The Snark Ensemble.

 
 

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September 28, 2010

Review from Library of Congress at Culpeper performance

By the seat of their pants

By Allison Brophy Champion – Community Columnist, abrophy@starexponent.com
Live ensemble provides unique silent-movie experience
Culpeper experienced a rare cultural treat Saturday night courtesy The Snark Ensemble, a five-piece group of
multitalented musicians who compose for and perform to silent films.

The Washington, D.C.-area ensemble made its debut appearance in the Library of Congress Packard Campus
Theater on Mount Pony, enhancing a trio of side-splitting Mack Sennett comedies from the 1920s. The
audience numbered about 100.

“It would have been 1930 the last time a live orchestra played to a silent movie in Culpeper,” said Rob Stone,
curator of the moving images section on the Packard Campus, in his introduction.

Stone has researched local movie history, dating the first film screening in Culpeper to 1905, when A.G.
Jennings presented a slideshow of his travels to Mexico in the old Rixey Opera House at the corner of Main
and Davis.

Saturday night’s show on Mount Pony certainly took one back — between the silent movies and ageless
music, it was like a page out of film history.
The most hilarious of the Sennett silents was “Saturday Afternoon” from 1926 starring noted silent film
comedian Harry Langdon as the henpecked husband who takes a walk on the wild side.

Frank Capra, who later directed, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” earned an early writing credit for the 30-minute
“Afternoon.”

“Just a crumb from the sponge cake of life” was how Langdon’s character is introduced, and he offered a
delicious performance beautifully augmented by the sundry sounds of The Snark Ensemble.

“We play a lot of instruments,” said Simpson, conductor and pianist. “That’s part of the fun of this group.”
The Snark Ensemble formed in 2005 with Simpson, Maurice Saylor (woodwinds) and Phil Carluzzo
(percussion and frets). Ben Redwine and Dale Barton are regular guest performers. All five musicians played
Saturday in Culpeper, alternating their hands at flute, clarinet, saxophone, keyboard, drums and other
percussion instruments. The musical impact was both madcap and refined, providing a delightful auditory
layer to a fine selection of silent films.

In addition to performing music, members of The Snark Ensemble compose the music they play. The group
has put out three DVDs, including the newly released “Becoming Charley Chase.”
Each of their live performances is not synchronized, Simpson noted, resulting in a slightly different result each
time. “We play by the seat of our pants,” said Simpson.
Kudos is in order to the LOC for its technical expertise in preserving 1920s “Don’t Weaken,” Saturday’s first
silent selection. Featuring silly scenes of surprisingly graceful dancing and raucous boxing activity, the
90-year-old short was saved “last minute,” said Stone, alerting the audience to a few moments of faded
nitrate film stock in the selection.
“Movies don’t have to be pristine to be good,” he said.
The Snark Ensemble, by the way, takes its name from a mythical creature created by Lewis Carroll — the
topic of his epic poem, “The Hunting of the Snark: an Agony in Eight Fits,” published 1876.
Stay tuned for more on next month’s silent selections on Mount Pony and the debut of the Packard Campus
Theater’s mighty Wurlitzer organ.

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