Go Triad: Old Flick and New Licks

By Molly McGinn
November 18, 2010

The instrumental rock duo, Modern Robot, sits below a movie screen and plays a climbing organ melody over a ticking beat. Keyboardist Ben Singer and drummer Kyle Poehling occasionally look at the film, but never at each other. They have an album and almost two years of improvising together to draw from.

Poehling closes his eyes so he knows where to go, he says.

“With improv music, you don’t know what’s going to happen next by looking at someone. Listen and trust what you hear. There’s nothing automatic about it,” he says.

Twice a month at the Green Bean, Singer and Poehling perform live improvised music accompanying a movie.

The set is rarely rehearsed. Preshow prep is daunting in the way of waiting on technology: finding a few free movies online, such as public domain documentaries without permission restrictions or copyright fees and fusing them together for the show. Postshow is time intensive, too: packing up instruments, the film projector, and then, Singer goes home and downloads a recording of the night’s show, mixes it with the original sound from the film and posts the video online at vimeo.com.

Tonight’s feature is a 1947 documentary about office equipment. Images of typewriters and dictation machines scroll across the screen. The duo runs melody and harmony-focused lines, a groovable mix of beauty and crunchy funk.

”It elicits more form, more emotion,” Poehling says about playing to a movie. “But you have to know when to shift gears. Ben and I have developed a rapport where we’re both really comfortable with it.”

Both use acoustic instruments with newly invented and old tones, such as a Rhodes organ or Roland 808 sample set, the basic building blocks of hip-hop.

They’re also accomplished musicians. Singer studied euphonium at the Eastman School of Music, and this time last year he was playing a laptop with musicians in Germany for a Bollywood version of Cirque du Soleil. He also played with Meat Loaf and a nationally touring production of The Wizard of Oz.

Poehling studied recording at Berklee College of Music, taught recording and production at The Music Academy of North Carolina, and toured with the jam band Remus.

Modern Robot formed two years ago at a holiday party in Greensboro.

At the time, both Singer and Poehling worked at Notion Music, a local company that makes music writing software. Poehling brought his drums and Singer brought his keyboards to the company holiday party. Guitar players drifted in and out of the session, but Singer and Poehling remained fixed.

“As soon as we started playing, I really didn’t care about the party anymore,” Poehling says.

During the next eight months, Singer and Poehling would play, record the session and then sift through recordings for melodies and arrangements.

Although they made a record in 2009, “Liminal Event,” without help booking shows and with work piling up at the office, the project primarily lived online.

Things kicked up again this summer when Poehling had the idea of adding a movie to the show. He had mixed the two mediums before with another instrumental rock duo, Moniker, a few years ago in Augusta, Ga. “The movie gave the audience something to connect to while the musicians improvised,” Poehling says. “Highly improvisational music can dwell in exclusive territory, and by accident, leave the listener behind.”

The duo’s first movie-show debuted in August at the Green Bean. Past shows have featured the movie “Sita Sings the Blues,” a commentary on modern life using animation and an ancient Indian myth, as well as “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” a 1959 film by Edward D. Wood Jr. that resurfaced in the 1980s when a writer called it the worst movie ever made.

Modern Robot’s next show, Tuesday at the Green Bean, will feature “Man with a Movie Camera.” The 1929 flick features everyday life in Russia, using the cutting edge techniques film of stop and slow motion in its awkward infancy. “It’s weird,” Singer says about the film. “And it’s perfect.”

Contact Molly McGinn at mollymcginn@gmail.com