By Nancy Friedman
(April 24, 2023)
How many times has Richard Marriott seen Pandora’s Box? When I suggested 50, he said that number was conservative. “Probably double that,” he guessed.
Marriott is the musical polymath behind the Pandora’s Box score that will be performed live during the Saturday, May 6 presentation of the silent-film classic at Oakland’s Paramount Theater. A composer, player of multiple brass and wind instruments, and founder of San Francisco’s Club Foot Orchestra, Marriott is perhaps best known as a champion of silent films and creator of fresh, evocative music to accompany them.
Forget any notions you may have of silent-film music: a solo tinkling piano, schmaltzy violins. The New Yorker called Club Foot Orchestra’s style “music that bubbles up from the intersection of aesthetics and the id.” The score for the Paramount screening of Pandora’s Box incorporates English horn, guitar, banjo, a string quartet, a range of clarinets, and – to Marriott’s particular delight – timpani.
Marriott was born in Cleveland and received his formal musical education at the University of Minnesota and UC San Diego, where one of his professors was the avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveiros. But he’d been drawn to music, and to movies, since toddlerhood. “The first movie I ever saw was [Walt Disney’s] Fantasia,” he recalls. “I was hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at 2 or 3 years old!” By the time he was 8 he was singing in choirs; at 10 he took up the trombone. He began playing woodwinds after hearing the jazz master Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
By 1983 Marriott had relocated to San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood and was building synthesizers and living above a performance-art nightclub called Club Foot. With clarinetist and keyboardist Beth Custer, he formed the club’s house band, Club Foot Orchestra. “We played instrumental music with no lead singer–no front person who could focus the audience’s attention,” Marriott says. “And then I thought, We should project pictures of Surrealist art over the top of the band. Someone who saw the show in San Francisco told us, ‘Your music is so cinematic – you should score outtakes of 1950s sitcoms!”
Instead, that night Marriott found himself watching public-TV channel KQED, which was airing the great German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). “I’d seen the movie in college, and now I connected it with my music,” Marriott says. “I thought the shadows and the sets were a magnificent accompaniment to the music–not the other way around.”
Marriott wrote his own score for Cabinet, which premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1987. He has since composed scores for at least 10 additional feature-length silent films as well as for numerous silent shorts. The Club Foot Orchestra also scored and recorded 39 episodes of the CBS cartoon series The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat.
Scoring silent films requires “being in total sync with the movie,” says Marriott. “It’s definitely a different skill than, say, performing for the stage or doing a concerto with an orchestra.” In fact, sometimes it means departing from the written score and improvising.
In Pandora’s Box, for example, watch – and listen – for the scene in which Alwa Schön (Franz Lederer) is seated at a piano, writing a piece of musical theater. “You can see him jotting stuff down and trying it out,” says Marriott. Instead of scoring the moment, “it’s much easier to get the pianist to copy exactly what’s going on. That’s totally improvisation – copying the gesture as opposed to the notes. Sometimes,” Marriott adds, “if you leave it up to a soloist you can get exactly the right gesture.”
The orchestra’s original score for Pandora’s Box, from 1995, has been revised to complement the film’s 2012 restoration. (For more on the restoration, see main article.) For the Paramount screening, the nine-piece Club Foot Orchestra will be conducted by Deirdre McClure and augmented by musicians from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One of those musicians will play the timpani that Marriott is so excited about. Why? “Because it’s such an imposing sound,” he says. There will be places where the timpani will go from quadruple pianissimo [pppp] – as soft as you can possibly play, like distant thunder. And in one scene, Lulu [Louise Brooks] seduces her much older lover, Dr. Schõn, while the disreputable character Schigolch is hiding in a back room, drinking from a bottle. A puppy starts barking, the romantic mood is broken, and Schigolch is getting drunk. That’s when we have the timpani going glissando, adding to the comedic effect.”
In the 28 years since the premiere of his Pandora’s Box score, Marriott says, “Our compositions have improved, and some of them will be highlighted in the revised score. And we have a group of wonderful conservatory students to help fill out the sound.” Above all, he adds, Pandora’s Box is “a fabulous movie, beautifully restored.” There may not be dialogue, but in every other respect this screening will be a feast for the ears.
A scene from the pre-restoration Pandora’s Box with music by Club Foot Orchestra. The version that will be screened at the Paramount on May 6 is the most recent restoration; both orchestra and score have been significantly expanded.
Visit the Club Foot Orchestra website.
Check out the Club Foot discography and listen to samples of their music.
Read more about Pandora’s Box in our companion article.
Purchase advance tickets for the Saturday, May 6, 2023 screening of G.W. Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Pandora’s Box with live accompaniment by the Club Foot Orchestra joining forces with San Francisco Conservatory of Music at Oakland’s magnificent Paramount Theatre. More information and ticket purchase here.
Silent Film Festival members can get a discount. Tickets purchased via Ticketmaster have a fee. To avoid the fee you can visit the Paramount’s Box Office in Oakland between 12:00 noon and 5:00 PM on Fridays or buy tickets on the evening of the event. The box office will open at 5:00 PM that Saturday.
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Nancy Friedman is a writer and branding consultant in Oakland, naming products and companies in virtually every category: a condom, a venture-capital firm, a brand of freezer-to-stovetop meals, an office chair, one of the first mobile payment systems in the United States, a photo-sharing app, a pioneer in the business of divorce funding. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, she now contributes regularly to Medium, the Visual Thesaurus, the Strong Language blog, and her own blog, Fritinancy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Read more about her name-development process in interviews with me in the Wordnik blog and the Chicago Manual of Style Online.
When not working with words, Nancy swims wordlessly in San Francisco Bay with other members of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club.