; she got us in touch with an agency that kept calling China once a week and finally got a licensing agreement to screen the film.
Pasa: Is it true this is the only extant Chinese silent kung-fu film?
Rapino: It’s the only full feature film. It’s rare and kind of surprising that it made it [survived]. There are other incomplete films of this genre, but this is the only full length. I feel we play a part in bringing it back to life.
Pasa: I like your description of it. Is it appropriate for all ages?
Rapino: Definitely. It’s a pretty classic tale of revenge, sprinkled with various anachronisms, false teeth, bikini-clad women, mythical, magical derring-do, smoke, flying, other things like that. It’s really great, but it’s one of those things you wouldn’t imagine was made in the ’20s or ’30s. You’d think this happened in the ’60s. But it’s definitely appropriate for all ages; there’s nothing gruesome or terrible in it.
Pasa: Why is she called the Red Heroine?
Rapino: I don’t know. It’s probably a mistake in the translation. I think it means red knight-errant, like some sort of Robin Hoodish figure, like the wandering warrior who does good in Chinese folklore.
Pasa: Devil Music Ensemble also plays music for live theater and composes concert music. Is that about challenging yourselves with various mediums?
Rapino: It’s about finding fresh creative inspiration, and doing a new project makes you want to show up and have fun. It also gives our
audience something to come back and see, sort of a “what the hell are those guys doing now?”
Pasa: You’re touring with Red Heroine for over two months. What’s the best and worst thing about traveling?
Rapino: The best thing is the food and seeing old friends. We definitely eat better on the road than we do at home. The worst thing has got to
be — I guess doing 10 days in a row on 10-hour drives, just the constant sitting. But you know, the mind can wander, and sometimes in the workaday time you just don’t get time for your mind to wander. So that in itself is a blessing. >>
>> Red Heroine screening, with live accompaniment by Devil Music Ensemble
>> 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30
>> The Screen, College of Santa Fe campus, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive
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