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Photos: Marijuana Deathsquads make poignant Sound for Silents at the Walker

Marijuana Deathsquads soundtrack silent Dada films at the Walker Art Center on August 17, 2017. All photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR.

Last night at the Walker Art Center, Marijuana Deathsquads and People entranced hundreds with their newest project, a commission that features new scores for nine silent Dada films. With their backs turned to the audience and their eyes facing the screen, the 11 musicians — squad members Ryan Olson, Isaac Gale, Mark McGee, Ben Ivascu, Mark Jorgensen, and Trever Hagen, plus Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Hippo Campus frontperson Jake Luppen, Pines member Benson Ramsey, and Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh and Drew Christopherson — rocketed through their booming, playful accompaniments to short films.

Those familiar with Marijuana Deathsquads’ electronic sound may have wondered why they picked up three guitarists for this project. But Race Symphony, a quirky presentation of a horse race, justified the additions straight away. As Jake Luppen’s twangy guitar chugged alongside the on-screen train, he and Vernon grinned at each other almost uproariously.

No clear vocals cut through the music until the last film, Entr’acte, one of the longest and most unbound pieces of them all. By the end, Leaneagh, Vernon, and Ramsey had layered their voices atop one another — and Isaac Gale finally unleashed his signature Deathsquads shrill, highly manipulated punk/electronic vocals.

History shone through each piece, even as Deathsquads performed their contemporary scores. Take Inflation, the prescient 1928 short that cut to household items, then ever-larger piles of money. (A soft “whoa” swept over the hill upon the final “Einde.”) Ghosts Before Breakfast opened with the message that Nazis destroyed the sound to the movie.

Ninety-year-old movies never felt closer to home.

List of films:

Rhythmus 21 (Hans Richter)
Race Symphony
Scenes from Everything Turns, Everything Revolves (Richter)
Two Pence Magic
Inflation (Richter)
Ghosts Before Breakfast (Richter)
Rhythmus 23 (Richter)
Diagonal Symphony (Viking Eggeling)
Entr’acte (René Clair)

Photos by Emmet Kowler: