IN: Reviews

Anachronistic Score for Nathan Doesn’t Work


A special performance of Manfred Noa’s restored 1922 film Nathan der Weise with a new commissioned musical score from Aaron Trant performed by three members of his After Quartet, was given at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on the morning of September 11th, the tenth anniversary of that unforgettable day.  This commemorative meditation was very much the result of dedicated work by Detlef Gericke-Schoenhagen, director of Goethe-Institut Boston, who has always had a love for the films of his native Germany. As the head of Germany’s Goethe-Institut’s film division, he co-founded Edition Filmmuseum, a digital platform for “…hidden and forgotten treasures of the German and Austrian film libraries and film archives.” Without such efforts at digital restoration, Detlef noted, “treasured films like Nathan the Wise would have been screened two or three times and then stored and forgotten in dusty film archives. Today these films (plus many others) are available for the public.”

Noa’s film adaptation of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise was dogged from its inception with threats of censorship and the destruction of theaters where it might have played. Later, the Nazi government succeeded in destroying virtually all of the prints, and for the next 75 years Nathan was regarded as one of the greatest lost films of the German silent canon. Then, in 1997, a single wrongly titled copy of the movie was discovered in the collection of Gosfilmofond in Moscow, and a duplicate print made there became the source for the subsequent digital restoration by Filmmuseum München. (Stefan Drössler’s excellent essay on the film appears here).

Although silent film actors only had their faces and gestures for expression, silent films presentations always had a “voice” — music. In big-city premiere engagements, the films were usually accompanied by large orchestras from scores written often by important composers, such as Saint-Saëns and Richard Strauss. In lesser engagements, there were smaller ensembles, organs or pianos to break the silence and expand the expression of the directors’ visions.

In its premiere engagements in Munich and Berlin in 1922, Noa’s Nathan de Weise was accompanied by an orchestral score written by Willy Schmidt-Gentner, one of the most successful German composers of film music in the history of German cinema — we don’t count excellent exiled German composers, like Waxman, Korngold, Steiner and Riesenfeld. Schmidt-Gentner’s score for Nathan der Weise in 1922 was his first. At his most productive, he scored up to ten films a year, including numerous classics and masterpieces of the German and Austrian cinema. Successfully adapting and re-defining himself through the Weimar, Nazi and postwar periods, he continued as a prolific film composer through 1955, scoring 200 films. He died in Vienna in 1964, just short of his seventieth birthday. Though his music for Nathan is considered lost, one can hear excerpts of many of his other scores here.

Therefore, when Nathan der Weise, a major German silent film, was going to be shown to the German public for the first time in 75 years, and since its original score was lost, the Goethe-Institut’s Gericke-Schoenhagen was determined that the debut performances feature a new orchestral score. “I always considered Nathan the Wise as extraordinary, the theater play as well as the film,” he said. “When we included Noa’s film in the ‘Edition Filmmuseum’ and in the film library of Goethe-Institut, I asked the former German foreign minister and his office to support the composition of a new score and the performance by the Bundesjugendorchester. The response was very quick and very positive. Under the patronage of the minister of foreign affairs, a new score was written by the Lebanese composer Abou-Khalil and premiered in October 2009 in Munich.”

The performances by the Bundesjugendorchester of 60 teenage musicians under conductor Frank Strobel were “ecstatically received.”

Khalil’s  composition combines elements of Western and Eastern music and instruments. According to the Institut, Abou-Khalil “bridges the historic gap between the world’s three main religions in a musical fashion. He blends European with Arab and Jewish tradition, and his symphonic film music for large-scale orchestra incorporates the ancient wind instrument known as the serpent, the Arabian short-necked oud, as well as modern percussion instruments. The result — an extraordinarily exciting dialogue between film and music, old and new, Occident and Orient.”

The restored print was also released in DVD four years ago by Edition Filmmuseum with a piano-violin score by the late Aljoscha Zimmermann, a composer of fifty to one hundred silent film scores  (though only eleven are available) as well as a piano solo score by Joachim Bärenz, also an outstanding pianist. This DVD is only available through remainder sources but may soon be re-issued on BluRay.

Originally, Gericke-Schoenhagen hoped to invite the Bundesjugendorchester to Boston for the US premiere of the Nathan restoration. Unfortunately, the German economic crisis didn’t allow it.  So two years later, when Goethe-Institut Boston decided to present the premiere as part of a September 11, 2001 meditation on its tenth anniversary, it turned instead to Boston’s After Quartet and its composer Aaron Trant, who is also the group’s percussionist along with Nathan Wooley, trumpet and Scott Fitzsimmons, bass.

