Mercury News: Fascination grows with live musical scores for

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Mercury News: Fascination grows with live musical scores for

Unread post by silentfilm » Fri Dec 05, 2008 3:17 pm

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Fascination grows with live musical scores for silent films
By Richard Scheinin


Mercury News

Posted: 12/03/2008 12:48:25 PM PST


Speaking to the 16 members of his electroacoustic orchestra — the brave souls who will be doing a live performance of the 140-minute score to the silent film classic "Metropolis" for Saturday night's screening at Stanford University — conductor Bruno Ferrandis recently said, "Listen guys, I know it is scary. But it is something you will never have a chance to do again. Yes, it's very avant-garde, the writing is crazy, very technical. But it is like an odyssey. You will live through something that few musicians can live through. It's very important, a great adventure!"

That was a month or so ago. And Ferrandis, a native of France and now music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, from which most of the 16 players are drawn, is practically vibrating with excitement as he describes the music French composer Martin Matalon has created to accompany Fritz Lang's 1927 science-fiction classic.

The film, which will be shown Saturday at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, is about legions of underground workers who toil on behalf of an evil class of overseers in a corporate city-state. And Matalon's 1994 score — it's been performed all over the world, though this is its West Coast premiere — is filled with tabla-driven Indian rhythms, muted Miles Davis-inspired trumpets, electric guitar distortion, long-lined cello interludes and pure electronic sound immersions. A pre-composed electronic tape shadows and interacts with the live orchestra (and with the images on the movie screen). Saturday, the entire musical brew will be pumped through a multitude of speakers around the auditorium, bathing the audience in sound.


The overall effect, Ferrandis says, is to make "Metropolis" — a film once deemed revolutionary, but which since has grown familiar and even dated to many viewers — brand-new again. And that, really, is the goal of the many contemporary composers and improvisers who are creating music to accompany silent films: to create something absolutely new by engaging the old.

It makes sense: Our culture is saturated with visual information. And music. Here's an unexpected new way to link the two. The fact that it can pull in new audiences for contemporary classical music, for jazz and other genres is a bonus.

Interest in this hybrid has been growing at least since the mid-'90s, when Matalon composed his score — and when a composer-performer named Richard Marriott, then living in San Francisco, was also writing new silent-film music for his popular Club Foot Orchestra. Marriott's band performed and recorded his own "Metropolis" score, filled with jazz and even surf rock, complementing the film's occasionally humorous and more frequently dark and creepy moments.

But this month and last, at least in the Bay Area, seem especially active ones for new or recent music for silent films.

Aside from Saturday's Stanford event, there have been sold-out performances at San Francisco's Castro Theatre and Berkeley's Hertz Hall, by a 200-voice chorus and 24-piece orchestra, of composer Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light," his music for director Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 film "The Passion of Joan of Arc."

Jazz trumpeter Steven Bernstein led his Millennial Territory Orchestra West in Nov. 7 performances of his music for three silent Laurel and Hardy films at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga. And a series of improvising pianists — including Frederick Hodges, who created some of the music for a set of new DVD restorations of early Douglas Fairbanks movies — accompanied a weekly silent-film series at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont. (The Saturday-night series continues in December: www.nilesfilmmuseum.org.) The Niles section of Fremont, incidentally, was once a silent-film capital, the place where Charlie Chaplin shot portions of "The Tramp."

Why all the interest?

"Music cuts to the bone dramatically when it's wedded to visuals," says Mark Sumner, conductor of choral ensembles at UC-Berkeley and leader of the recent "Joan of Arc" performances. He describes the realism of Dreyer's silent classic, the bloodletting and the burning of Joan, the 15th-century martyr, and how it came together with Einhorn's 1994 score at the Castro: "You see Joan slowly consumed by the fire, and the music is slow and constantly building," he says. "There's this slow beat and sustained singing, just this constant march to death, and then she dies, and the fire is raging, and the chorus starts singing, 'Joan! Joan!' and the music is just going crazy."

When the film ended, Sumner remembers, "The audience kind of leapt out of their seats, and I went, 'Oh, my God.' I knew the power of the movie, and I was trying really hard to underscore it. But, still, I wasn't prepared for the response. The movie is so strong. There is so much truth up there."

Einhorn's score includes the digitally sampled sound of church bells ringing in Domremy, the French village where Joan was born. This is a long way from the technology used in musical performances during the silent-film era. That's when Fats Waller would sit at the organ in some New York movie palace, or itinerant piano bangers would set up in small-town theaters around the country, whipping up instantaneous accompaniments to the action on screen.

