Perfect timing: Felix Obelix to perform original score for 1912 film

Jun. 05, 2014 @ 10:04 AM

Go and Do

WHAT: Live performance by Felix Obelix of music for the film “The Cameraman’s Revenge”
WHEN and WHERE: 2 p.m., June 14, during Strange Beauty Film Festival, Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham; and at 8 p.m. June 21, at Cat’s Cradle Back Room, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Tickets: For tickets, visit strangebeauty.org or www.catscradle.com

In Russian-Polish filmmaker Ladislas Starewicz’s 1912 silent, stop-action animation film “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” Mr. and Mrs. Beetle are “restless” in their domestic bliss, and have extramarital affairs. They, along with various grasshoppers and dragonflies, are played by real insects that Starewicz manipulated. The insects ride bicycles, carry briefcases, paint at an easel, set up cameras, fight and make up.
The short film will be screened at the fifth annual Strange Beauty Film Festival June 14, with live accompaniment to a new, original score that Carrboro-based ensemble Felix Obelix will perform. Felix Obelix is a rotating ensemble led by composer Wendy Spitzer. For “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” the band will be Spitzer on piano, Josh Starmer on cello and Missy Thangs on organ.
The project marks Spitzer’s third time writing a score for the festival. She scored a soundtrack for “Drifting,” a film submitted to the festival. The director asked that a local musician perform the soundtrack, and festival organizers Jim Haverkamp and Joyce Ventimiglia approached her about writing the music. “That was the beginning of our relationship,” Spitzer said. At a later festival, she scored “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” on which collaborator and boyfriend Billy Sugarfix played mallet instruments.
For “Cameraman’s Revenge” she approached Haverkamp and Ventimiglia. She wrote the score during a 2013 artist residency at Hill House in Bellaire, Michigan, spending two weeks in a cabin to complete the score, Spitzer said.
“I worked really hard on this particular [composition],” she said. Because the “actors” are insects, the audience might be challenged keeping the characters straight. To alleviate the confusion, she wrote a different theme for each insect character, she said.
Cellist Starmer, for example, plays a jazz-influenced theme for the cameraman (a version of this score is available on YouTube). Thangs plays an organ theme that represents Mr. Beetle, and Spitzer plays a sprightly piano solo that represents the painter, Mrs. Beetle’s love interest.
“If we do it right and all our tempos are correct, the music will line up to what’s happening on screen,” Spitzer said. The score is dependent on what’s on screen, making tempo and timing the greatest challenge in performing the music, she said. The music is not improvised, which requires a more exacting tempo. “We just really have to be locked in exactly. It’s the challenge of it, but it’s also the fun of it,” she said.
Felix Obelix has released two recordings – “The Tick of the Clock, The Beat of the Chest,” and most recently “Ringtone,” a set of 30 songs, all one minute in length. The group recently wrote and performed piano music for Deep Dish Theater’s production of Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia.”
Spitzer’s compositional style defies any categorization. On her Website, she writes: “A mash of her time spent in classical, experimental and pop circles, this is a musical cocktail mixed by a barmaid with adventuresome taste.” She was trained classically on the oboe. She cites Swedish composer Lars Hollmer, Paul Hindemith, Talking Heads and The Residents among her many influences. “It’s a big melting pot, because I listen very widely,” she said.
After the Strange Beauty concert, the band will perform “The Cameraman’s Revenge” June 21 at Cat’s Cradle’s Back Room in Carrboro. That concert will be a farewell concert featuring Billy Sugarfix’s new band, and the last Felix Obelix concert locally for some time. After that concert, Spitzer and Sugarfix will leave for the Czech Republic, where they plan to live for at least a year. Spitzer’s parents were born there, and she plans to get to know some of her extended family. While they have no plans specifically, they likely will get involved in that country’s music scene. Spitzer likens it to “the study abroad I never did.”