Before I get to my reactions to the music, which is after all BMInt’s main focus, I must thank the Goethe Institut Boston and the Coolidge Theatre Foundation for bringing a great film to a large and engaged audience with very high technical standards. The Edition Fimmuseum’s BluRay restoration looked very grand in the Coolidge’s main auditorium. The hall’s 1930s iconography did not clash at all with the German Expressionism on the screen. The tinting and toning were quite effective — especially in a torchlight march, for which highlights were tinted yellow while shadows were toned midnight blue. There were no digital artifacts in evidence, and the only flaw was frequent blown highlights, which we suspect were inherent in creation of the black-and-white restoration negative from the surviving colored nitrate print.

But the music is another story. I must declare my strong bias for accompaniment music that is of the period of the film, not the events depicted within the story or of the time of the film’s subsequent presentations. It’s also a credo of mine that great art is timeless and not needy of periodic updating. Nevertheless, I went to this morning’s performance ready to accept a well-intended, albeit anachronistic, accompaniment.

Composer Aaron Trant (interviewed here) comes to silent film scoring from a background in “classical, jazz, rock, contemporary and improvised music”; and in his score were elements of all of these. There was something like a swing interpretation of the vendetta duet from the third act of Rigoletto, modern jazz percussion riffs in the style of Gene Krupa, Hare Krishna bells and a Satchmo-escque version of Bye Bye, Blackbird.

What any of this had to do with a moving and deeply intellectual drama of events in the twelfth century through the lenses of Lessing in 1779 and Manfred Noa in 1922 is beyond me. Yes, the performance banished the silence from the auditorium, and yes, the positive press engendered by the singularity of the commission brought a large and appreciative audience to a great silent film and to Lessing’s immortal meditation on reconciliation and human understanding. The score underlined the rhythm of the film well in broad terms except in the Parable of the Ring sequences when something completely different, maybe even silence, was required. But to me, I’m very sorry to have to say, the anachronistic musical performance was an inadvertent act of vandalism to a profound film that celebrates humanity, rather like a vuvuzela chorus at a peace conference. The high level of production values and cultural- historical importance of  Manfred Noa’s magnum opus demand a more thoughtful, faithful and sophisticated score.

I suspect my views are very much in the minority in this morning’s audience, since I overheard the word sublime applied to the score more than once. I should also report that some of the organizers are particularly keen to update classic films for modern audiences. But I maintain that such updatings are misguided, generally weaken the films, and run strongly counter to the intentions of the directors.

As a litmus test I urge readers to listen to two radically different scores for Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis and decide for themselves which better honors the director’s intent. First navigate to Gorgio Moroder’s ‘80s rock version here. When you’ve had enough, have a look and listen to the Murnau Foundation’s restoration of the movie with the Gottfried Huppertz’s orchestral score from the premiere here. Please feel free to send your comments to BMInt.


23 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I could not disagree more though appreciate the author’s confession of bias for accompaniment music that is of the period of the film.

    One of the many things that made Sunday’s event so extraordinary for me was the fact that the viewer/listener had the experience of hearing a score from 2011 and seeing a movie from the 1920’s based on a play from the 1700’s based on events from the 12th century! The music coexists beautifully with the film (without being “movie music”) while still using a modern and accessible language. The fact that the same clear message from the play, from the film, from the music–all begging for religious tolerance–is told to us over and over again through a time frame of centuries and styles makes the new work as a whole especially poignant. If anything, I found that the music was faithful to the screen, strengthened the original intent of the film with a language I understand and left me with the desire to see and hear it again. I was incredibly moved.

    Comment by Sarah — September 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm

  2. I’m very frustrated with the onslaught of these post-modernist collages within the current season of silent film accompaniment performances and really agree with Lee about the first questionable and then abhorrent trend and now all-pervasive assault of “new” replacement scores and so-called improvisations preventing audiences from hearing the preserved or recreated historical originals. This is equally true about the emergent unacceptable excess in the opera world (witness recent productions of Mozart set in an American Home Depot store’s garden department, and another set in a health clinic). I’m as furious as Lee is about the “updating” travesties within this silent film performance field, most often hidden under the false claim of well-meant attempts to draw “younger” audiences. I’ve seen, and unfortunately heard, over the last 40 years silent films accompanied by rock bands, bar bands, scantily clad singing & dancing troupes, all-percussion ensembles, and, of course legions of so-called clueless improvising organists and pianists in the passing parade. One particularly memorable improvising pianist at a major German film festival celebrated in his opening remarks his own disastrous choice of not even watching the film during the performance and then performing with his back to the screen! Your readers should also know that there are others in the field who practice my approach to traditional silent film scoring using actual published source music scores from the silent era. Presenters might fruitfully consider the assemblage work of Rodney Sauer and his Mont Alto Picture Orchestra from Colorado, and for all-new compositions increasingly available in historically informed and inflected styles there’s Donald Sosin in NYC

