Traditional vs. atonality -- suggestions for a new group

Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.
Lokke Heiss
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Traditional vs. atonality -- suggestions for a new group

Unread post by Lokke Heiss » Mon Jul 07, 2008 4:10 pm

I just listened to a six piece jazz band do their first live music gig. They did the music for selected Surrealism '20s shorts.

This band is mostly undergraduate, with various ability levels. They played mostly percussion and atonal stuff, with some jazz riffs, and some Surrealist cues, such as ducks quacking, etc.

I'm going to meet with the guy in charge of the band next week, and was asked to give feedback.

So here's my question to the group mind: Can I give this guy a spectrum, a list of professional silent film musicians/groups ranging from percussion, more atonal to the most traditional? I want to give them some career advice, so I think if I could give them a list of groups to listen for as they check out DVDs, and by giving them a spectrum from least traditional, to most traditional, that doesn't make me look like an old fashioned fuddy duddy just wishing I could hear a melody line.

I don't know who would belong on the infrared part of this discussion, but I would put Carl Davis close to the extreme end of the most traditional scores that one can hear, at least in the category of composed music.

One element I heard missing from this band, was a keyboard. Even percussion/atonal groups I hear play in a professional setting seem to often have a keyboard around to sort of pull things together.

The other problem I see with this band is that as long as they stay really atonal, this will severely limit what they can play to. Or am I just voicing my traditional prejudices? Or do most of you want to hear a score for Pickford's My Best Girl done with atonal 12 steps, using nonmelodic lines, and quacking ducks?

Any thoughts from you out there? I'm especially interested in what musicians think about these questions.

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Penfold
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Unread post by Penfold » Mon Jul 07, 2008 4:33 pm

Personally, and subjectively, I agree with your thought that atonal style jazz for silent films would suit very few films indeed....as well as the surrealists you mention, perhaps some silent cartoons, some expressionist works....but I can't think of much in the mainstream that could work with that style....at least throughout an entire film. I must look up the band that played to The Oyster Princess at Sacile/Pordenone a year or two ago....they were great, but they were far from atonal.
Was it National Braid that did the experimental score for Redskin?? Electric Guitar, Violin and Tape loops??? In parts of the film it didn't quite work....but at others, especially the Saluting of the Flag sequence, the hairs were standing up at the back of my neck... really visceral, powerful stuff. But the score needs to assist the whole film....fitting some parts and not others is doing both film and artists a disservice.
I could use some digital restoration myself...

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boblipton
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Unread post by boblipton » Mon Jul 07, 2008 4:50 pm

I am sure you will hear from some of the people hereabouts who perform music for silent films, but let me give you an attendee's viewpoint.

When I go to see a film, I go to see a film, not to hear a musician. Therefore, I find the accompanyist's purpose to be to aid in creating the atmosphere of the music. Only if the film is completely unengrossing or I have seen it so many times that it does not fully engage my attention any longer, should I hear the music, and then I should hope the music is interesting enough to keep me in my seat long enough for me to become engrossed, once again, in the movie -- or the next one in the show.

Therefore the music needs to be gauged for the movie. A full orchestra playing classical themes will rarely be correct for a short comedy; and a simple theme will rarely add much to the mood of a big picture. A Carl Davis composition would overwhelm a Ham and Bud picture -- which would not be a terrible thing, mind you -- and many a piano accompanyist expert for comedy shorts would find himself unable to add much to THE BIG PARADE. Indeed, Stuart Oderman, one of MOMA's two regular silent piano players, like to stop playing at moments of of great emotional conflict in serious works. It works for him. It may not work for everyone.

Now, I do not dispute that there is a wide range of music that can work wuth almost any piece. However, while melodic work can be pitched so that it works at the fringes of your consciousness, I find it impossible to ignore atonal and 12-tone music. These varieties of music are so distinct from usual expectations that they ALWAYS demand my attention, and usually annoy the heck out of me. Thus, while there may be moments when discords work in the accompanying music -- moments of great stress -- at other times, they will simply distract me from what is happening on the screen. So while I admit there are times they could work theoretically, as a practical matter they should be avoided.

All parts of a movie and its performance should be set up so that the movie-goer can enjoy the experience as a whole. The chairs should be comfortable, but you shouldn't spend your time marvelling how beautifully the legs are turned. Likewise, the music should fit the movie, but it is not the purpose of the movie.

Bob

Lokke Heiss
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Unread post by Lokke Heiss » Tue Jul 08, 2008 12:23 am

Bob, of course I agree with everything you say....but trying to explain this to a 19 year old, who is coming from a music background and NOT a silent film background, is just not going to fly. He hasn't seen enough silent films to appreciate what you mean -- in fact I think he's never seen a live performance of a silent film. (This marks a huge difference of access between people living in big cities vs. small towns.

