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INTERVIEW: Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble

Hi Jack, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thank you! Great, happy to talk to you.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Ramon Visits the Pulidos”?

Our new album Zorro is a companion to and recording of themes and music I composed for our live score to the silent film The Mark of Zorro (1920). “Ramon Visits the Pulidos” is one of four cuts that were actually recorded in sync to the film. The rest of the album is themes and music recorded “wild,” not in sync, on their own. We recorded this track in one take, so it has a very fresh, “first take” quality to it.

This track is a good example of how we combine composed material and structured improvisation. Themes, melodies, and arrangements are pre-composed and provide melodic material for structured improvisation determined by onscreen dialogue, movements, gestures, and action. These themes and improvisations can be superimposed over each other, giving the whole score musical complexity, continuity, and drive. This track was played to the projected film in the studio. There are no overdubs. As conductor, I help make sure the players hit their entrances at the right time. We all have to know the film really well.

What in particular inspires this track?

In this scene, Captain Ramon of the Spanish troopers comes to visit the suffering Pulido family. He has eyes for the young daughter, Lolita. This track begins with the Pulidos theme, a bittersweet 6/8 that sounds a bit old-fashioned and nostalgic, like the Pulidos themselves, a family of respectable lineage who have fallen on hard times.

Captain Ramon is played by Dr. Jeff Schwartz on double bass. Ramon is boastful and creepy.  Lolita, nervous and uninterested in Ramon, is played by Alicia Byer on clarinet. Towards the end of the track, Bass Clarinet enters in the role of Zorro, played by Dr. Charles Sharp.

We also hear excerpts of the Governor theme, dark and menacing, representing Spanish colonial oppression, and the jaunty Troopers theme, representing the colonial rank-and-file.  The Troopers, initially a threat, will be won over to Zorro’s side by the end of the film.

Any plans to release a music video for this or any other single?

The single comes off your new album ZORRO – how did you come up with the idea for this conceptual record?

We’ve been doing live scores since 2008, beginning with shorter experimental films, eventually doing silent feature films like The Golem (1920) and The Phantom Carriage (1921).  That makes a great live show; but an album is a different kind of beast. Personally, I will listen to an LP or a CD from start to finish, and I love listening to music that way. A lengthy live score doesn’t really fit the album format exactly. I didn’t want to make a DVD, because I wanted to showcase the music itself.

Fortunately, there were some models for the kind of album I wanted to do, in particular the LP Tuxedomoon released for their score to Pink Narcissus, and the CD for their score to Blue Velvet.  Now, I realize we don’t sound quite like Tuxedomoon, but the way they had organized and edited the music for these albums from live scores is fantastic. The albums are great little musical journeys on their own. And that was how I wanted to do Zorro.

From all the films out there, why did you choose this film and version in particular?

The Mark of Zorro (1920) resonated with me for a variety of reasons. There are political overtones that ring true today: an oppressed indigenous underclass, a struggling middle class (the Pulidos), an overt questioning of colonialism and economic hierarchies. At the same time, much like today, the film ignores the genocide of the indigenous people and it stars a “white savior” in Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro, who’s really a Spanish noble and not a true bandito. So the film reminds us that progressive ideology has a long Hollywood history, but so does revisionist history, problematic stereotyping, and #OscarsSoWhite typecasting. The film features Tote Du Crow, one of the first indigenous Hollywood actors, in a supporting role as Bernard, Zorro’s faithful manservant.

The version of the film that we are using is an unrestored, public domain version. The Mark of Zorro is rarely performed by the live score crowd, which also made it appealing to us. This seemed odd for such an influential, successful, watershed silent film, but we would soon find out why. Action adventure is a lot of work. The cues come fast and furious, making live synchronization a real challenge. What we do is very precise and detail-oriented, which is why it works so well. We track multiple things at once: characters, actions, backgrounds, themes, moods, using multiple players who might be following different things. The pacing and action is so fast that there is not a moment to lose, and it’s easy for the ensemble to fall behind or get lost. So a lot of work went into rehearsing the score, and everyone has to pay a lot of attention. This score is a lot of work for me as conductor. It’s my job to make sure everyone hits their cues and stays together.

How was the recording and reimagining process?

The recording process was traditional, and designed to capture our natural acoustic sound. We recorded live, all together in one room, no baffles, with no overdubs. Like any “classical” acoustic ensemble, we balance against each other. We recorded in a large open room with irregular walls, no isolation, a stereo microphone, and close mics as well, but leakage everywhere. What you hear on the album, that’s basically the sound in the room. So the musicians are really good at listening to each other and balancing themselves, even with percussion. We recorded the whole album within one eight-hour day. We suffered through an ascetic vegan lunch to please one particular band member, let’s call him “C#.” Let’s face it, if there’s ever a time you should have meat, donuts, and coffee, it’s when you are recording an album in a day.

What was a little unusual may have been how the album cuts were assembled. In the studio we recorded only four running sections of the live score, and the rest was the themes on their own, in different arrangements and variations. We might take a theme and play it “angry,” or “sad,” or with different combinations of instruments, or different instruments playing different parts or “voices” of the arrangement – you might have a high part, and a middle part, and a bassline, for example. This is all material I composed and arranged, and we would play it in different ways.