    My latest personal expressions of outrage:

    1. In July this year upon preparing to play my annual gig at the hitherto all “traditional” scored silent film festival in San Francisco I heard the rehearsal of an Italian solo rock guitarist setting up to accost Murnau’s SUNRISE. It was stunningly terrible and I vehemently expressed my outrage, opening my public festival remarks about the current state of silent film scoring today with: “As I took the cab over here this morning something occurred to me to say outright at the start of this panel: addressing this so-called new music scoring by our new guest players from Europe this year reminds me of the world of graffiti in art. These days I see graffiti celebrated and the graffiti ‘artists’ hailed as major art functionaries plus the graffiti itself entering the world of gallery representation, museum display, festivals, etc. However, seems to me when I hear people discuss graffiti I never hear them talking about the buildings the graffiti is inflicted upon . . . it can be a major building by Frank Lloyd Wright, or Frank Ghery, or some major historical landmark, or whatever you like – it’s just that we never hear any mention of the building – – it is all about the wonders of this newly defined and celebrated “‘art” of graffiti.

    2. I played at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival this August, for my first and perhaps likely only time . . . I found out that almost every year, including this one, they have the “Alloy Orchestra” Cambridge-based bang on a can travesty group play their entrenched absurdities, marketed under the guise of new work for new audiences. The festival also screened the latest unnecessary so-called restoration (this time with deftly applied color effects recreations) of Melies’ TRIP TO THE MOON . . . with a “new music” recorded score by a completely silly, historically inappropriate and offensive French modern music duo called AIR – I overheard the music called “bad horror movie music,” and that about sums it up.

    3. And on the Web just yesterday I happened to pull off the following statements showing the all-pervasive conversion to the travesty composer/performers out there upcoming this season:

    ST. LOUIS, MO.: “Rats & People believes that films of the Silent Era are not dusty museum pieces but rather vital and urgently relevant works of art. The R&P MPO’s compositional ethic avoids the styles that dominated early film accompaniment — often the popular tunes of the time — in observance of the hundred years or so of popular music that have since shaped the contemporary ear. RPMPO have an eclectic and unexpected sound – far from their post-punk folk rock roots…The fact that they bring a younger audience to appreciate classic cinema is not only a refreshing trend, it is also a hopeful sign that the art of silent film accompaniment will live long.”

    BEJING, CHINA: “Aug 31 will see the screening of Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, an experimental documentary by Walther Ruttmann. As a classic German silent film, Faust tells the battle between good and evil in the era of Middle Ages. An ethnic band, Da Wang Gang, will add new dimension to the score with its mix of Mongolian instruments and Peking Opera percussion.”

    PHILLIPINES: The Silent Film Festival will present the silent movies will be set to live music in various styles—jazz, classical, rock, chorale, indigenous and world music. . . . “Brides of Sulu” will be accompanied by “musical scientist” Armor Rapista and the Panday Pandikal Cultural Troupe from Jolo, Sulu. “There’ll be a lot of surprises in my scoring,” Rapista said. “My music is minimal, almost subliminal. . . . “The Greek Miracle” (1921) will be accompanied by classical pianist Heliodoro Fiel, who said he’ll whip up a new piece for the film, screening August 28, 5 p.m. It’ll be an improvisational,” Fiel said, “a fusion of new age and jazz. . Italy’s “L’Inferno” (1911), found the “perfect” musicians in rock band Razorback, said Emanuela Adesini, cultural attaché of the Italian embassy. I was at the rehearsal and the music was amazing. Lead singer Kevin Roy would change his voice to match scenes in the movie, which is basically a journey to hell,” said Adesini. Razorback manager Patrick Pulumbarit said the band would use songs from its latest album, “Three Minutes of Glory” for “L’Inferno” on August 27, 7 p.m. The fest underlines the importance of “preserving” old movies in archives, and also “reviving them so they can be enjoyed by the present generation,” said Antonio Garcia Roger, first secretary of culture, Embassy of Spain.

