Silent treatment 

NextDoorPrisonHotel gives old films a new sound

A few months ago Ryan Bundy took the stage at the Crystal Theatre to celebrate the release of his stunning anti-folk album Crow's Share. Though he'd recorded the collection of songs himself, the live show required more than just him to bring the full sound to life. For that purpose, he tapped John Sporman and Travis Yost, aka NextDoorPrisonHotel. The night of the show, the duo flanked him on stage, each pulling from a stable of instruments including keyboard, guitar, bass, drums, saw and various pedals, loopers and processors. The resulting textures and moods formed a fascinating fusion: three parts moonshine-folk and one part experimental noise. Center stage, Bundy gave a strong, charismatic performance, but Sporman and Yost were just as enthralling to watch. Sporman bent the singing saw to let each note resonate against the walls of the theater. Yost rustled the strings on his guitar to make static and whispered indiscernibly into the mic for several minutes, letting the sound of his voice loop eerily into Bundy's choruses. They played the role of backup band, but played by their own rules. It's a fine line to walk.

"We're pretty good at not stepping on the story or stepping on each other's toes," Sporman says. "We're total parts guys so we'd rather do a part than a solo."

You can't throw a guitar pick in this town and not hit Sporman and Yost. Over the years they've been connected with bands like Stellarondo, The Cold Hard Cash Show, Grandfatherglen, American Falcon, the New Hijackers, the John Floridis Trio and Dawns, spanning Americana to classic rock to pop. Their highest profile band is Tom Catmull's Radio Static (spawned from Tom Catmull and the Clerics). But more recently, they've invested heavily in NextDoorPrisonHotel, which has become a prominent force in the arts scene. Most notably, NDPH spent the last six months as resident musicians live-scoring silent films at the Roxy Theater.

There's a resurgence in live-scoring films across the country. It's still more obscure than micro-spirits and kickball leagues among the cultured-and-hip, but it resonates in the same way. In Missoula, the revived Roxy has brought in decent crowds for its "Twin Peaks" nights, mini-festivals and arthouse films. But, with one sold-out show and others that nearly reached capacity, it's NDPH that has drawn some of the theater's biggest crowds.

The first time NDPH played to a live audience was three years ago at the Wilma for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival when it live-scored the 1927 classic Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. At that time, the group was composed of Sporman and cello/saw extraordinaire Bethany Joyce. The festival, under the direction of Mike Steinberg, who now serves as director of the Roxy, had already built a reputation for bringing musicians such as the Alloy Orchestra and Yo La Tengo, making NDPH's invitation a coup for the local band. (Yost's band, Stellarondo, scored a film that night, too.) None of the musicians from either band had played to a film before. It was a huge undertaking and there were a few moments where it didn't quite mesh, where the execution felt uncertain. But people loved it for all the moments it came together just right.

"It was a humongous success," Sporman says. "So, of course, that snags a guy like me. Can I do that again?"

click to enlarge Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters

After the Wilma show, he and Joyce scored a handful of films at the Crystal Theatre and joined Missoula's Bare Bait Dance Company as its ensemble-in-residence. Joyce left NDPH a year into the project, and Yost took her place to make the newest incarnation, which has continued to hone the art of marrying sound to screen in innovative, imaginative ways.

For the Roxy, Sporman and Yost have scored short stop-motion films by Ladislas Starevich and The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a silhouette animation. Their upcoming performance on Thu., Feb. 27, accompanies two half-hour films, 1936's The Plow That Broke the Plains and 1938's The River, both by Pare Lorentz about agriculture's affects on the landscape. To create the score, Yost and Sporman break down each film into musical themes—sometimes based on a character, sometimes a particular scene. They compose the piece together, rehearse once a week and map out what they're going to do via flowsheets and chord charts. Live, they rely on knowing how each other works. "We don't have to talk about what the other one is going to do," Sporman says.

That familiarity allows NDPH to experiment more with certain projects. For instance, last Halloween, NDPH decided to put a twist on their score for the 1922 vampire film Nosferatu. Previous music for the shadowy German-Expressionist story has played to the tension and horror of Count Orlock stalking a young woman, but NDPH composed music that provided a more sympathetic edge to the vampire's desires."We treated it as more of a love story," Yost says. "We made the final scene triumphant—when he doesn't bite her and he dies—whereas in the original it's very minor [key] and diminished. That was fun to switch it."

During The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the musicians kept a cohesive flow of sound going throughout the show, using loopers and analog delays, even when they weren't actually playing an instrument. One thing they've found is that experimenting with silence is a challenge. "Silence, for what we're doing, has to be placed extremely carefully, otherwise people are like, 'Why aren't they making noise?'" Sporman says. "Otherwise it could be distracting as opposed to being powerful."

As with the Ryan Bundy show, the film scoring process puts Sporman and Yost in a strange position of being only halfway in the spotlight. People have come to watch a movie, but equally or more so, to hear a kind of musical tightrope act. That puts some pressure on the musicians who, if you spend enough time talking to them, clearly have workhorse standards for themselves. "You have to keep it fresh," Sporman says. "You kind of can't sound like shit."

That's not to say NDPH doesn't make mistakes. They do, but they've learned how to turn a misstep into something that makes the piece better.

"Yes, we have high standards," Yost says. "Yes, we're searching for a higher level of performance. But that said, a mistake made might become the way it's played for the rest of the time. Sometimes my imperfections can create sadness for six months, but sometimes my imperfections can create awesome."

NextDoorPrisonHotel scores The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River Thu., Feb. 27, at 8 PM. Roxy Theater. $10.

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