In „Headache Symphony“ a scene from an early Buster Keaton movie is reenacted on stage. A full house will be built and live performers will recreate the famous chase scene from the short „The High Sign“. The house will be wired by a series of audio-visual sensors that will be implemented all over. These sensors will be progammed to read movement, change of light, change of scenery, sound and so on. Every reading will effect a change in the sound. Mozarts music will serve as the source library for those sounds, creating night by night a new composition based on the different inputs coming in from the sensors. It is, in short, a marriage between the master of sound and the master of silence.HeadacheSymphonyWeb : watch a video or proceed reading!


Headache Symphony

This project is a spin off and a continuation to “Buster’s Headache”, a project we realized in 2002. In the first Buster we concentrated on the relationship between image and text. We overloaded the stage with information forcing the audience to choose between the different outputs on screen, stage and sound. In “ Headache Symphony ” the screen will disappear, instead we will restage a full scene from a short movie by Buster Keaton and then add music with the intention of following the structures of silent movies. We will concentrate on the relationship between action and sound/music.

The story

The movie we will use is called “The High Sign”. The movie begins with the title: “our hero came from nowhere – he wasn’t going anywhere but he got off somewhere”. Buster is hired both by an underworld gang called the Blinking Buzzards and as a bodyguard by the man the Blinking Buzzards want to murder. The climax has Buster being chased by the Blinking Buzzards through an elaborately rigged house, filled with secret corridors, trap doors, and revolving panels. The chase through the house was photographed on a cutaway set, which reveals the intricate inventiveness of the house as the backdrop to the frenzied pace of the action. It is the chase scene that we are going to recreate.

The set

We will build the rigged house in exactly the same way it was built in the movie, up to the tiniest detail. The audience in the theatre will view the action through a cutaway set as if the fourth wall is being literally cut off from the proscenium. It is, in essence, a full house without the facade.

The action

The performers will start by reenacting the scene from the movie, again to the tiniest detail, and then will continue by repeating the same scene again and again creating an endless loop of a frenzied chase. The loops will then be manipulated in different ways – an action will be repeated, a movement will be shown from different angles, a text will appear on Q cards on the side of the house putting the action in different light, new story lines will be added, the music will change creating new sets of moods and tempo, the pace will move from fast to faster and then to slow motion, the acting style will shift from comic to melodrama to tragic, the stage will be in a state of uncontrolled activity, in a state of agitation that can be described metaphorically as a temporary period of symptoms of a psychiatric disorder.

The haunted house

The house will serve as a playground for a game of opposites. Childhood memories (building houses, hiding under the table and so on) will collide with a strange adult world where brutality, sex, and violence in all their adult manifestations, creep in and disturb the supposedly innocent world of Keaton. Under the “funny” comedy style there are humans under duress and human bodies under the threat of unnecessary force. The house keeps shifting from a safe place where human are protected to a kind of a war zone where the danger of collapse is immanent. The point and, indeed, the effect, is to do the joke so that it ceases to be a joke, to bring out its spatial qualities, and to give the sequence a darker sense of danger and survival.

The Music

we are going to use Mozart’s music in the same way a silent movie music was used in Keaton’s time; i.e. as a live source to enhance the action seen on the screen or in our case on stage.

The Silent Film Era

Unlike any other period of film music, we do not know what the music for silent film really sounded like because it was not recorded but played live and in different configurations from theater to theater. Relatively few complete scores were written for silent films; the majority were pieced together from popular music, themes from “the classics,” and from libraries of specially composed pieces indexed by mood or action ( as in Giuseppe Becce’s Kinothek: Neue Filmmusik and Erno Rapee’s Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures). Even the scores that were specially composed for films were probably hardly ever played as written once the film had left the central theaters for the hinterlands. A prescribed score infringed upon the job of the theater music director, which was to assemble and arrange the scores for film presentations, and in some cases the given score was used only as far it suited the music director and the local set of musicians. The music director had to weld together his material on the basis of the film, and bring order into chaos. In this sense, he could to a certain degree be rated equally with an original composer. Even pieces which were characteristic in themselves could have their nature transformed in the melting-pot of compilation. There arose a new style, which absorbed all the earlier individuality of the single pieces in favor of a new collective character. This went so far that even the rhythm, tempo, key, form, instrumentation, and actually the melody of a piece of music had to be remodeled.

Digital Mozart

In a similar way to the assembling technique of the theater music director we will feed the computer with all the Mozart canon that is available on recording. Mozarts music will serve as our encyclopedia of music for theatre. We will use different interpretations and takes on the music from older recordings to contemporary ones. The computer serves in our case the same function as the musical director of the silent era, it will be programmed to generate music based on mood, tempo, volume, rhythm, emotion and so on, in a way that will allow us to draw any bit of music that will fit the action.

Remixing Mozart

We will use couple of different techniques in the use of music. These approaches will be tried out during the rehearsal period to figure out what is the best way to put the music and the action together. By remixing Mozart we imply a similar technique that is used in cutting movies, i.e. the computer draws bits of music from the main source and then piece it together during the performance. In other words a second from a Mozart opera can be followed by five seconds from a Mozart symphony and then by two seconds of a chamber piece. It all depends on the synchronization of image and sound. The act of remixing will be done by the computer and will be dependent on the parameters we will build into the program, but from the moment those parameters are set the computer will “act on its own”. The idea is not to create the perfect score but to see what kind of changes in the music will happen when the action is varied from night to night, which means in a way that the computer is recomposing the music night by night and each night we get a totally new composition based on Mozart’s music as the source library.


The act of remixing will be controlled by a series of audio-visual sensors that will be implemented in the performance space. These sensors will be programmed to read movements of the performers, changes of light, changes of scenery, sound and so on. For example, the Keaton house contains many trap doors where the performers are running in and out of them. A sensor will be placed in one of these trap doors and every time the door opens the music will shift. The changes therefore are totally based on the action in the acting area which makes it similar to the way the live music in the silent movie era was played to the screen.

Sound house

The idea is to work not with a vertical sound, where there are many tracks distinct from one another, but horizontally where there are many, many sounds but still it’s as though every sound is becoming one general speech, whether it’s music, text, images or natural sound ( the sound the performers make on stage).