    MADISON, WI: The members of Yid Vicious are not afraid of playing in the dark, or of making things up as they go along. So the well-known Madison Klezmer band is an apt musical pairing with the silent film classics “The Golem,” based on a Jewish folk tale, and the German Expressionist horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” both groundbreaking movies from 1920. Yid Vicious. will create an improvised score for “Dr. Caligari” on the spot. “I think people are really open to the music if they don’t have to get past the idea of, ‘Should I spend the money to go to a two- or three-hour concert where I’m not sure I’ll know or like or understand the music?’

    UNNAMED LOCATION: “the captivating chamber-folk sextet Dark Dark Dark unveil their new live score for SPIES and are joined by guest musicians and singers for a spellbinding evening of silent film and live sounds. Rising players on the national indie scene, they make music like no other and smartly fuse disparate influences such as minimalism, New Orleans jazz, Americana, pop, and Eastern European folk. Lush and layered, haunting and home-spun, the band fashions a sonic landscape that uses an eclectic array of acoustic and traditional instruments all complemented by Nona Marie Invie’s singular voice.”

    Comment by Dennis James — September 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm

  3. Publisher’s note: Dennis James is perhaps the world’s preeminent theater organist specializing in historically informed scores for silent films.His Wiki is here:

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

  4. Thanks to Dennis for mentioning my work; I have the highest regard for his, and completely support the view of treating films as period pieces for the most part. That said, Shostakovich worked as a silent film pianist and his early score for NEW BABYLON is atypically jaunty and acerbic, and could have been written thirty years later.

    In February clarinetist/violinist David Tasgal and I performed an improvised score for NATHAN THE WISE at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, and I will be posting the audio on YouTube in a day or so. Stylistically it ranges from medieval sounds to more typical Hollywood symphonic music of the 20’s and 30’s. I realize there is an audience for rock score for old films, but they generally strike me, my wife, and our colleagues from Pordenone, as complete distractions from the film, and make them largely unwatchable. Maybe it’s a generational thing and for audiences that have grown up watching all sorts of visual accompaniment to rock on MTV, they accept it. But the point is that the esthetic of writing film music is that the music is the accompaniment, not the visuals.

    I just finished scoring some brand-new silent films by a young filmmaker from Mississippi, Rex Curry Harsin, one of which will be shown with my live accompaniment in Pordenone next month. Inasmuch as it takes place in Tupelo in 2010, I chose music which is both appropriate to the style of the film (slapstick) but with a contemporary feel.

    Comment by Donald Sosin — September 14, 2011 at 11:29 am

  5. The publisher, who is also the moderator of comments, has removed a post from Ari Leven because it did not originate from a verifiable email address. The comments on BMInt are moderated. Anonymous or pseudonymous posts are accepted, but posted comments must come from working email addresses.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 14, 2011 at 8:05 pm

  6. Lee has given an interesting lecture on his personal narrow view concerning scoring for silent film and has given vent to an apparent mounting irritation on the matter. Unfortunately he hasn’t reviewed the film, the score or the performance. The placement of this column in the review section is misguided.

    Comment by scot — September 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm

  7. Thanks for the review of this film and, particularly, its music. Composers who worked in film music in the silent film days treated the profession seriously — J.S. Zamecnik wrote that he felt after opera, film was the next logical step for classical composers, and wouldn’t Berlioz have loved writing for a medium large enough for his vision! Film music has not achieved the respect that other fields of classical music have (though it has made up for it in economic success), partly because it is generally seen as subservient to the film (in a way that ballet music is not generally thought of as subservient to the dancing). This was less-so during the silent era, where, with no dialogue or sound effects, the music was an equal partner with the film.

    Still, a revival of a silent film should be primarily about the film, not about the musicians. If you can’t forget that the musicians are there, and immerse yourself in the story and emotions that the film is intending to put across, the musicians have failed.

    There are several challenges to modern composers scoring silent films. One is the amount of time required to compose a score for an entire film, for what may be a relatively short number of performances (though Donald Sosin is one of several people doing excellent work in this vein). But if you write a good score for a powerful film, that can work to your advantage. Richard Einhorn has received many more performances of his “Voices of Light” cantata, designed to be performed with the Carl Dreyer silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” than he has received of his other work.