Dorothy Bradley, president of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, says the museum's theater, which opened in 1913, once featured a group called the Bell Orchestra: "a piano and maybe a violin and cello or something like that."

More typically in regional theaters, a lone pianist or organist would draw on classical and popular themes of the day, improvising with the help of cue cards: "When the title card says this, here's a little theme you can use," Bradley explains. "And when you see that character, here's another little theme to weave through the movie."

Sometimes a contraption known as an American Fotoplayer was added, a sort of organ-piano with "a whole conglomeration of attachments: organ pipes, drums, doorbells and whistles, with all kinds of buttons and bells and ropes and horns to squeeze, and special effects."

The effect, regardless of contraption or instrumentation, was pleasurable and emotionally direct, Bradley says. And she still prefers silent film performances that "go with the flow," spontaneous, different every time and always entertaining.

That certainly describes the performance at Montalvo, where Bernstein, a strutting hipster with an earring and wearing a red suit, had the kids in the audience roaring as his nine-piece mini-big band roared through those Laurel and Hardy movies from the '20s. On-screen eye-pokes and food fights were matched, stroke for stroke, by wah-wah blasts from the brass. In "Wrong Again" (1929), as Stan and Ollie inadvertently but relentlessly destroy a millionaire's mansion, the music, partly written out, partly leaving space for improvisation, was as madcap as the story line.

True, Fats Waller didn't work any reggae grooves into his performances, as Bernstein did. But, like silent-film performances of old, Bernstein's was directly complementary of the visual images: Jean Harlow's sexpot entrance in "Double Whoopee" (1929) was matched by a bluesy strut from the band.

That's not how saxophonist Phillip Greenlief operates. A well-known Bay Area free improviser, he has scored three films by director Michaelangelo Antonioni — he turned off the sound on his television and "scribbled down themes," he says. "It tests you to come up with something that's not just aping what's on the screen. In the original silent movies, someone would drop a bowling ball, and you'd hear a sound (in the musical score). I'm not interested in doing that."

At an improvisation class he teaches at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, Greenlief has his high school students creating music to accompany the opening scene to Antonioni's "L'Eclisse (The Eclipse)," from 1962. "It's seven minutes long, without a word of dialogue: a man and a woman in a room. And what's clear is that they've just broken up. There's a lot of deep tension on the screen; you can feel the anger. But you don't just want a lot of anger in the music. I tell the kids, 'Play half as much.' "

Matalon uses a similar strategy of sly indirection in his score to "Metropolis."

In the film's original score, by German composer Gottfried Huppertz, an expression of fear on the face of one of the silent actors is answered by a chorus of tremulous violins. Matalon, instead, uses a sort of reverse counterpoint, infusing the visual images with unexpected colors and textures, even, during a scene of great psychological tension, maintaining four minutes of absolute silence.

"Near the end of the film, there is the destruction of Metropolis," Matalon says, explaining his process. "The images are very, very dynamic, very populated, with a lot of people, a lot of movement. I remember my first idea was to do something like that, something very musically dense — and it was terrible, really, really heavy. It was tiring to me to see and listen, so I threw it out.

"And I did completely the opposite — music that is very slow, very detached, very removed from the action. And for me it is now one of the best moments of the film, because the music and the images take on another dimension without bothering each other. I find that this business of writing music for silent movies — it is extremely mind-opening. You really have to go along paths where you never would have thought to go. I have written maybe 50 pieces, many types of musical compositions. But 'Metropolis' is perhaps the most important work I have done.''

Contact Richard Scheinin at rscheinin(at)mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5069.

Fritz Lang"s "Metropolis"


With score by Martin Matalon
Performed by members of Santa Rosa Symphony
Presented by Stanford Lively Arts


When: 8 p.m. Dec. 6
Where: Memorial Auditorium,
Stanford University
Tickets: $13-$25; livelyarts.stanford.edu, (650) 725-2787

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Gagman 66
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Unread post by Gagman 66 » Wed Dec 10, 2008 12:01 pm

Bruce,

:P Yucky-poo! I despise Modern Music for Silent films! For that matter, I despise most modern music period! To me today's generation has positively appalling taste in most everything! Sorry, but that's the way that I feel. :lol:

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radiotelefonia
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Unread post by radiotelefonia » Wed Dec 10, 2008 12:32 pm

Gagman 66 wrote:Bruce,

:P Yucky-poo! I despise Modern Music for Silent films! For that matter, I despise most modern music period! To me today's generation has positively appalling taste in most everything! Sorry, but that's the way that I feel. :lol:
Jeffrey:

You can't imagine the discussions I frenquently have with my wife about this. :mrgreen:

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