So I think it makes more sense to focus on the groups already out there. Give him a list of names/groups and suggest DVDs for him to listen to.

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Frederica
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Unread post by Frederica » Tue Jul 08, 2008 9:34 am

boblipton wrote: All parts of a movie and its performance should be set up so that the movie-goer can enjoy the experience as a whole. The chairs should be comfortable, but you shouldn't spend your time marvelling how beautifully the legs are turned. Likewise, the music should fit the movie, but it is not the purpose of the movie.
Bob
You and I may think that, but my gut feeling is that the people who see a silent film these days (outside of our little circle) are more interested in the music than in the film. Or in the "special event" presentation of same, which is what makes the SF Silent Film Festival so much fun. Wasn't that at least partially true when the films were contemporary? I know I've read that silent audiences would often choose theaters because of the musicians rather than the film.

Fred

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radiotelefonia
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Unread post by radiotelefonia » Tue Jul 08, 2008 2:46 pm

I should try to watch silents with tangos.

I myself made scores for two Frank Borzage films compiling cotemporary existing recordings.

The effect is by far more satisfying than with jazz scores.

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Unread post by Jim Henry » Tue Jul 08, 2008 3:16 pm

To echo sentiments that have already been expressed, the music for a silent movie has to be conceived of as a part of the total experience. And that is true of any multimedia performance. The music has to fit the action whether it is on the stage in a musical or on the screen in a movie. It can't call attention to itself. It has to enhance the total experience by becoming part of the experience.

As far as I am concerned the only difference between music for a silent and music for a talkie is that the music for a silent has to be better because it can't hide behind the dialog. Having to perform it live just ups the ante on doing a silent film well.

Please encourage your young musicians to really dig into the idea of music as a part of a larger performance. I don't necessarily think that silent film accompaniment has to be traditional but it certainly has to be thoughtful. My impression is that "modern" accompaniment gets a bad reputation from the instances when the musicians felt that it was acceptable to do just anything in front of a silent movie. I've heard traditional accompaniments that are equally unhelpful to the film though probably less jarring.

You might suggest they view the clips from the TCM Young Composer competition to get some idea of what other young musicians are doing with silent films:
www.turnerclassicmovies-yfcc.com/finalists2007.asp
As I recall, Michael Picton's score for the The Temptress was relatively modern in concept but fit the film very well. Michael has a website and it seems like he is doing additional work scoring silent films and that his score for the The Temptress has been released on a DVD:
www.zerostudios.com

Silent films can be accompanied by music with modern sensibilities. But modern or traditional, it should be done well.
Jim Henry

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radiotelefonia
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Unread post by radiotelefonia » Tue Jul 08, 2008 4:01 pm

Jim Henry wrote:To echo sentiments that have already been expressed, the music for a silent movie has to be conceived of as a part of the total experience. And that is true of any multimedia performance. The music has to fit the action whether it is on the stage in a musical or on the screen in a movie. It can't call attention to itself. It has to enhance the total experience by becoming part of the experience.

As far as I am concerned the only difference between music for a silent and music for a talkie is that the music for a silent has to be better because it can't hide behind the dialog. Having to perform it live just ups the ante on doing a silent film well.

Please encourage your young musicians to really dig into the idea of music as a part of a larger performance. I don't necessarily think that silent film accompaniment has to be traditional but it certainly has to be thoughtful. My impression is that "modern" accompaniment gets a bad reputation from the instances when the musicians felt that it was acceptable to do just anything in front of a silent movie. I've heard traditional accompaniments that are equally unhelpful to the film though probably less jarring.

You might suggest they view the clips from the TCM Young Composer competition to get some idea of what other young musicians are doing with silent films:
www.turnerclassicmovies-yfcc.com/finalists2007.asp
As I recall, Michael Picton's score for the The Temptress was relatively modern in concept but fit the film very well. Michael has a website and it seems like he is doing additional work scoring silent films and that his score for the The Temptress has been released on a DVD:
www.zerostudios.com

Silent films can be accompanied by music with modern sensibilities. But modern or traditional, it should be done well.
THE TEMPTRESS could have worked much better with Argentine music: tangos for the Paris scenes and national music for the other scenes.

Those rhytms include zambas, gatos, chacareras, and even waltzes.

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Rodney
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Unread post by Rodney » Wed Jul 09, 2008 2:48 pm

radiotelefonia wrote: THE TEMPTRESS could have worked much better with Argentine music: tangos for the Paris scenes and national music for the other scenes.

Those rhytms include zambas, gatos, chacareras, and even waltzes.
I've used tangos and waltzes in movies, but you need a broader palette than dance music for all but the most light movies.