    The other, and perhaps less obvious challenge, is that modern composers are expected to write “serious” music, and many movies (or at least scenes in them) call for silly, light, or popular music; and while writing a new Charleston to go with a dance sequence, or a frilly piece to ironically comment on an upper-class tea party, is not beyond the abilities of a modern composer; sometimes it’s beyond what they’re willing to be on record as having composed. Also, because of the amount of music required, some composers asked to score silent films will re-purpose pieces they’ve composed in the past, which may or may not be suitable for the film in question.

    The German composers during the silent era were granted a fair amount of time and budget to write their big scores, but the same was not true in America. Most scores here were of necessity “compiled” from pre-written music, of which large libraries were published by the major publishing companies. Some of this music was the classical repertoire adapted for the theater orchestra, but much of it was specially-composed film music. It is much quicker to assemble a score from these pre-written, pre-orchestrated building blocks than to compose it from scratch.

    An interesting project was undertaken recently to reconstruct J.S. Zamecnik’s score for Wings, the film that won the first best picture Academy Award. The recreated score was recently recorded by Hollywood film musicians, and is planned for a future DVD release. This score is partly specially composed music by Zamecnik, but incorporated pre-written music for scenes where he felt new music wasn’t justified, given that he had less than four weeks to compose the entire score for an over two-hour long film. Interestingly, it was these interpolations that caused problems for the recreators, since some of those pieces are still under copyright, and the current owners wanted astronomical licensing fees. It turned out to be cheaper to have a composer write new music in a similar vein than to license the original compositions.

    My group, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, is fortunate to have a large library of this hard-to-find silent film compiling music, and if necessary we can assemble a new film score in a matter of days (though we prefer longer lead times). And we know that it will sound appropriately “period” for the film, since the music was written explicitly for that purpose. We have no problem with scenes requiring foxtrots, or light, dippy music; I’ve got hours’ worth of that! Our problems arise when we get an unusual scene for which we can’t find exactly the right piece of music in the repertoire; but that problem arises less often than you might think. For instance, in scoring Nathan der Wiese, we’d be hard pressed to find much ethnic Jewish-sounding music once we’d exhausted the aria from La Juive and the Hatikva, which are some of the only such pieces in our collection. On the other hand, music for scoring films with Native Americans is remarkably plentiful, as well as what I call “orientalia,” the European take on what Arabic and middle-eastern music ought be like.

    Comment by Rodney Sauer — September 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm

  8. Just curious, but did any of the commenters above actually see and hear the Coolidge Corner event on 9/11/11? If not, once again, the criticisms aren’t so much about this particular work but instead of a genre. Last Sunday was not a rock concert nor a jazz fest but a viewing of an excellent silent film with compelling music to boot. I’m not one to argue personal taste–to each his/her own–but the onslaught of conservatism is quite alarming. We can agree to disagree but to call a score “unsophisticated” or an “abhorrent trend” simply because it doesn’t match your liking is unfair. The music was not about “attracting a younger audience” but about using a modern language.

    Comment by Sarah — September 17, 2011 at 11:12 pm

  9. I would like to sincerely thank Lee Eiseman for attending the performance of Nathan der Weise. When we first spoke he expressed his preference for traditional soundtracks for silent film vs. contemporary.  Instrumentation alone for this project would dictate a nontraditional approach and as we spoke further I told him that the score would be using styles and sounds post 1950.  The sound world would include noise music which is about as non-traditional as it gets so I applaud Mr. Eiseman for coming to the performance despite his personal preference.   

    In defense of my score for Nathan, I purposefully created a non-traditional score to tie in the importance of the theme of the film with the anniversary of 9/11. The entire project concluded with an entire week of discussions about the play, religious tolerance, and the relevance of the film’s themes today.  I wanted to expand on the historical relevance by creating a new work that could only fit with this film.  The project spans history by using a score from 2011, the film from 1922, based on a play written in 1789 which is based on historic events from the 12th c. This also goes further as the ‘ring parable’ dates to medieval time.  

    As personal taste, I prefer non-traditional sounds and unique approaches to music.  I feel that the lush orchestral scores for such films as ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Metropolis’, although beautiful, are cliche, uninventive and often interchangeable.  Ironic that many of these classic silent films were using cutting edge technology of the time but using musical and scoring techniques a century old.   In 1922 when ‘Nathan’ premiered, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was 9 years old. Charles Ives had composed three symphonies, Three Places in New England, the Unanswered Question, Concord Sonata, and Piano Trio  among many other works which changed the direction of music. So why did filmmakers (and current traditionalists) believe ‘of the period’ for film music to be antiquated techniques developed years prior to the films themselves?

