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Sounds for the silent cinema
Joshua McKerrow — The Capital
As one of Harry Langdon’s silent films plays in the background, Ben Redwine, left, Phil Carluzzo, center, and Maurice Saylor provide some accompaniment. Mr. Redwine, an Edgewater resident whose regular gig is with the Naval Academy Band, wrote original music for one of Langdon’s films in a new DVD collection of the late actor’s work.
Local musician scores big with music to accompany old films
By THERESA WINSLOW Staff Writer By THERESA WINSLOW Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008
Silence truly has been golden for Ben Redwine.
The Edgewater resident and member of the Naval Academy Band composed original music for a silent film by 1920s star Harry Langdon. He also performed music written by friends on many of the other movies in a newly released collection of the actor's work.
"I think they've done such a phenomenal job," said David Kalat of All Day Entertainment, the Illinois-based company that released the DVD set last month. "I can't rave about them enough. It was a daring and unconventional approach to silent film scoring."
"The Harry Langdon Collection: Lost and Found" features more than 600 minutes of footage on four discs. The community will have a chance to sample some of music live while screening three of the films at a festival next month at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Edgewater. The event serves as a fund-raiser for the church's concert series.
Mr. Langdon's "Lucky Stars," "Feet of Mud" and "Luck of the Foolish" will be showcased. Mr. Redwine and the three members of the Snark Ensemble, who handled the vast majority of the composing duties for the DVDs, are scheduled to perform.
Susan Vogel of West River, a volunteer at the church's school, is already a fan and said people will be pleasantly surprised by both Mr. Langdon's work and the music. She was hooked after watching just one film. "I thought I wasn't going to enjoy the movie," she said. "(But) I think everybody's going to find it hysterical - and the music nails it."
Her son, Luke, 8, was at the church recently as one of the movies played and the musicians discussed the project. Even with the sound off, he couldn't stop laughing, doubling over at some points. "They're so silly," hesaid. "They're so hilarious and there are different types."
Mr. Kalat said one of the things that makes Langdon's work different from the other big stars of his day was his subtle humor. He referred to it as a "discomfort style of comedy" more common today with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. Mr. Langdon died in 1944.
The collection is also different because of the music, Mr. Kalat continued. Silent films typically featured a single piano accompaniment that was often improvised, a far cry from the "lush" background provided by the Snark Ensemble (which takes its name from a Lewis Carroll poem) and Mr. Redwine, he said.
"It makes the movies funnier and easier to relate to," he explained. "The music is a partner to the images."
What's particularly impressive, he continued, is that each film has its own distinct music, rather than the same recycled tunes. Maurice Saylor, music librarian at Catholic University who helped found Snark in 2005, said that was important because the films feature Langdon playing a host of different characters, rather than the same character in different settings. The other members of the ensemble are Phil Carluzzo and Andrew Simpson.
Mr. Carluzzo, a graduate student at Catholic University, said the work on the Langdon project was one of the hardest assignments he's ever tackled. "You could write a lot of good music," he said. "But unless it's appropriate, it'll fail as a score."
Snark's work on the Langdon collection came about after Mr. Kalat heard Mr. Simpson perform, and ran into Mr. Saylor at a comedy film festival called Slapsticon that features works from the silent and early sound eras. They, in turn, recommended Mr. Redwine.
"We all agreed that Harry Langdon was this comedic genius and we wanted to make the music rise up to his level of acting," Mr. Redwine said.
Mr. Redwine, 37, never really wanted to do anything but play the clarinet.
He was inspired by his grandfather, a professional player in Oklahoma, when he was growing up and took lessons from him starting at age six. His hands were too small at the time to play the B-flat clarinet, the most commonly used model, so he trained on the E-flat model until he grew.
Mr. Redwine eventually earned a bachelor's degree in music education, and then a master's degree in clarinet performance. After that, he joined the Army Band, which he played in for four years before coming to the Naval Academy nine years ago.
He also plays in a classical group, has his own jazz group, and runs the concert series St. Andrew's. (His wife, Leslie, is head of the church's school.)
Despite all this experience, he'd never tried his hand at composing before the Langdon project came up. He traded composing lessons from Mr. Saylor for clarinet lessons, then had at it. He used a special computer program that allowed him to link music with the footage from "His Marriage Wow," a 20-minute film made in 1925.
"Doing one film, while it wasn't easy, it wasn't overwhelming," he said. "I guess I didn't know this opportunity existed. So, now I can see some other angles the music can go."
But the compositions on the DVDs already go in sometimes zany, often reflective, and definitely different ways. Part of their uniqueness might lie in the fact that the scores feature a cornucopia of unusual instruments mixed in with more common ones. There's the melodica, which looks like a large harmonica with a keyboard; the cuica, a Brazilian drum; the ocarina, a small wind instrument; and a toy piano - just to name a few.
At the festival next month, Mr. Redwine alone plans to play six instruments, including B-flat clarinet, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone.
"First, I hope (people have) a good time," Mr. Saylor said. "Secondly, I hope we give them a greater appreciation for silent film in general and Harry Langdon in particular. But, I think additionally, I would hope they'd come away with an experience they've never had before."
Harry Langdon: The Silent Film Festival is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10 in the sanctuary of St. Andrew's United Methodist Church, 4 Wallace Manor Road, Edgewater. Tickets are $21 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information, call 410-798-8251, or E-mail [email protected] or [email protected].
Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.