We should remember that during the silent film era, the music you heard, especially in comedies, was avant garde for the time (the Charleston? What kids listen to these days!). So cutting edge can be very appropriate. But you do need to be careful of the film, of course, since a Mary Pickford upper-class-twit-of-the-year tea party scene calls for a certain "feel" that can't be played by just any ensemble (and a kind of music that some composers wouldn't dare stoop to write, lest it soil their reputation).

I should say that this controversy is not new. Rick Altman talks about the tension between musical directors who like to play pure music and trap-set players who want to play all the sound effects, back in the late teens. Sometimes a compromise was reached where the comedy short was done with percussion effects in return for silence during the feature.

Mont Alto is perhaps more traditional than even Carl Davis, since we use music written when the films were being shown, so I humbly submit that that could be a baseline to measure from. For very late silents, of course, you can get even closer by listening to the original recordings for SUNRISE, DON JUAN, SEVENTH HEAVEN, and THE WEDDING MARCH.

For more angular films I like the score we did for THE CAT AND THE CANARY, written by the present-day composer Franklin Stover. I wouldn't call it atonal, but you never can predict what key the next bar will be in, or how many beats there are in a measure.

And for a more modern instrumentation, the Alloy Orchestra's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is a good sample of that kind of work, and their score for THE LOST WORLD is pretty easy to get your hands on as well. For how to do it wrong, look for that tape of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with music by rock star Rick Wakeman of "Yes."
Rodney Sauer
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
www.mont-alto.com
"Let the Music do the Talking!"

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radiotelefonia
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Unread post by radiotelefonia » Wed Jul 09, 2008 7:00 pm

One of my biggest frustrations, writting from Buenos Aires, is the difficult to get now sheet music scores. I really miss the big collection that I had to left behind that included both both Argentine, American and European music scores.

However, I did find a few rarities that does not limit to tangos. And a friend gave me almost all of the scores I gave to her five years ago that includes a waltz called "Lupe" that Lucio Demare wrote for actress Lupe Vélez in 1928, which is more memorable than the actress herself. (Once I'm back in Massachusetts, I could scan the score.)

I agree that a broader palette is necessary. And I hope that I never find tangos that sound like military marches.

But in Argentina, as I posted and article written on the back of the first Julio De Caro reprits by RCA Victor in 1959, music scores hardly matched the action on the screen.

Now that I only have a few more days here, I will leave with a certain sadness and frustration, leaving my family here.

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Ken Winokur
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Modern music

Unread post by Ken Winokur » Tue Jul 29, 2008 2:56 pm

Well, I appreciate your openmindedness. It is easy to reflexively reach for the most obvious traditional styles when composing for silents.

There are actually very few “modern,” “experimental” or “avant guard” scores that have come out on DVDs in America (Europe is different).

I’ve never heard a true 12 tone or atonal score. I’ve never heard a completely percussion one either. I’ve heard quite a number of great modern music performances, but they haven’t made it to DVD.

I would suggest listening to the music of the best percussion composers (who didn’t do silent films): Harry Parch, Edgar Varese, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Pierre Boulez.

George Anteuil composed a really great score for Ballet Mechanique (by Ferdinand Leger). Although the score originally didn’t fit the film (its much longer than the film), it has been recreated by Paul Lehrman with a variety of robot controlled instruments (as it was originally intended to be). David Shepard put it together with the film in his Unseen Cinema collections. Information and clips available at:
http://antheil.org/

The Devil Music Ensemble is one of the best modern groups. They use electric guitar, drums, electronic keyboard, and real violin. They’re quite melodic and not that radical but quite tastful. You can listen to clips from their work and order their independently produced DVDs on their website: http://www.devilmusic.org/

Milestone’s release of HINDLE’S WAKE has a very unusual track by the British group, In the Nursery. It’s a trance inducing minimalist electronic composition that doesn’t follow the film well. Not great, but quite hypnotic.

Beth Custer’s score for My Grandmother (Soviet) is one of my favorites. Again, not that atonal, but uses drumset, guitars, clarinets etc. You can listen to a clip and order the DVD at: http://www.bethcuster.com/mygran.html

Richard Mariotte (who cut his teeth along with Beth Custer in Clubfoot Orchestra) did a fantastic score for Legong – Dance of the Virgins (out on Milestone). He uses the members of Clubfoot along with a traditional Indonesian Gamalon orchestra.

DJ Spooky did a remix of Birth of a Nation. I don’t think his cut and paste job on the film adds much, but the music is quite captivating. I saw an early performance which was computer, turntable and cello that I loved. He’s done this show with a variety of musicians and instruments since.

