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Marc Ribot: Translating 'Silent Movies' To Music

Guitarist and composer Marc Ribot has been called "a master of introverted ironies" by The Village Voice and "a fount of pithy commentary" by The New York Times. Citing everything from Haitian classical music to Jimi Hendrix as influences, Ribot has been featured on albums by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Solomon Burke, T-Bone Burnett, The Black Keys and Alison Krauss. His solo projects have been performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and other major symphonies.

Ribot grew up in suburban New Jersey, where he performed in several garage bands, before moving to New York City in 1978 to perform with the Realtones and John Lurie's Lounge Lizards. He also worked as a sideman with performers such as Chuck Berry, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Brother Jack McDuff.

His latest album, Silent Movies, pays homage to the film score. Ribot, who performed on the scores for Everything Is Illuminated, The Departed and The Killing Zone, plays 13 original solo compositions on Silent Movies, including several unreleased movie tracks and some scores he created for films which exist only in his imagination.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Ribot tells Terry Gross that writing film scores permitted him the kind of freedom he lacked while crafting his other compositions.

"When I wrote for film, I felt I was able to write in a more lyrical way. I permitted myself a kind of freedom to be lyrical that I didn't normally have," Ribot says. "I came out of playing R&B and punk rock and free jazz and free improvised music. The words 'lyrical' or 'narrative' weren't the first ones most people would have thought to describe my records. But when I wrote for film, it was a whole different set of concerns, and I found out that it was fun."

When he's composing, Ribot says, many melodies and chords come to him. The difficulty comes in trying to hold on to the ones that mean something to allow them to develop.

"Anthony Coleman, the composer, once said when he's working on a piece, his hope every night is, 'Please, don't let me have any more ideas,' " Ribot says. "It's a question of living with a few until they do something."

Ribot's other albums include Exercises in Futility, Saints and Marc Ribot Y Los Cubano Postizos. He currently records and performs with the group Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog.

Interview Highlights

On Why Modern Musicians Struggle With Lyricism

"I think there are reasons that I seem to approach lyricism with great difficulty. Most of the people on my scene, if they were going to be lyrical, they'd play some kind of formalist [piece]. For example, a lot of minimalist composers are very lyrical, but they just repeat the phrase 1,000 times, or it's kind of subsumed beneath this formalist treatment, or other people did away with it entirely and dealt with a lot of noise elements. Still other people that I worked with could be lyrical, but would have this kind of postmodern quotation marks around it. So it was cool to be lyrical only if it sounded exactly like a piece from the '30s."

On The Connection Between R&B And Free Jazz

"I discovered that there's a kind of a hidden connection between R&B and free jazz: the need for that kind of visceral connection with the audience and for something to happen that moves people. I think that beyond R&B, it's a feature of black music -- the moment the solo builds and builds and at a certain point, it hits that cry. Knowing when that needs to happen is something that players from that tradition seem to have."

On His Musical Influences In High School

"I started listening to people like Hubert Sumlin and trying to deal with a less muscular way of reaching people. Part of what was going on was a little bit of jealousy. I had certain technical limitations. So I wasn't playing as fast as all the boys, but I started to gravitate towards people who had a certain amount of economy -- partly because I liked it and partly because I couldn't do the other thing anyway."

On Jimi Hendrix

"Like all of the other pimply adolescents in the late '60s, I listened to and loved Jimi Hendrix. And, of course, he was an amazing virtuoso on the guitar. But what seemed to me, when I later thought about him, the most important thing about Hendrix, was that he was a poet in terms of what he said and what he played. And that's something that all of the many guitarists who are directly working in the Hendrix tradition, what so few of them seem to get -- that it seemed to be something that surrounded the music that made it be great. I never felt like I could approach Hendrix directly, and so ... I approached him very indirectly."

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