David Kaplan and Thomas Kotcheff in HOCKET’s silent-film project | Credit: Bailey Holiver

Thomas Kotcheff, one half of the piano duo HOCKET, explained that the goal of the ensemble’s May 21 concert at the Nimoy Theater (presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance) had initially been to present a new score for the 1922 horror classic Nosferatu that would combine the efforts of three contemporary composers. But it soon became apparent that divvying up the film that way was not a workable formula.

Instead, the duo focused its attention on three silent short films drawn from the French surrealist movement of the 1920s. New music for Man Ray’s 1928 L’Étoile de mer (The starfish) was composed by José Martínez, and this was paired with a new score by Gemma Peacocke for Les Mystères du Château du Dé (The mysteries of the castle of the dice), Man Ray’s 1929 surreal travelogue. The concluding work was René Clair’s absurdist ballet-funeral-romp from 1924, Entr’acte, with new music by Ian Dicke. Each score was for two pianos. Unfortunately, Kotcheff’s pianist partner, Sarah Gibson, was unable to perform due to illness. She was understudied superlatively by David Kaplan.

Man Ray
1934 photo of Man Ray by Carl Van Vechten

Man Ray’s two 20-minute-long films are ideally suited to fresh musical interpretation. They include a minimal amount of traditional dramatic narrative and an abundance of dreamlike atmospherics and inexplicable juxtapositions. Though André Breton was the theorist of the surrealist movement, it was the images of Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí that put the “super” in super-reality.

Paris in the 1920s was also a hotbed of musical experimentation, from cabaret jazz to Dada absurdity to futurism, neoclassicism, primitivism, and many other isms. To a degree, each of the composers on HOCKET’s program included wisps of melodic and rhythmic references to the period. But in each film’s accompaniment, the emphasis was on extended instrumental techniques — the pianists’ dovetailing overlay of plucks, strums, and bowed or dampened strings, interspersed with glittering, pearlescent passages.

Unlike Clair and Buñuel (who, with Dalí, created Un Chien Andalou [An Andalusian dog]), Man Ray (whose real name was Emmanuel Radnitzky) never really embraced filmmaking. The most evocative of his four very short films, L’Étoile de mer is based on a poem by Robert Desnos. Shot almost entirely as a succession of blurred reflections in a mirror, the film depicts a dreamlike encounter between a man and a woman — Man Ray’s muse and lover, the elegant Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin).

In keeping with the film, Martínez’s score is a series of reflections that shift with the lines of Desnos’ poem. Two pianos establish a mechanical pulse and cross-rhythms that call to mind Fernand Léger’s 1924 film Ballet Mécanique. But then, as the relationship of the man and woman develops, Martínez shifts gears into a more sophisticated social-music mode.

The complexities and colorations continue to change with each scene. A languid Kiki disrobes and reclines before her fully dressed male companion. Factory scenes in stark outline pass by. Kiki finds a starfish in a glass jar atop a pile of newspapers. Kiki’s delicate foot appears on top of the starfish. Kiki transforms into an armor-clad warrior. Kiki falls asleep.

David Kaplan and Thomas Kotcheff in HOCKET’s silent-film project | Credit: Bailey Holiver

In contrast, Les Mystères du Château du Dé was produced by Man Ray as a favor to two rich patrons — the Vicomte Charles de Noailles and his wife Marie-Laure. The couple’s invitation to make a film highlighting their palatial Bauhaus-style home in the south of France was one Man Ray could not turn down.

Peacocke’s score embraces the sense of gliding along on a road trip to an exotic destination. But as Man Ray points out, this is a visit ruled by chance, symbolized by the recurring theme of dice being cast. Essentially, Peacocke found herself having to create a score for a film that combines the gloss of Architectural Digest with a cast of frolicking, idle-rich dilettantes who seem to be pulled right out of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. In truth, the highly wrought complexities of Peacocke’s composition would have been better appreciated without the presence of Man Ray.

Extended techniques also defined Kaplan and Kotcheff’s superb performance accompanying Clair’s Entr’acte. As its title implies, the film was created to separate the two acts of a ballet, Relâche, which sported sets by Francis Picabia and a score by Erik Satie.

David Kaplan and Thomas Kotcheff in HOCKET’s silent-film project | Credit: Bailey Holiver

Entr’acte, which features a who’s who of the Paris art scene, including, among others, Picabia, Satie, Breton, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, uses footage of a leaping ballerina (viewed from below) as a connecting motive. The action is precipitated by the accidental shooting of a man upon whose shoulder a pigeon has perched. The funeral that follows is worthy of a Buster Keaton comedy as the hearse breaks loose and hurtles down the boulevards of Paris, the formally dressed mourners leaping in slow-motion pursuit.

If there was ever the perfect opportunity to introduce some madcap, Dadaesque craziness, this was it. Dicke, however, following in the stylistic footsteps of his colleagues, chose to play it straight, his score not so much as cracking a musical grin. Though expertly performed, this was an opportunity lost.