Classic silent films are more a part of the Philadelphia performing-arts landscape these days: The films are obsolete for lack of sound, while concert organizations fear being marginalized for lacking a visual component. But among those who have engaged in this endeavor - Prince Music Theater and the Kimmel Center organ concerts - only Relache ensemble, with its annual Sonic Cinema concerts, has always avoided apologizing for or making fun of the antique ways of silent films. Its presentations amount to artistic reclamations.
The latest effort was a semi-improvised score to The General at International House on Sunday. You wouldn't expect this 1926 Buster Keaton film, one of the great screen comedies, to need reclamation. But how often does it reach succeeding generations?
As a film buff fond of things black-and-white and silent, I'd avoided The General, expecting slapstick and triumph-of-the-little-guy sentimentality. What I discovered was an epic of sorts: Shot amid Pacific Northwest landscapes, the film has character-driven comedy with life-and-death stakes sprawled over a large geographical era. Genre descendants are It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Little Miss Sunshine.
Yet the story, of a train engineer whose girlfriend dumps him because he was exempt from Civil War enlistment, remains singular: Locomotives, cannons and comic props have such personality that they're part of the ensemble of characters.
Chances are, you wouldn't have those larger-view insights without Relache's scrupulous presentation, which included Temple University's Noel Carroll discussing why The General is great. Besides employing Civil War songs, Relache raided its modern-music repertoire to create a jagged quilt of appropriate sound. Instead of more-homogenous-than-not sonic blankets familiar from modern film scores, Relache interrupted its own musical episodes early on, following the film's lead as it skipped between people and places to establish characters and the plot's playing field.
More continuous musical ideas - some from the period of the film's creation instead of its setting - unified a succession of scenes by locating a common-denominator emotion. There were plenty of musical anachronisms, all earnestly employed - chugging Philip Glass-style minimalism to accompany trains, some borderline-atonal blues and jazz as characters find themselves on thinner ice. Much of it was masterful dramatic underscoring with a range and palette unknown in mass-market Hollywood. For an audience not attuned to silent-film grammar, Relache released the film's genius from our perceptual limitations. No wonder the crowd cheered heartily.