Improvisation can be difficult. For a group to respond to off-the-cuff ideas from its members without spiraling into chaos requires a chemistry and familiarity that is simply beyond most bands. Tonight, tenured Triangle musicians Dale Baker and Tim Carless will complicate things even further, leading a four-piece ensemble in soundtracking the Buster Keaton-starring The General, an enduring film from the silent-film era.
The band—Baker on Drums and Carless on guitar, along with bassist Casey Toll (Mount Moriah) and pedal steel player Whit Wright (American Aquarium)—have practiced very little. They’ve played to the full movie only once, getting down a selection of ideas that the players can introduce when they feel appropriate.
“The idea is to present a silent film and to have a musical ensemble that improvises music in response or in conjunction with what’s going on on the screen,” Baker explains. “We’ve developed a few themes and ideas, but as the movie plays we sort of interact with one another. It’s a really fun way to make music because is it’s almost as if the visual is another player in your ensemble.”
Baker and Carless play together frequently, backing up local songwriters such as Brett Harris, while Toll and Baker have both played with Chris Stamey. Baker and Wright perform regularly during services at Durham’s The Gathering Church and record “improvisatory jams” on their own. This familiarity should prove invaluable as the players explore tonight’s unfamiliar territory.
While the task seems daunting, Carless and Baker are already hungry to do it again. The drummer speaks excitedly about a Japanese film for which they couldn’t secure the rights this time out, speculating that they might get the band back together to soundtrack that film at some point.
“The idea is to make this a semi-regular event that takes place in different environments,” he says.
The quartet joins The General tonight at The ArtsCenter at 8 p.m.