    Comment by Aaron Trant — September 18, 2011 at 9:20 pm

  10. Responding to Aaron, I’m very glad I attended the show, and even more pleased that my comments inspired or provoked some interesting debate- some of a general philosophical nature and others in response to observed events.

    But I can’t let Aaron get away with his comments on Hugo Reisenfled’s compiled and original score for Murnau’s “Sunrise” To many minds “Sunrise” is the greatest of movies. In my opinion the score is also one of the greats for several reasons. First of all, it was absolutely cutting edge for its day, being one of the first Movietone (sound on film) synchronized feature scores and it included crowd voices, pig squealings and sound effects. And talk about Ives, well there is an extended carnival scene in which three different tunes are being played simultaneously by three different orchestras, with changes in balance reflecting the changes in camera angles. The way Riesenfeld used snippets from the classics to supplement his original material was extremely effective and evocative and absolutely emotionally telling in comic and tragic moments.

    The use of horn calls over an orchestral transcription of the Chopin second prelude to simulate the despairing cries of the bereft husband for his presumed drowned wife is the finest tone painting in cinema. And the Fox Movietone Orchestra was an absolutely first rate ensemble which could give many orchestra players of today lessons in how to play expressively. It would be hubris even to contemplate updating this perfect marriage of film and score.

    Finally, the mainstream 1920s movie-going public did not expect a Charles Ives score any more then a general audience now would expect Milton Babbit, though avant-garde films with scores to match certainly existed then for cognoscenti. My point is, then as now, score and film should work together. And when the directors’ intentions are known, then they should be respected.

    I liked much of the playing I heard last Sunday, but simply would have preferred it in a different context.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 18, 2011 at 11:18 pm

  11. It just occurred to me to wonder what happened in theaters which didn’t have a large orchestra. I mean, what would audiences have heard in Salem, Massachusetts, or Lebanon, New Hampshire, for example? What are the implications, if any, for authentic versus inauthentic accompaniment?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 19, 2011 at 10:41 am

  12. Organists or pianists in smaller theaters usually worked from cue sheets and compilations. See Rodney Sauer’s comment above. I’ve seen backstage in old theaters, bins of sheet music sorted by mood and purpose: love, death, comic, oriental, military, etc. Using cue sheets which circulated with the film prints, the performers could assemble scores quite easily.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 19, 2011 at 2:01 pm

  13. Live improvisation by Donald Sosin (keyboard) and David Tasgal (clarinet, violin) at the Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria NY on Feb. 6, 2011, accompanying the German silent film NATHAN DER WEISE.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 21, 2011 at 8:57 am

  14. How do you think that compares with what audiences would have heard in smaller theaters during the first run, and which is more “authentic?”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm

  15. And, Lee, if you consider either the organist or pianist working from cue sheets or the contemporary improvisation acceptable on principle, why not a newly composed score, on principle? (Of course, any of the three can be poorly done and not fit the movie, but that’s not a matter of principle.)

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 21, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  16. Joe-

    I’m not endorsing Donald Sosin’s improvisation- merely presenting it as a follow up to his comment, though I do find that Sosin has an emotional sensitivity to the film’s content and is of no definable historical period.

    My thinking about anachronisms in art bars shocking juxtapositions of old and new. A composer of today can certainly write a silent film accompaniment in a period correct style- or not. Updating Mozart is just as pointless and insulting as doing the same with a silent movie. High directorial or compositional conceits are both anathema.

    Interpretation is another matter- whether of the constitutional framers or the biblical patriarchs or the directors of silent films.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 21, 2011 at 7:16 pm

  17. I was at this performance, and I found the score to be very moving, thematically coherent and compellingly performed, despite its anachronism. Moreover, the score helped me to UNDERSTAND the action and the character relationships in the movie, which was much appreciated. The music served a real purpose, and it served it with distinction. I have no doubt that it would also be exciting to hear a different sort of score, perhaps one that would be more endorsed by Mr. Eiseman. In fact, I can imagine dozens of different approaches that I wouldn’t mind hearing (assuming they were done WELL), only some of which would likely fit Mr. Eiseman’s criteria. There is no reason why numerous interpretations of varying musicological “authenticity” can’t be appreciated, so long as one makes no false claim to authenticity. It is simply a matter of taste. I have no doubt that the historically informed approach advocated by commenter Dennis James is also worthwhile, but why must it be exclusionary?

