Playing the Soundtrack for Silent Films

U of G staffer is a research facility coordinator by day, guitarist and composer after hours

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Guelph staff member and musician Michael Mucci of VOC Silent Film Harmonic.

Photo: Masoud Pakdel

Michael Mucci is playing guitar for movie soundtracks these days, but it’s not what you might think.

The U of G staffer is teaming up with other local artists in the group VOC Silent Film Harmonic to improvise musical accompaniment for silent movies screened in Guelph and Kitchener.

It is the latest gig for this popular musician, whose contemplative and even hypnotic composing and playing style will show up on his fourth album, due out this year.

By day, Mucci is coordinator of the U of G phytotron. He’s spent 10 years in the research facility atop the science complex, growing plants in a greenhouse and controlled environment chambers for various Guelph researchers.

After-hours, he’s a guitarist and composer with a flourishing musical career.

His new instrumental album, Don’t Be Afraid, which he recorded with several local and Toronto musicians, will be released this year. His earlier releases include Under the Tulip (2008), Time Lost (2010) and Dangerous Summer (2013).

The songwriter draws on his own experiences such as the loss of close family members, and his interests, including environmental issues. “I tend to think a lot about food security and availability of healthy food,” says Mucci, a University of Toronto biology graduate who joined U of G in 2004.

Mucci also finds inspiration in his reading. Dangerous Summer echoes the title of what he calls “a pretty good Ernest Hemingway book.”

His playing style leans on introspection and repetitive motifs that often produce a kind of hypnotic effect on the audience. “I am a big fan of repetition because of that hypnotic effect. It forces you to listen in a different way,” says Mucci.

He says his composing and playing are influenced by American minimalists and avant-garde musicians, including La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Eliane Radigue, Loren Connors and John Fahey.

Last year, he was invited to play with the “soundtrack” ensemble for silent movies screened at the Registry Theatre in Kitchener and at Silence, an experimental arts venue in downtown Guelph.

VOC Silent Film Harmonic formed about 10 years ago to accompany “talkies” from the early 1900s, although they also play more contemporary films with the audio muted. Mucci first played along last summer during a screening of Night of the Living Dead, filmed in 1968.

Early this year, the group played at Silence for the 1928 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the 1927 classic The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford.

Mucci says accompanying silent films is challenging. “You’re trying to respond to the film and what others are doing as an improvised group.” The goal is to “accompany the movie but not take away from the movie – be the soundtrack.”

He doesn’t consider himself a silent movie buff. Watching contemporary films, he often has his ears cocked to the soundtrack. His favourites include the musical scores for The Hired Hand, composed by Bruce Langhorne, and 21 Grams, with tracks by Gustavo Santaolalla.

Mucci also belongs to the Guitar Research Ensemble of Guelph, a group of experimental electric guitarists.

He picked up the instrument in his early teens in Vaughan, Ont. He’s self-taught, although he did take lessons for a year or so after moving to Guelph.

“I’m not the most technically gifted musician. I’m trying to go more for feeling and not showiness.”

The VOC Silent Film Harmonic will play at The Registry March 5 for a screening of 1965 Japanese monster film Gamera.