I call Marc Ribot and hear the sound of “4-3-2-1,” the k-os song rather than a ring. I’m calling to talk to Ribot about his upcoming live performance of his score for Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Ribot is famous for having music that runs a wide gamut from rock, free jazz and no wave to traditional Cuban. He’s also widely known for his collaborations with legendary musicians like Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, and has worked extensively as a sessions guitarist with many musicians including Brother Jack McDuff and Wilson Pickett. If he’s said to have a style, it might better be defined as a defiance of style.
And his history with film scores is just as rebellious. Before The Kid, over the course of his career, he’s scored and performed on scores for a variety of other films from big-budget fare — Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and the independents — Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, to small experimental projects like The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves. But Ribot has made no secret of his contentious relationship with the process of film-scoring and has said that some of the best scores he’s done were for films “where the director was dead.” While we hope this isn’t the last of Ribot’s scores, maybe his statement bodes well for The Kid.
How did this project come about, composing the score for the Charlie Chaplin film?
It was originally proposed by the New York Guitar Festival. In fact they even proposed the film. But I really wanted to do it because I had seen the film years ago. And I liked it. So I did it once at Merkin Hall in fact it was commissioned. That was in January . And this is only the second time I’ve done it.
What was the process like?
It’s a semi-improvised score. I wouldn’t say it’s through-composed. I have a couple of scenes improvised, and some parts are just pure improvisation, but I have seen the film like probably 150 times or something like that. Maybe it just seems that way. But to prepare for something like this, I’d watch it at least once a day. I prepared for it by just playing to it.
How long were you working on it?
For a couple of months actually. Sometimes more than once a day. And some of the themes are themes I’ve written for other films, and like I said I use them in a film-music way. I simplify them greatly. It’s amazing how little information works with film.
What kind of research, if any, did you do before getting to work on the score?
I did not use Charlie Chaplin’s score [which he created in 1971] as a reference. I admire his score greatly, and his writing greatly, but I did not want to use that as a reference because my interest in this, as with everything else, comes from doing a particular reading. And my particular reading of this film is as a contemporary film. This is kind of striking to me. When I first saw the film as a kid — like 45 years ago — it seemed really old. It seemed ancient. It was kind of walled off in this ghetto of the past. So much so that the content of the film seemed funny even when the characters weren’t being intentionally funny. It seemed inherently funny for something to be that old. Whereas, when I look at it now, I don’t see old. I see a contemporary story about a single father in economically really hard conditions. And I don’t think it’s only that I’ve changed. And it certainly isn’t the film that’s changed. It’s the same film. Perhaps it’s partly me that’s changed. [Laughs].
I think it’s also that I started working on it just after the stock market collapsed, which was one of several shocks that people I know have lived through. I mean, famously, 9/11, the stock market — not that the people I know had that much invested in the stock market, but when something like that goes down, we are, a lot of us, affected by it. I mean I’m doing fine, I have no complaints. I got back from Bologna the day before yesterday and I’m leaving for Australia a week from Friday. And that’s how it is.
You’ve done a lot of scores. Is it something you see yourself continuing to do?
I had originally thought that at this point in my life I would be working more in recording. And you know the record industry is down by like, it’s lost 55%, and there’s no end in sight. In the last ten years it’s shrunk. All these things together, a lot of the people I know, how’s it pronounced zeet-geist, zeit-gheest—
Whatever [laughs]…it’s occurred to people that that environment of the thirties was not another planet. It happened here, and could happen again, and could happen to us. I don’t think it is happening to us, now, I’m sitting here on the front stoop of my lovely apartment in Cobble Hill, you know but, ah well, I don’t feel like that’s because of the nature of the universe. It’s because I’ve been lucky.