For only the second time since its 1919 release, silent film viewers can experience the doomed Chinese-Anglo romance “Broken Blossoms” — with a soundtrack that features an actual Chinese musical instrument, the erhu (along with a five-string banjo and Appalachian dulcimer just to keep things from getting too predictable).
The rare viewing of the classic film directed by D.W. Griffith takes place on Feb. 13 at City of Asylum’s Alphabet City with live musical accompaniment by Pittsburgh’s fusion trio AppalAsia.
The trio debuted their “Broken Blossoms” score in 2019 as part of the National Gallery of Art’s Ciné-Concert series in Washington, D.C. A City of Asylum performance had been set for June 2020, but was postponed because of Covid; the musicians are excited about offering Pittsburgh audiences a fresh sonic tapestry spanning a full century of global musical influences.
AppalAsia banjoist Susan Powers believes the social issues raised in the film are a strong fit with City of Asylum’s mission of using global culture to engage artists and audiences in new and evocative ways.
“The core theme of tolerance in ‘Broken Blossoms’ is very relevant to what’s happening in America today,” Powers says. “It led us to create a timeless sound that isn’t defined by period or convention, and we think listeners will take the leap with us.”
Starring Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp, Moon Kwan and a 25-year-old Lillian Gish at her virtuoso best as the suffering heroine, “Broken Blossoms” is set in the impoverished Limehouse section of 1910s London. The film portrays the chaste, caring friendship between a young white English girl and an immigrant Chinese man — a friendship that, due to suspicion and prejudice, ultimately results in the violent, melodramatic death of both.
Griffith had hoped “Broken Blossoms” would earn him a modicum of cinematic redemption for the intense racist uproar his film “The Birth of a Nation” had incited four years earlier. Today’s viewers will likely cringe at “Broken Blossoms’” flagrant ethnic clichés.
Yet with its overall message that Buddhist wisdom, respect and calm are preferable to Anglo-Saxon ignorance, brutality and strife, the film was perceived by contemporary critics as a “sensitive and humanitarian” treatment of racial issues, according to media historian Julia Lesage in her essay “Broken Blossoms: Artful Racism, Artful Rape.”
AppalAsia dulcimerist Jeff Berman says the musicians have watched the 90-minute film “about 20 times” to grasp the patterns of the scenes and how they flow thematically. “We’ve put together a general narrative map,” he says, “and that gives the starting point to merge new music with excerpts from music we already do.”
Berman notes that “Broken Blossoms” employs very few narrative cards, which were a typical silent film storytelling device. “That means the audience isn’t being told directly ‘this is happening, that is happening.’ Instead, they get their information from the acting and the music.”
As the film plays, AppalAsia will perform what Powers calls a “live score” — not improvising but expanding upon what the trio has laid out as a starting point for each scene.
“We’re not writing a score trying to flesh out each moment onscreen,” she says, “as much as creating a vibe that interacts with the narrative in the moment. You have to stretch your imagination as the music flows along with what you see. It would be too easy to just make old-time silent movie effects or sounds most people, including ourselves, might perceive as stereotypically Asian.”
The most direct Asian sound the audience will hear is the erhu performed by Mimi Jong, who was born in Indonesia of Chinese parents and has lived in Pittsburgh since 1990. Evolving in northern China during the 700s from Mongolian forebears, the erhu is a two-stringed instrument with a long slender neck and a compact, skin-covered wooden soundbox giving a note range of two-and-a-half octaves. The instrument is played with a bow, with the performer sitting and holding the soundbox in their lap.
Jong took up the erhu at age 10 and has been a featured performer around the world with jazz, folk and classical musicians as well as dance and theatre ensembles.
“The erhu is very like the human voice,” she says. “It can express beauty, sadness, joy, fright, a full range of emotions. It is a perfect instrument to convey the subtleties of a film like ‘Broken Blossoms’ that is so deeply passionate and dramatic.”
Since forming in 2008, AppalAsia has used its diverse musical influences to create a kaleidoscopic repertoire that blends traditional melodies, new compositions and a wide latitude for spontaneous elements rising from each performer.
It’s a collaborative approach Berman feels is well-suited to the “Broken Blossoms” project.
“You’ve got the parallel realities of film characters inhabiting what to them is a realistic world and what our live audience sees onscreen and then hears from us. Our music is the bridge connecting them both.”
AppalAsia performs live accompaniment to D.W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” on Monday, Feb. 13, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Alphabet City (40 W. North Ave. on the North Side). Admission is free. Register for in-person or streaming tickets here.