    In my opinion, if in fact Mr. Eiseman shares Mr. James’ view that numerous other musicians who accompany silent films are “abhorrent,” including outstanding acts such as the Alloy Orchestra, then he is simply not very open-minded, and he is ruling out an awful lot of very worthwhile music. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Eiseman is up-front about his bias, but in this case it seems to rather defeat the purpose of writing the review.

    Finally, a practical observation: There seems to be a real resurgence of interest in live accompaniments to silent films right now, resulting in a lot of old films being seen by large audience. If one were to eliminate all of the musical acts that seem to provoke the outrage of Mr. James, might not that very resurgence be dead in the water?

    Comment by Curtis — September 23, 2011 at 11:03 am

  18. I plead guilty as charged for being a “non-denominational” crusader for fairness to silent films- I feel they need a defender. No one shows talkies with new sound tracks except perhaps in the case of “Dracula”, where Phillip Glass actually bought the rights. In that case there was no music originally on the soundtrack.

    So why must we condone the updating approach to silents?

    Should we have an Alloy Orchestra score for “Gone With the Wind” to help modern audiences grasp it and to mitigate the racism?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm

  19. Hi everybody, great debate. I stumbled on this searching for press for my group, the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, and was pretty psyched to find this debate here. It’s a debate I’ve been a part of a million times over the past few years, and I figure since my group got thrown in with other “abhorrent” acts doing non-period music, I could throw in my two cents.

    My main argument is kinda weird, but it’s that period music isn’t the same music it was then. That is, the Charleston you heard back in the 20s might have the exact same notes and the same instrumentation and be sonically the same in every way, but still it is a different piece of music today. Music is, was, and will always be embedded in culture, and as culture changes, the meanings of specific pieces of music change. The main reason my ensemble usually shies away from a strict period style is that in today’s culture a lot of the music of the tens and twenties immediately seems “Olde Fashioned.” That is, instead of carrying whatever popular or sentimental overtones it carried 90 years ago, it now mostly signifies “the roaring twenties.” To me, that can often be a distraction from the world of the film. When I see a film, I want to be engrossed in its world as a living thing, not as an outsider looking back into history. Therefore, when my ensemble composes our scores, we use music as it signifies in today’s culture. In doing so I feel like we are actually calling *less* attention to ourselves than if we were to take the period route. The very tone of a theatre organ in the wrong hands can immediately take a once engrossing film and turn it into a quaint historical oddity, because in our culture today when we hear, say, a diminished seventh chord on an organ we immediately think of a damsel in distress tied to a railroad track– an evocation not of the actual feelings of such a scene but of olde-timiness itself.

    This isn’t to say we won’t try to write a Straussian waltz or a medieval chant or something to fit the scene at hand. It isn’t a militant view about what accompaniment should be. Rather, we are always motivated by trying to write music that helps the viewer forget we are there, while also reflecting the themes, feelings, and to a lesser extent the actions of the film. And yes, my group always points to the idea that new scores bring new audiences to these films. I don’t see where the problem with that is, as long as the accompaniment is focused on the film and not the accompanists.

    And, lest I be put into a camp, I very much enjoy the period scores of organists or groups like Mont Alto as well. And though improvised scores can often be more miss than hit, I would never give up the moments of perfection I’ve witnessed over the hours of that sort of viewing. I guess I just judge each individual score by its own fidelity to the film, which does, I’m afraid, require actually hearing the music.

    Comment by Matt — September 24, 2011 at 8:40 pm

  20. I was thinking about this a bit more in relation to early sound films. If my argument is that music doesn’t signify the same way, then why should I be against replacing the actual recorded scores to movies from the 30s and 40s? Well, for one thing, if I have my history right, when movies started shipping with sound on the reel, it seems as though music became a much more important part of the package for the producers. Instead of sending some more generic cue sheets with the reels, they put up money for composers, arrangers, orchestras, recording engineers, and music editors. So one can perhaps assume that scores to early sound movies got all the attention and thought the film demanded, which as I have read was certainly not always the case with silent accompanists.

    But there’s something more to recorded sound for me. Recordings mark a time and place when the music was very much alive. In the grain of the recording, the buzz or hiss or crackle, or overall EQ spectrum that places the recording in history by its quality, we can hear backwards in time and feel the music as it lived for the performers, the composer, even the audience. The same music, re-performed today, often won’t sound as right. For this reason, I would never advocate re-scoring a sound film, or even re-recording the score with newer technology.

