Martin Dosh is no stranger to the avant-garde. The renowned multi-instrumentalist, who combines electronics with analogue instrumentation, has spent 30 years producing his own distinct sound, as well as collaborating with an international who’s who list of musicians from the rock, jazz, and electronic genres. Minneapolis raised and based, Dosh began playing piano as a small child and started on drums just a few years later. He left Minneapolis to study music at College of Bard at Simon’s Rock in Western Massachusetts and upon returning home, he began honing his distinctive style through obsessive practice and recording of his own creations while absorbing the varying sounds of the Twin Cities music scene, discovering creative visions and like-minded collaborators that infused his musical vision via sonic osmosis.
Dosh’s long-running relationship with the Walker—by his count, at least 10 solo and collaborative performances—made the prospect of creating what he called a “one-time installation/concert” for Sound for Silents a no-brainer. “They told me, ‘We would like you to select films to do a live score, but it’s totally up to you what you do with it,’” he says. For this project, he began with a list of his friends and frequent musical collaborators, then worked with Walker assistant curator/archivist Ruth Hodgins to select the films he wanted to score: Walter Ruttmann’s Opus I (1921) and Opus II, III, and IV (1923–1925) plus his 1927 work Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt) (1927), made in collaboration with Alberto Cavalcanti; and Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1920–1921).
In this process, Dosh didn’t have a specific theme in mind, but as he reviewed film after film, connective tissue began to grow, tying things together: concepts of melancholy and tragedy hinting around the corner of humanity’s daily existence, “juxtaposing the beauty of these abstract pieces with the mundane reality of daily life, and the sameness of all humans.”
Dosh points to Ruttmann’s Berlin and Sheeler and Strand’s Manhatta, which depict two vibrant cities between periods of destructive war. In these two films, Dosh says he sees “the perilous nature of the world and war… it’s the sameness and sadness of humanity. Manhattan and Berlin, roughly the same time period, between World War I and World War II, one hundred years ago, it made me feel really connected to humanity, but also really sad. The similarity between America and Germany in the ’20s is unreal. How could we be annihilating each other 20 years later?”
“I’m feeling sad about the current state of the world,” he continues. “You can’t watch the Berlin City Symphony without thinking about it. It begins with this gorgeous, glowing shot of a still lake, into an abstract, almost techno thing, into straight-up film of a train chugging, and you know you’re in Berlin in the 1920s. Knowing what happened during World War II definitely colors those images.”
Dosh also highlights Ruttmann’s later life, working as a camera operator for notorious Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and eventually being killed while working as a war correspondent in World War II. “The films are really, really beautiful, but at the same time knowing that the filmmaker got killed in the war, and that all this death and destruction was only a few years away, makes them feel tragic.”
Musically, Dosh describes his composition as an experiment in live performance. “I can have all these ideas, we can send them back and forth via e-mail, but only when everyone’s in the same room playing will it truly reveal itself. I trust the sensibilities that each person brings to the live experience.”
Those people are a who’s who of musicians who, like Dosh, are steeped in challenging, genre-bending, independent music: Dan Bitney, of the renowned experimental Chicago band Tortoise, playing keys, percussion, and electronics; James Buckley, who’s worked with Bon Iver, Gayngs, and Mystery Palace, on bass; Sarah Elstran, of local experimentalists The Nunnery, on processed vocals and electronics; Mike Sopko, a Cleveland-based solo artist who’s collaborated with Mike Watt and Bill Laswell, to name a few, on guitar; and Joey Van Phillips, known for his work with Dessa, Aby Wolf, and Mystery Palace, on drums and vibraphone. Together, they are guaranteed to deliver a unique experience.
“It’s a one-time installation/concert,” says Dosh. “There’s elements of improvisation built into the structure, so if we were to do it again it would be different. And depending on the viewer, either we’re soundtracking the films or the films are ‘soundtracking’ us, so to speak.”