"I have my own ... I hate to say 'style,' because I don't believe in style. If I sound the same from piece to piece, it is a result of my own limitations," said guitarist Marc Ribot, defining better than anyone the willfully eclectic course of his musical career.
Mentored by Haitian classical composer and guitarist Frantz Casseus, Ribot was a sideman for iconic R&B artists such as Wilson Pickett and Chuck Berry, participated in New York's avant rock and jazz scene with the Lounge Lizards and John Zorn, and played straight-ahead jazz with organist Jack McDuff. He is Tom Waits' main guitar man. He's recorded with dozens of other artists, including Robert Plant ("Raising Sand") and Elvis Costello ("Spike") and has myriad groups of his own.
Speaking by phone from his New York home, he was typically immersed in a wealth of projects: making an album with film star Jeff Bridges; writing music for a W.H. Auden poem for singer Madeline Peyroux, and getting ready to record with his own rock-flavored trio Ceramic Dog.
And then there is "The Kid."
Saturday in Minneapolis, Ribot will perform a live soundtrack on solo guitar to Charlie Chaplin's 47-minute silent film from 1921.
"I will be as invisible as I can possibly be," he said. "Film music succeeds best when people [don't] seem to have heard the music at all. Like proofreading, it disappears if it is done well."
And yet he wants that experience to be transformative, too. This is his third live performance of "The Kid," so by this point "I have certain themes that are meant to evoke feelings around certain characters and situations."
Reinventing the language
The challenge is to work those concepts into what's already a universal language. "There is a tradition of film music that we immediately recognize when we hear it," he said. "Anyone who has been exposed to Hollywood film -- people of drastically different identities -- understands this."
To choose two examples, there is a 12-tone soundtrack for horror that feeds our expectations of imminent carnage. And we all know the cantering of violins and the ascending fifths from trumpets that signal a trip to the mountaintop, an august and robust cinematic message from the heavens.
Ribot is "interested in the question of, OK, I have studied the improvising game of jazz, but now what does it mean to improvise on these sounds in film that have a fixed reaction from the people watching?" He has explored that question by writing a few film soundtracks. Last year he drew on those works for a solo guitar album called "Silent Movies." Saturday, he will perform some of the songs in a short improvised set before his live soundtrack to "The Kid."
Ribot considers Chaplin's film especially compatible because of the way his perception of it has evolved over the years. Considered the first full-length film to mix drama and comedy, it is the story of a con artist -- Chaplin's Tramp -- who raises an abandoned boy, loses him to the authorities but is eventually reunited with the child.
"It is a little-known fact that the set of 'The Kid' was actually a street-by-street re-creation of Chaplin's [lower-class] neighborhood in the east end of London," Ribot said. "Watching it as a kid from suburban New Jersey in the '60s, [to me] it seemed like a landscape from Mars. Now, after the way things have been going, it is possible that this is the way a lot of places in this country are going to look.
"There is a defensive mechanism we all have, to some degree, that confines things like the Depression or World War II to a ghetto of the past. The medium through which we glimpse these things helps that. We don't see an actual world of the '30s, but a grainy film stock with slower film speeds that create this jerky image. It contributes to the sense that that was another world. But it was the same world."
Ribot approaches "The Kid" as a tale of a single father undergoing hard times, "something I can relate to myself. It helped me tone down that ragtime feel of the sounds of movies from the '20s and '30s, although there is a little of that. But there are some sadnesses and emotional resonance in the film for me."
Judging from the sample on "Silent Movies," his music expertly captures the unique blend of impish pathos that Chaplin evokes. There are dynamic, filigreed passages, silences, chordal strumming and lingering after-tones.
On the other hand, with the ever-eclectic Ribot, it is best to expect the unexpected and take in both the film and the music for "The Kid" the way he intends, without preconceptions.