I never really think Alloy is all that experimental, and certainly isn’t atonal. We use conventional melodies and lots of percussion. As you said, we pick and choose the films we will subject to modern music (Metropolis, Man with a Movie Camera, DADA shorts). Most of our more recent work has been very melodic and the percussion has been largely orchestral. Our keyboard player almost always uses the sampled orchestral sounds instead of more synthetic ones. We do use odd percussion instruments (especially in the more modern and experimental films like Movie Camera). You can watch 10 clips from our DVDs at:
Alloyorchestra.blip.tv



Ken Winokur / Alloy Orchestra
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Ken Winokur
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Further thoughts

Unread post by Ken Winokur » Tue Jul 29, 2008 4:34 pm

I highly recommend listening to Dziga Vertov’s own score for Enthusiasm (the film that followed Man with a Movie Camera). It’s technically a sound film, but is actually a silent film with a score attached. It’s a radical score with music concrete bits and really unconventional music. I’m not sure where you can hear it, although I did rent a really bad VHS tape from Hollywood Express in Boston years ago. I know that MOMA has the print

I would love to hear scores that were representative of the avant guard music that was really invented at the time (12 tone musicians like Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, the noise music of the Futurists and Dada, or the Russian Constructivist movement). This music still sounds really fresh and different
Ken Winokur
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spadeneal
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Re: Modern music

Unread post by spadeneal » Mon Jun 22, 2009 9:50 pm

Ken Winokur wrote:I’ve never heard a true 12 tone or atonal score. I’ve never heard a completely percussion one either. I’ve heard quite a number of great modern music performances, but they haven’t made it to DVD.

I would suggest listening to the music of the best percussion composers (who didn’t do silent films): Harry Parch, Edgar Varese, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Pierre Boulez.Ken Winokur / Alloy Orchestra
Thanks Ken, for your detailed list and perceptive comments. Just a couple of comments in return -- Max Roach's score for "Symbol of the Unconquered" was an all-percussion score by virtue of being played entirely on a drumkit. And just about everybody I've spoken with agrees that it's a complete non-starter, with some saying they couldn't stand it. I hated to turn it off myself -- I like Max Roach -- but after awhile I too couldn't take it anymore, and it doesn't fit the film.

Harry Partch did compose music for a silent film, Windsong (1954), an avant-garde dance movie made by Madeleine Tourtelot. The piece actually became one of Partch's most famous after it was retitled "Daphne of the Dunes" and released on Columbia in a later recording, though the original track was issued on CRI as "Windsong." At one point it was rumored that Partch had composed a score for Kenneth Anger's "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," but I've looked into this and all this appears to have been was that Anger was playing the CRI record of "Windsong" along with a short, rough cut of the film in the 1950s, a practice later abadoned. I've tried it out, and Partch's music in no way fits Anger's film as it's cut now -- it's been through more versions than Joan Crawford has had wardrobes -- and the Janacek Misa Glagolithica Anger finally settled on does, in fact, fit the film as it stands.

Although I prefer to watch Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon" silent, I feel that Teiji Ito did a good job in writing a score for it and actually prefer the music without the film it was written for. Timothy Brock's score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I feel, is something of a milestone in a more contemporary sound for silent film scoring.
http://www.timothybrock.com/original_sc ... ligari.htm

And kudos to Alloy for Charley Bowers' "There It Is;" I feel they did a splendid job and it's a good example that contemporary music CAN work for a silent film, and in some cases would be preferable, I feel, to a Carl Davis or Rosa Rio traditional score.

I also write scores for silent films; I think good ones, and I despair that we will run out of silent films to score before anyone hears any of mine!

spadeneal

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Rodney
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Unread post by Rodney » Tue Jun 23, 2009 1:36 pm

radiotelefonia wrote:I should try to watch silents with tangos.

I myself made scores for two Frank Borzage films compiling cotemporary existing recordings.

The effect is by far more satisfying than with jazz scores.
When the Baguette Quartette accompanied Les Deux Timides at the last SFSFF, they naturally used pieces in their repertoire. Mostly it worked wonderfully -- the French musette waltzes, tangos, and foxtrots are suitable to the light nature of the film, and it's a French film, so it really put the viewers in the mood better than anyone else could have. The one failing, in my opinion, was the opening sequence, when a cruel husband comes home to his drab wife and beats her -- it really called for something more serious than a tango, which made it seem like a parody. As the movie goes on, you realize that it actually IS a parody, but I thought the effect was blunted.

Part of the problem of ANY musical group, or pianist, or organist, is that they tend to have a focus of what they play. To play for silent films you need to be adequately diffuse -- able to play music ranging from Tchaikowsky to the Charleston, and from serious drama to light romance. Even composed scores fall short, I find, especially in dippy little scenes (I always think of the tea party in AMARILLY), where modern composers don't seem to have what it takes to write dippy music.
Rodney Sauer
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
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"Let the Music do the Talking!"

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Jack Theakston
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Unread post by Jack Theakston » Tue Jun 23, 2009 2:16 pm

Agreed. Unless you have a vast musical vocabulary, a compiled score can give you color that composed scores sometimes lack.
J. Theakston
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