Press interviews are usually structured affairs-a volley of questions, answers, follow-ups and clarifications. But when talking to Scott Paulson from the Teeny Tiny Pit Orchestra for Silent Films, it's a different matter.
Halfway through an enjoyable chat at a downtown pub about Paulson's background and interest in music and silent films, things turn mischievous.
"I brought some toys with me," he says, reaching into his bag and pulling out a bunch of plastic noisemakers. "This is a nose whistle, which is quite dangerous because you have to blow out your nose the entire time you're playing it."
Your humble correspondent, amazingly, was able to master the intricacies of said whistle on the first try, and without passing out.
"Very good," says Paulson. "Most people can't do it right away."
My instant success is a good sign-audience participation is part of the fun and appeal of the Teeny Tiny Pit Orchestra, which simultaneously revives and pays homage to the bygone era of silent movies. While silent films run on the screen, Paulson and his crackpot noisemakers compose the scores in real-time. It's like Ennio Morricone, live and in-person... with toys.
Paulson founded the group in the spring of 2000 after unearthing reels of silent films in a storage room at University of California San Diego's media library, where he works as an outreach coordinator.
"I was working at a music library that combined with a film library and we had to make room for the videos and films," he says. "I had to move these reels of 16mm film, and I noticed that a lot them were silent films. It was a no-brainer; we had to do this."
Paulson chose "Teeny Tiny" for part of his orchestra's name because, at least initially, he didn't "want the audience to have really big expectations, so we used a lot of toy instruments." The Tiny Pit features a rotating group of three or four musicians who play everything from piano to wind synthesizers. They've played everywhere from schools to art galleries, even a few nights at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood.
"In the bigger cities, there would be a true orchestra that would play with the important movies," Paulson explains of silent film's heyday. "In the small towns there would be a piano player, an organist or some small ensemble. That's what we're trying to bring back."
The music the TTPO plays is a mixture of careful planning, improvisation and tradition. In the early days of silent film, the bigger, more expensive films had scores written for them. For smaller releases, piano players at local theaters would often play familiar tunes that would match up with the action on the screen. Paulson says that certain scenes call for certain cliché songs-though it's probable modern audiences still won't recognize what were standards of yesteryear.
"If a car shows up, you gotta play "Come Away with Me Lucille in My Merry Oldsmobile,'" says Paulson. "But other times we'll just improvise and make up a rag."
Paulson says his love for silent films goes back to his youth as a fan of cartoons like Felix the Cat and Tom & Jerry, where "the music was so colorful and the sound effects were spectacular."
Paulson chooses the movies himself, sometimes enlisting the help of UCSD film curator Stephen O'Rordian and students at the college. He's careful not to show films that are blatantly ribald or would offend contemporary sensibilities.
"It's a family show, so I screen them for nudity and for racist tones, as well as jokes in bad taste," he says.
The theme and content of the movies also dictate the kind of music that the Tiny Pit and the audience play. If the film has serious scenes, Paulson says they keep "a low profile." But with other movies, such as the French experimental film The Happy Microbes, which is about life underneath scientists' microscopes, the audience is invited to chime in (or click, or clatter) with the bug-shaped clickers that Paulson gives away.
For this week's show at the Che Café, Paulson appropriately chose films that are political in nature, or as he jokingly puts it, "vegetarian chic."
"I found a Felix the Cat movie where he discovers that the meat at a sausage factory is really dogs from the pound," he says. "Felix saves the day, they'll be happy to know."
Paulson, who plays the oboe for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, describes his work with the TTPO as his "parallel universe."
"It's important for me to have a real gig with an established group, but it's also important for me to be doing these funky underground things." ©