IN: Reviews

The Sound of Silents


Tanglewood fellowship composers have once again provided scores for some part or parts of silent films. Linde Center Studio E hosted them on July 30th as a small orchestra underscored. Because the music must not only be composed, but also prepared in a full score for the conductor, and parts for the players, the project was started very early in the Tanglewood season, with Stefan Asbury and Michael Gandolfi leading the music preparation and consultation with Martin Marks, a scholar whose doctoral dissertation dealt with the music of silent films, and who has spent much of his career studying, playing, and writing about this once-significant repertory.

The newly scored films in previous years tended to take place after the Festival of Contemporary Music, but this year the program took on d a lively role near its end. Several composers took part in each film, dividing up their responsibilities by the number of minutes assigned to each. [BMInt has reviewed similar outings in which several Berklee College composers have share the scoring of a major silent film for presentation with orchestra HERE and HERE]. Often a visual image or an action might return, or develop farther along in the plot, and the theme that one composer created for an earlier moment might be just the thing to bring back, or develop, for a later moment.

This year’s three very different films totaled about an hour of running time. Each film was divided into segments assigned to the five composers taking part in the project: Gala Flagello, Jesse Jennings, Paul Kerekes, Annie Nikunen, and Daniel Zlatkin. Between the films an instrumental interlude connected the three films without intermission. The composers scored the films for a modest ensemble consisting of a string quartet (Tiffany Wee and Sage Park, violins; Elizabeth Doubrawa, viola; Benjamin Fryxell, cello; Domonique Kim, flute/piccolo;  Sangwon Lee ( clarinet/E-flat clarinet); Yibing Wang, percussion. Three conductors shared conducting responsibilities: Stefan Asbury and the two fellowship conductors of the summer, Armand Singh Birk and Agata Zajac.

The three films screened in reverse chronological order, from 1943 to 1920. Meshes of the Afternoon, written and directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, an oddly dreamlike film, silent, though made 15 years after sound became standard in the industry. Martin Marks suggested that the cost of adding a soundtrack either convinced them to leave the film without one, or possibly Deren hoped to get funding to add a music track at a later date, and it never happened. The lyrical imagery of a relaxed natural location, sunny landscape, flowing water, gently blowing leaves on the trees over its 14-minute length suggested a world of endlessly repeating tranquility. The score was composed by Paul Kerekes, Annie Nikunen, and Jesse Jennings, who also linked the close into the first interlude.

The considerably darker second film, an 11-minute depiction of tragedy behind the scenes in the film-making business: The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, written and directed by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić (1928), was assigned to Daniel Zlatkin and Jesse Jennings. Gala Flagello contributed the interlude linking to the final film, a comedy.

Agata Zajac conducts The Life and Death of 9413 at TMC Film Night (Hilary Scott photo)

The longest film of the evening (25 minutes) was a delicious comedy, One Week, written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton. The image of a hand tearing off a page of a desk calendar marked the days of the week at the beginning of a young couple’s married life. As soon as the wedding service is over, the bride and groom go to a vacant lot where the house they plan to live in will be built—but at the moment it is simply a series of cartons containing all the parts, ready to be assembled! (This scene recalls the days when Sears & Roebuck shipped prefabricated houses anywhere in the country.) The rest of the week depicts the stages of construction, each of which involves some kind of mishap, mounting to comic disaster. The length of the film gave each of the five composers a segment to write in a beautifully energetic, light-hearted score depicting the progressively more disastrous attempts to complete the building of the honeymoon cottage to that brought the evening to a happy close, Keaton’s brilliant comic imagination being superbly enhanced by the new score.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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  1. Meshes of the Afternoon was shown silent for only fifteen years. Maya Deren’s third husband Teiji Ito composed a score which they recorded in 1959 and all subsequent prints of the film have been sound prints. The Estate of Maya Deren is controlled by Teiji’s daughter Tavia Ito. Did Tanglewood not request permission from her for rescoring the film? How could Martin Marks not know about this?

    Comment by Pip Chodorov — August 12, 2023 at 7:15 am

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