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The Sound of Silents: Shadow Ensemble's Live Improv Scoring of 'Metropolis'

Katy Henriksen

Ryan Cockerham and the Shadow Ensemble are bridging a 90-year gap- assuming the role that live musicians played in the flickering theaters of the silent film era, but with an entirely new set of tools and sense of imagination. Their current fixation: an icon of early science fiction, Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

"At the time, when people were making silent films, there were other people who were interested in using this medium to scare people as much as they could," says Cockerham, "As the Shadow Ensemble we find that pretty exciting."

The practice of live-scoring silent films is something of a forgotten art. "In a way it's no different from the way they scored these films originally," says Cockerham, but the Ensemble's approach is a thoroughly modern one. The Ensemble focuses on horror and science fiction, "unsettling films" like the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and their choice of equipment reflects this- obscure analog synths and a Wendy Carlos theremin among them. 

The genesis of the Shadow Ensemble came when Cockerham, a music theory professor at NWACC, realized "that we were capable of something a lot bigger than just meeting on Tuesday and Thursday and talking about music theory." Because of the nature of the project, scoring silent films in real-time, before a live audience, the creative partnership is one based on tremendous trust and improvisational skill. As Cockerham says, "They are truly colleagues." 

The Shadow Ensemble presents a live improv scoring to Metropolis Saturday, April 15 from 8 to 10 p.m. at Artist's Laboratory Theatre in Fayetteville. This free event is a production of Katy Henriksen's Trillium Salon Series, which takes classical music outside the concert hall into intimate settings to redefine the relationship between performer and audience, connecting the community through one-of-a-kind performances. 

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