“Silent film” is one of the great misnomers in common parlance. As film scholars including Rick Altman and Martin Marks have noted, due to the crucial importance of sound and music to the aesthetic experience of early film, silent film was anything but silent. Indeed, the first few decades of film saw viewers placed amidst a veritable cacophony of freshly composed music, individually tailored to films. Though many of the first film scores are sadly lost to time, documentary evidence (particularly, trade magazines) indicates that theater orchestras performed an eclectic array of musical styles, freely mixing high and low culture with an alacrity that might make a self-conscious postmodernist composer envious. The first film composers and performers created a legitimately new thing: a remarkably daring milieu predicated upon a complex integration of auditory and visual stimuli. And yet, this arranged marriage became so successful and integral to our reception of visual media that today’s Netflix bingers would find it as unremarkable as microwave popcorn.
How fascinating it is, then, to re-envision this aesthetic after a century’s perspective. On Sunday evening, the fresh-faced composers of the Tanglewood Music Center showcased new scores in a brief program of silent film snippets, all remarkably and industriously composed in under three weeks, at the newly opened Linde Center for Music and Learning.
The great challenge for any budding silent film composer lies in reckoning with a dizzying array of aesthetic choices. Does one attempt to mirror musical conventions of the era of the film, providing a historically-informed window into what audiences might have experienced, à la New England-based silent film organist Jeff Rapsis? Or, on the opposite extreme, composers might follow the model of jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who, in a series of music for Buster Keaton films during the mid-1990s, rejected any fear of anachronism by freely incorporating Americana-infused jazz that wouldn’t emerge until decades after the films. Does one line up music to action on the screen, or as in much opera, attempt to underscore or mirror emotional states of characters? Does one aim to create music that will be noticed by the audience, or ought it blend into the background? If composers for the original films integrated callouts to musical references of their day, should our composers incorporate music from today? Does new music for old silent films offer a legitimate new commercial opportunity for composers? Finally, isn’t new music for old films itself a new, legitimate, and self-contained genre that demands a fresh set of aesthetic criteria? I imagine these are the types of questions the project’s noted advisors, Grammy-nominated composer and head of the New England Conservatory composition program Michael Gandolfi and MIT Senior Lecturer and film scholar Marks, are encouraging these young composers to grapple with. [Ed. Note: The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra has also grappled with these questions. See HERE and HERE. And for a taste of a photoplay with the Gottfried Huppertz score composed (in three weeks) for its 1927 premiere, click HERE.]
The precocious TMC fellows found answers to these questions in their scores, performed admirably by a TMC fellow chamber orchestra conducted by Nathan Aspinall and Killian Farrell. Jack Frerer’s score for Buster Keaton’s classic 1924 film “Sherlock Jr.” melded an exuberant, jaunty mix of 19th-century classical, Copland-esque, and blues-toned themes, and included a shoutout to Brahms’s famous lullaby, provoking an audience giggle. Frerer’s delicious harp glissandos and deftly prepared moments of silence skillfully marked Keaton’s transference into the famous “film within a film” sequence. One did, however, wish for some musical acknowledgment of the poor violinist featured in the onstage band within the film, who simply sawed away unnoticed. A woman behind me exclaimed, “Fabulous!” at the scene’s conclusion.
Harriet Steinke’s score for the later “pool room” scene in Keaton’s film was mysterious, glacial, and dense, offering knotted woodwinds, harp pizzicati, and a distant sheen redolent of early 20th-century American exoticism. Steinke accompanied the entrance of the protagonist with a thickening of harmony in a manner that felt dark and onerous, and out of sync with Keaton’s blithe, vaudevillian sensibility.
While skilled orchestration is a hallmark of every one of these young composers, their mostly-shared stylistic language seems too embedded in the palette of the Second Viennese School and its heirs for these films. Schoenberg and Webern’s harmonically-complex, psycho-dramatic affect tends to overwhelm the sweet comic fragility of the famously deadpan Buster Keaton. Whereas Keaton is puckish and playful, much of the music sounded “learned,” and more often than not, the audience reacted to onscreen sight gags that the composers seemed uninterested in participating in or even acknowledging. Much of the evening’s music felt heavy and dense, too packed with orchestration tricks and self-conscious dissonances, making the few times the composers chose to lightly underscore a scene with a solo instrumental line clean, effective and evocative.
Not surprisingly, a darker compositional approach lent itself more naturally to the darker film excerpts. Ari Sussman’s disturbing, dreamlike opening for Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) felt a perfect match for Lang’s dystopic underground factory. Sussman set the mechanistic motions of the churning valves and pistons to a separate pulse, no less effective for being un-synced to the onscreen rhythms. A relentless and violently plucked bass and shrieking woodwind whistles mirrored the film’s rising thermometer, and when the machine finally broke down, slow descending gestures helped to paint a brutal portrait of impersonal, mechanized industrialization. However, given the close emotional ties between music and image that he had set up for the audience, Sussman’s incorporation of a calm, minimalist texture seemed at odds with the hallucinated terror of workers being tossed into Moloch’s fires like bits of coal, and while the terrifying machine lost steam, the music seemed to as well.
And yet, the most striking score and richest aesthetic integration of the evening came from Sussman’s music for Georges Méliès’ early silent film “The Mermaid” (1904). Evoking an aura of pointillistic early 20th -century French impressionism with a splash of Copland and John Adams, the composer deftly weaved sumptuous French horn lines over a soft tableau of woodwind and harp. Here, the non-narrative nature of Méliès’s famous film illusions lent itself to a simpler and more direct musical mirroring, and the music and images, though separated by over a century, seemed to magically emerge from the same cloth.
Sid Richardson’s sophisticated score for Keaton’s “Our Hospitality” (1923) took a few more risks, and seemed to get more of the jokes, than some of the others. While a young ingénue playing piano was briefly accompanied by “Home Sweet Home,” the antiquated comedy of a cross-dressing, horse-riding Keaton was accentuated with Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and the ensemble shouting out “Mercy!” The scene concluded with a nice triumphal button, a stylistic callback to one of the era’s common conventions, and one of the only I recall of the evening.
Lara Poe’s rich, knotty score for the infamous waterfall scene in Keaton’s same film steered initially toward the literal: a train whistle activated an orchestral crash, a violin smear accompanied a girl crying on screen, and running water was married to oscillating woodwinds. And yet while the audience shrieked with pleasure during Keaton’s extraordinary waterfall scene, the music, while deftly scored and imagined, seemed distant and unrelated.
Andrew Haig’s score for G. W. Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” (1929), starring early film star Louise Brooks, earned my blue ribbon. This score felt of a piece with the film, as it matched the on-screen flirtations with an intoxicating, delicious waltz that rather delightfully seemed to have no place to go. As Brooks’s Lulu enacted the memory of a dance, like one of Joyce’s Andalusian girls, the music seemed to fill in details lost to memory and a near century’s passage.
Uniformly fine statements came from these talented writers, each one technically adroit and with something interesting to say. And yet, my sense of the logical next step for these writers is to further immerse themselves in the language of silent film actors and directors, absorbing their in-many-cases highly musical nuances, and tailoring the music further to the unique cinematic language and rhythms of the filmmakers. A new and true integrated genre will require composers who while extending the musical language, still manage to meet the film on the film’s domain. Still, fans of the rich, rewarding unsilence of silent film have much to look forward to in the work of these emerging audiovisual visionaries.