Arts / Bringing jazz to the silent screen

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AMERICAN sax player Phillip Johnston is laconic enough to be taken for an Australian.

American sax player Philip Johnston… laconic enough to be taken for an Australian. Photo by ANDREW FINCH
American sax player Phillip Johnston… laconic enough to be taken for an Australian. Photo by ANDREW FINCH
When I ask him why he relocated from New York City to Australia, he jests: “Like every American, I came for the women”.

Actually, one woman in particular, his wife, the Australian playwright Hilary Bell, daughter of theatre luminaries John Bell and Anna Volska.

Johnston is an American jazz underground celeb and composer from the ‘70s to the present day. He met Bell during an opera development project in New York. The pair fell in love, he says, married, had two kids and then, when in 2005 she said she wanted to return to Australia, he came, too.

We’ll see Johnston in Canberra soon as part of The Street Theatre’s daring 10-day initiative, Capital Jazz Project, performing (with fellow musicians) his own score to German film director Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 silent silhouette film, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, the first feature-length animation.

As we talk outside Street 3, Johnston is fingering his Selmer Paris Mark VI soprano saxophone – “everybody knows it” – as he tells “CityNews” how he’s made a fair go of his relocation.

He teaches composition at the Australian Institute of Music, he enjoys competing with his ultra-musical kids and he manages to keep up a New York career, too.

That, it seems, is pretty much a necessity.

“New York musicians are very New York-centric,” he says.

“When you move away, you might as well have died, but when you move to Australia, it’s as if you’ve never lived.”

Inevitably, the overwhelming bulk of his CDs have been made in the US.

“I would say the move has hampered my career in one way,” he says, “but on the other hand, composition is my primary interest.”

A close second is his interest in silent film, particularly the work of trailblazer Reineger.

In “Prince Achmed”, a conflation of two Arabian Nights’ stories, he found inspiration for a completely new composition. Johnston’s approach to film music differs from traditional scores, usually unoriginal and composed ahead of the film.

Reiniger’s film employs shadow puppetry created from cut-outs by Reineger herself (“Lotte was a genius with the scissors,” says Johnston) to tell fantastical stories based on Aladdin and Prince Achmed.

In the ‘20s, silent filmmakers were inventing techniques, so films like this were about experimentation, a good match for new music.

There was an original score for “Prince Achmed” by Wolfgang Zeller, but Johnston started afresh.

He’s combining electronic and acoustic instruments. Against a pre-recorded score of sampled percussion, a live band will play, consisting of two electric keyboards, soprano saxophone and trombone.

“I’ve combined the blues organ and many other styles,” Johnston says, “I don’t try and have exotic music sounds like gamelan… what I’m aiming for is earthiness.”

He’s also assuming a kids’ audience, but perceives it as “an element of art for the whole family in a new music context… I also think it’s funny.”

Street Theatre director and self-confessed jazz and crossover art-lover, Caroline Stacey, makes no apology to conservative jazz-followers for programming mixed shows such as “Prince Achmed” and “Mutiny Music”, a visual-music work composed by Pitcairn descendant Rick Robertson.

“We are not trying to do the ‘trad’ thing, there are lots of jazz festivals around the country doing that, so we’ve tried to create a national platform for innovative jazz,” she says.

“There are entry points for casual listeners, there’s music for hard-core listeners and there’s plenty of improvisation.”

Stacey denies that it avoids Canberra artists. The Street commissioned Canberra composer and jazz trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky to open the festival with “Black + White”, his tribute to Canberra’s unique environment.

“But we asked Miro to use Canberra musicians,” she says, “and he is”.

“The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, 3pm, Sunday June 7, part of Capital Jazz Project at The Street Theatre, May 30-June 8, bookings to 6247 1223 or

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Helen Musa
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