    A comparison: I recently saw a performer who played a sort of 20s-style jump blues set, singing with the style and declamation of a bygone era, playing a beat up guitar in exactly the style I’ve heard on old records. This performer dressed the part too, in old fashioned suspenders and bowler hat, pomade in his hair, and even his between-song banter was in the obsolete vernacular of a 1920s rambler. Now this guy is a really good, really talented musician, and if I heard the same songs he played on some old recordings I’d probably love them. On a recording the era comes alive, I can hear the world where the songs come from, and I know the performers were playing the honest music of their time. But when I see this guy today, it just seems schticky and turns me off. I can’t hear the music as alive. Rather, what I hear and see is a fetishization of history, a sort of dress-up game, something more like a civil war reenactment than a music concert. This fetishized history is often the byproduct of recreation or reenactment. I find the same thing in a lot of early music performance groups, where maybe they read somewhere that, say, 17th-century French harpsichord music is supposed to played with unequal eighth notes, and so then they take a nice melody and make it sound utterly bizarre by trying to incorporate nuances of taste we have no context to understand today.

    Now please don’t get me wrong, I actually like civil war reenactments, and love to hear stuff like ragtime piano concerts and the like. I’m just trying to demonstrate that some of us who write anachronistic scores have thought a lot about what it means, and write with principle and with respect to the film. And to point out that no act of a more fundamentalist recreation or reenactment can ever hope to fully capture its target, and can even sometimes stand in the way of an appreciation of the living dynamics of the very history it upholds.

    Comment by Matt — September 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm

  21. Matt-Thanks for your interesting and well stated thoughts. Yes overzealous reenacting or nostalgia for a vanished era can be an annoying compulsion.

    But when you said, “For this reason, I would never advocate re-scoring a sound film, or even re-recording the score with newer technology.”, I hope you were also referring to a film like Sunrise whose original sound on film score is unsurpassed- and one where various subsequent film scorers have ventured with dubious results.

    Would you have preferred hearing a modern performance of Honegger’s orchestral score for Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” to a more recently composed alternative by a lesser composer? Don’t you agree that the best silent films with the best period scores are a “Gesamtkunst?” (Is there a French equivalent?)

    Re-recording, on the other hand, sometimes works very well. Have a listen to Alexander Nevsky as an example. The original performance of the Prokofiev was certainly idiomatic, but atrociously recorded. I saw the film with the Boston Symphony playing live. It doesn’t get any better.

    Can we hear some examples of your “respectful” film scores?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm

  22. I played my “Phantom of the Opera” organ solo show last night in Baraboo, WI at the 1915 Al Ringling Theatre, featuring an original unmodified, preserved theater pipe organ, presented with a restored tinted plus Technicolor print shown at the historically correct speed and proper silent aperture. I played my realization for solo organ of the original, (published1925) G. Hinrichs and M. Winkler compilation-style orchestral score.

    The presentation in a preserved movie palace followed historical lineage presentation techniques reflected in use of theater’s lighting and show content that included period annunciator glass slide projections. There was a sizable a general audience of all ages. Apparently it was both relevant and acceptable to the younger generation- a local film professor brought a group of her undergraduate film studies students, and their aggregate response to the show, relayed to me by the professor after the show was, “That was better than spit!” Spoken with true enthusiasm.

    Comment by Dennis James — September 25, 2011 at 11:03 pm

  23. Lee,

    For sure I would count Sunrise as one not to mess with. Other weird early sound soundtracks too, like Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” the spookiness of which would be hard to match with any sort of music or dialog track. I must admit I’ve not seen “Napolean,” but I do like the Honegger I’ve heard, and would usually go with a great respected composer of the time when given a choice. I know Stravinsky and Schoenberg both dabbled in film music as well, I’d be interested to see/hear those results, and yes, I do think they were definitely going for something along the lines of a Gesamptkunstwerk.

    The re-recording issue is complicated, I don’t know exactly what I think about it. If the original is really badly performed or recorded, or if the music is timeless enough, I guess I can get behind it. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recently did a live soundtrack to Psycho I heard good things about.

    Also, I hope I didn’t sound too extreme about more historically minded performances. They can be great, too, and in some cases (e.g. a fox-trot dance scene in an Ernst Lubitsch film) period music is almost necessary to go with what’s happening on the screen.

    And since you ask, why yes, you can check out a bit of my ensemble’s work through our soon-to-be-a-lot-more-professional-looking website, as well as a few youtube uploads here:

    Comment by Matt — September 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm

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