Falling in love with Dreamland Faces might appear, at first, like falling in love with Buster Keaton. Or the movie "The Wind." Or silent film itself.
For nearly two decades, Karen Majewicz and Andy McCormick have composed and performed dozens of scores for silent films filled with accordion, organ and the warbling of a musical saw. The duo sets the mood, builds the mystery and cues the mayhem.
Trylon Cinema's programmer John Moret credits his favorite silent film moment to Dreamland Faces: During the 1919 film "South," about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, McCormick roared like a walrus.
The band has become beloved regulars at the tiny Trylon, where they're scoring the silent half of this month's "Buster and Jackie," a series that pairs films by actor and martial artist Jackie Chan with cinema's original stuntman, Buster Keaton.
"One of our favorite things about the Buster Keaton movies is that they remain good movies," McCormick said. "We've seen them over and over again, and they're still worth watching — which is saying a lot."
The series is a return of sorts for Dreamland Faces, who have played few shows since last year, when their longtime studio in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood burned. After the killing of George Floyd, the Ivy Building for the Arts ignited in the riots that followed, likely via sparks from the nearby Hexagon Bar.
No one was hurt, but the band lost a host of instruments: seven vintage accordions, old pianos and organs, an upright bass. Recording equipment and rare books.
Friends and fans pitched in, raising about $20,000 for new instruments. Which, to this duo, means old instruments. From an East Coast dealer, Majewicz bought a black Bell accordion from the 1950s.
"What accordionists call 'the golden age,' " McCormick deadpanned.
"We are so lucky and privileged," Majewicz said. "It's one of those things: It's all wrapped up in how painful the whole time has been. It's great to be supported.
"But there's a lot more serious stuff to think about than losing a bunch of accordions."
They 'really get comedy'
Partners as well as bandmates, Majewicz and McCormick grew up in Rochester, N.Y., home of the George Eastman Museum, one of the world's biggest and oldest film archives. In 2002, the pair was asked to accompany a silent film program there.
"In the beginning, we approached it the way a lot of bands approach a project like this: We took our existing repertoire and ordered it to fit the films," Majewicz said. "As time went on and we kept getting asked to do this, we didn't have enough repertoire.
"That's when things started to really get interesting."
Majewicz, who has an ethnomusicology degree from the University of Washington, discovered that working with a set visual, feeling or rhythm sparked her creativity in new ways. They play old, acoustic instruments but their music never feels dusty. It's a little vaudevillian, a little carnivalesque and "completely their own," Moret said, "and adds new dimensions to the films they accompany."
The duo, which often swells to four or five musicians depending on the gig, knows when to become invisible, building a subtle texture, and when to re-emerge.
A few years back, they played to a Lois Weber drama that featured a seven-minute scene of people talking in an apartment. No title cards, no cuts, no new camera angles. So, with music, they kept things moving.
Comedy — including Keaton's stunts, gags and pratfalls — offers its own challenges.
"I've heard hilarious comedies killed by musicians ... who played too slowly, too somberly to the slapstick," said Maggie Hennefeld, associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Once, she watched as a pianist turned a polka into a funeral march.
In contrast, Dreamland Faces "really get comedy," she said, expertly using a host of instruments to cue the spectator's gaze toward unfolding action.
So when Hennefeld and her co-curators began scouting composers for a new collection of 99 rarely seen silent films, "Cinema's First Nasty Women," she thought of Dreamland Faces. In fact, Hennefeld said, she can't picture the film and music scene without them.
One-way ticket to Minnesota
McCormick still has the ticket that brought him to the Twin Cities — $0, courtesy of the Fargo Police Department. He had been hitchhiking from Seattle, headed to Minneapolis to visit friends, when he was stopped by police.
"They offered me either a bus ticket to Minneapolis or a chit good for a one-night stay in Fargo," he said.
McCormick took the ticket, purchased a puffy coat and stayed.
He's a lifelong bookstore employee. Majewicz, who has a master's degree in geographic information science, works at the University of Minnesota, where she's taken music composition courses at a discount.
They eschew cars and commute by bicycle. At one point, McCormick gave up playing upright bass in favor of the bike-friendly saw. For a show at the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery five years back, the band strapped its small "Melodigrand" piano to a bike trailer, arriving to applause.
That piano happened to be stored elsewhere when the studio burned. A French horn survived too, as did a small, folding sign painted by Phil Vandervaart that says "Dreamland Faces." But McCormick misses the books.
"Over the years, I always vowed to never have a big collection of things," he said. So he would only buy music books he was convinced he'd never be able to find again. "It's sort of heartbreaking."
Every once in a while, they'll be looking for something — sheet music, a cord — and realize that it burned. But they don't dwell on what they've lost, taking a cue from their downstairs studio neighbor, visual artist Aribert Munzner, who at age 90 started over after the fire.
Next month, after the Buster Keaton series, they'll perform live with "Nosferatu" at Franconia Sculpture Park Oct. 23. And they love the strange, subversive films they're scoring within the "Nasty Women" project.
"We are especially intrigued when we get a chance to play for films that people haven't seen before," Majewicz said, "or films that are just super weird in some way."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168
What: Creating live music for Buster Keaton silent movies.
"Three Ages" (1923): 7 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun.
"Spite Marriage" (1929): 7 p.m. Sept. 10-11, 3 p.m. Sept. 12.
"Sherlock Jr." (1924): 7 p.m. Sept. 24-25, 3 p.m. Sept. 26.
Also: The duo will accompany Keaton's 1920 short "The Scarecrow" before screenings of the Jackie Chan film "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" Sept. 17-19.
Where: Trylon Cinema, 2820 E. 33rd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $8-$12. trylon.org.