After Earle had recorded all our takes in a multitrack format, I opened them up in a large multitrack session in ProTools. I selected the best bits and stitched various sections together to make a musical journey, not so much based upon the film itself, but upon the music written for the film. Some of this I did while flying across country on an airplane, with headphones and a laptop. To this day, I still marvel at the ability to do this, because I started working in studios in 1986, and for many years to do this you’d need a tape machine as big as a washing machine, a console as big as a piano, and many reels of giant 2” tape. And here I am in a tiny coach seat editing close to three hours of multitrack takes.

After I had made all my edits, I exported that multitrack audio and went back to Earle’s studio. Earle mixed the whole album in a day. That seems very fast, but once the basic mix was set up, it pretty much worked for all the tracks, with just some minor adjustments here and there.

I would like to thank and brag about my band. Alicia Byer has been with me since 2014’s “How I got to Long Beach” show. She does the most amazing improvisational rendering of onscreen characters; her Miriam was my favorite part of The Golem. Dr. Angelo Metz is the newest member of the group. He is an amazing guitar player, who understands my charts and my quartal harmonies, and he does it all with style. Dr. Charles Sharp is about half the band just by himself, playing bass clarinet, flute, and cornet. His character rendering on bass clarinet is beyond compare, especially in duet with Alicia. Scott Dibble has taken over from me on piano, and it is wonderful having someone who plays so beautifully. Gabriel ‘Slam’ Nobles is an incredible trooper and self-starter; while everyone else (myself included) is flipping pages, Slam is hitting all of his cues. Dr. Jeff Schwartz is writing a new book, programs concert series, plays shows nonstop around town, and is an amazing reader and improviser and just instinctively knows exactly what is called for. It is an amazing honor and pleasure to work with these folks.

What was it like to work with Earle Mankey and how did that relationship develop?

I had known about Earle for many years; he’s a bit of a legend, especially in the Los Angeles independent music scene. In 2013 I spent some time with him at his studio when I was doing some research for a book proposal. He’s just really great, nice, easy going, and wonderful to work with.

How much did he influence the album?

Earle didn’t influence the album at all. I composed, conducted, and produced the whole thing. That said, Earle handled all the recording and mixing himself.

We had several rehearsals, which basically was our pre-production. I emailed Earle recordings made at these rehearsals with a Zoom H4 stereo recorder. Earle was impressed with our ability to balance ourselves, especially with a percussionist. Slam is really amazing and is fantastic with that.

During the session, Earle was excellent about making sure we were in tune. I had a “private line” to Earle, who was in the control room, while I was in the studio conducting. Earle provided another set of “ears” and he’d tell me when someone was out of tune, and only I would hear his comment. This was really good, because players don’t want to have multiple different people barking corrections at them. It also helped guide me and made sure I caught everything. The album isn’t perfect, but it’s us playing together live in a room together. It’s what we really sound like. And I like that sound and energy.

I understand you were trying to shine out some light on the political tones of this movie – how did you seek to accomplish this?

This is a great question, because with the music, I am not trying to reinterpret the film, or to make a commentary about the film, like the “film funners” of the silent period or the “Mystery Science Theatre” folks.  We are very respectful to the artistic intentions of the film. We are there to support the film. One thing I have noticed with our live scores (in comparison to the library music you sometimes get with silent films, or bands who just “jam” along to the movie) is that they help the movie make sense. Oh, you didn’t notice that Ramon just pulled his sword? We’ll hit that. You didn’t see Bernardo taking off the fake mustache? We’ll hit that. There are rats in the prison, so we’ll have Slam make rat sounds. Audiences really like our screenings because we make the films really come alive, and sections that might otherwise seem “where are they? what are they doing?” make perfect sense.

So how we accomplish shedding light on political tones of a movie, that’s really done through an introduction of the film as well as the choice of the film itself. I think it’s good to have a short introduction to contextualize the film. For example, The Golem is largely about mankind inventing and using weaponry he ultimately cannot control. And you think, yeah, I can see that. But when you consider that The Golem was released in 1920 less than two years after World War One, in which millions of people died, and which saw the introduction of tanks, military aircraft, and chemical warfare, when you think about that, you realize, wow, yes, okay, I get it now.

Did you find inspiration in other scores or composers aside from the original soundtrack?

Not really. I listened to some Spanish baroque and 18th century music, and I believe I sent a play list to the musicians. And of course we added a guitar to the ensemble for this show, so there was that. I did not research or listen to the original soundtrack. When I’m working on silent period films like The Mark of Zorro, I will just watch it over and over again with the sound off. I’ll watch it until I understand everything that is going on, and can identify all the locations.

Any plans to hit the road?

JCDE toured the east coast in 2010 and the Midwest in 2011. For Zorro, we are seven people, and that would be a pretty big undertaking! The calculus is difficult, as touring is expensive, difficult to book, and some of our players have day jobs – Charles is a professor of musicology, and Jeff is a librarian, for example. I would love to tour though; it might be an option for me to travel with the scorebooks and work with local players. I am open to offers! I would love to bring our shows to universities, cinemas, libraries, or other venues with a screen. Right now we have two local Los Angeles area shows in support of Zorro, at the Santa Monica Public Library on April 27, and at HM157 on May 13.

What else is happening next in Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble’s world?

JCDE will have a Halloween 2017 show of The Phantom Carriage (1921) at Santa Monica Public Library. Bassist Dr. Jeffrey L. Schwartz is working on his forthcoming book, Free Jazz: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge 2018). I’m working on a new book project as well.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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