The concept of musicians playing live music to silent films is hardly new. Pipe organs used to accompany Saturday matinees, and composer Philip Glass played a live operatic soundtrack to Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bette.
But how about an internationally acclaimed guitarist, one of the first artists signed to the pioneering instrumental label Windham Hill, designing and playing music for a Japanese silent film from 1934 for an audience in Central Kentucky?
That will be the distinctive weekend mission of Alex de Grassi. The Grammy-nominated finger-style guitarist will perform his original solo guitar score for Yasujiro Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds at the Downtown Arts Center on Saturday.
A native of Japan who moved with his family to the San Francisco Bay area at age 2, de Grassi is primarily a self-taught guitarist who gained notoriety for a series of solo and ensemble instrumental albums cut for Windham Hill from 1979 to 1993. His later albums touched on various folk, pop and world-music inspirations.
The Floating Weeds score was commissioned by the New York Guitar Festival in 2006.
"I think what strikes me and the people who have seen the film when I've performed the score is, first, the photography," de Grassi said. "It's black-and-white, of course. But it's just stunning. It's some of the most impressive photography I've ever seen in a film."
The film deals with a treacherous romance that develops within a kabuki theater troupe traveling the seaside regions of Japan.
"The story feels timeless in a way that makes the film seem — to me, anyway — almost ahead of its time. It's a drama but doesn't seem particularly dated. It's complete and engaging enough that it works very much in the same way a contemporary narrative film would."
Playing a live original score to a film presents plenty of challenges, not the least of which is pure stamina. Floating Weeds has a running time of 85 minutes. That means all of Saturday's performance is, in effect, one piece with virtually no down time.
"It takes a lot of concentration," de Grassi said. "There is never more than maybe eight seconds when I'm not playing something. You kind of take your cue from the film, meaning you can't have your music dictate what happens. You have to allow space. So even though there are very few times when I'm not playing, I sometimes may be playing very, very sparsely. I might be underscoring something with a single note or a repetition of single notes. At other times, the music is pretty full blown with melody or some kind of harmonic accompaniment. That music is not unlike something I might do when I'm playing without a film."
You might hear a suggestion or two of the melodic and emotive steel string music that de Grassi cut for Windham Hill. He was one of the first artists signed to the label by founder and fellow guitarist Will Ackerman, and his early albums for Windham Hill — most notably 1978's Turning: Turning Back and 1984's Southern Exposure — introduced his music, and the spirit of a blooming indie label, to the world.
"Early on, Windham Hill was just a little project where Will Ackerman was pasting labels on records in his garage," de Grassi said. "But in a sense, there was good timing in starting Windham Hill because the media was so receptive to our music, even if they didn't know what to call it.
"In a way, it was all ignorant bliss. We couldn't believe people were actually paying us to play concerts and make records."