Silent Film Music

Discuss films and filmmakers of the 20th century (and even a little of the 19th century). Threads may contain spoilers.
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Michael Kerpan
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#26 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Jan 15, 2006 2:32 pm

As Gregory says -- "silent films" is a misnomer. For all practical purposes, there was never such thing (except in exceptional cases). In fact, in Japan, there NEVER were film showings that did not have both music AND full spoken narration.

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david hare
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#27 Post by david hare » Sun Jan 15, 2006 5:30 pm

Certainly Greg - I'm well aware of the tradition of accompaniment throughout the silent era, but that isn't to say the music was always good, or appropriate.

As for Moroder - it's a totally hit and miss affair, yet oddly enough the Freddy Mercury "Here she Comes" strikes a bizarrely apposite note with Maria's first appearance. I was moved by it anyway, as I was to see this movie in a good 35mm print again. But obviously Hupperz is the man, and this rumored new score of his sounds intriguing. I don't mean to just ride Marty but he really should play the game.

Nobody has mentioned the fine Carl Davis scores for Turner, esp. The Wind (a birlliant piece of music) and The Crowd. Certainly orchestral scores for big pictures like this are ideal. But I really don't like scores (in silent or sound movies) that set out to fight the image (viz. Glass and Kundun, mentioned elsewhere.)

Schrecko, if I never hear another organ again I'll be a happy man. I was disabused of them at a young age. Paramount had a flagship 1920s movie palace in Sydney (demolished in the mid sixties) which roadshowed all their "A"list and Vistavision titles. I remember as a kid going to Saturday matinees at which an old tart called Maureen Hennessy (as in cognac) played organ medleys on a hydraulically elevated grand Wurly before the show. We used to pelt her from the balcony with candy, which was generally successful in shutting her up. There are still a couple of old cinemas doing this here with "classic" revival fare. The whole experience sounds hyper-camp. You wouldn't catch me there for quids.

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Gregory
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#28 Post by Gregory » Sun Jan 15, 2006 7:04 pm

davidhare wrote:Certainly Greg - I'm well aware of the tradition of accompaniment throughout the silent era, but that isn't to say the music was always good, or appropriate.
Wha? I know you're aware of that, but marty doesn't seem to be and it seemed a major omission in the response to him. I thought that was clear enough.
Anyway, carry on. Has anyone seen really interesting live musical accompaniment for silent films? I'm pretty inexperienced in that, unfortunately, but years ago I did see Newband perform a wonderful score for The Last Laugh orchestrated for intstruments invented by the great Harry Partch. It would be great to see more concert/screenings along those lines.

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#29 Post by ben d banana » Sun Jan 15, 2006 7:33 pm

davidhare wrote:There are still a couple of old cinemas doing this here with "classic" revival fare. The whole experience sounds hyper-camp. You wouldn't catch me there for quids.
It doesn't sound like your across the world trips bring you to San Francisco, but I guess you're going to have to avoid The Castro, oddly enough.

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#30 Post by zedz » Sun Jan 15, 2006 7:39 pm

The Partch-esque accompaniment sounds intriguing. After all this time, I just take everything on a case by case basis, having encountered radical, anachronistic accompaniments that fitted films beautifully and strictly historically accurate scores that bled all the life out of them.

I think it's also the case that, when you've seen a film several times and with several different settings, it's easier to ride with the idiosyncracies of a particular rendition. So, seeing the Alloy Orchestra doing Man with a Movie Camera was terrific, and I actually got more out of the film that particular time than ever before. However, when I saw their presentation of Lonesome, it was my first encounter with the film, and I found it much harder to focus on the film itself (so I saw it again, and was able to enjoy both film and accompaniment much more the second time around).

I think good rules of thumb for DVD releases would be that if you're only offered one soundtrack, it shouldn't be an intrusive, unsympathetic, anachronistic one, and if the original score is available, that should be your first choice. In a lot of cases striving for authenticity is futile: original scores have been lost, and the majority of viewers probably didn't see the film with its original score on initial release.

In my opinion, any accompaniment, even a really bad one, is better than none. Watching a film in complete silence, as Brakhage and Dorsky have realised, is a completely different aesthetic experience to watching one with sound, and it's the one mode of presentation that we know the director did not intend. My other pet hate is the stripping of the soundtrack from a sound film for the sake of creating an 'accompaniable' artefact, as is so often done with City Lights. I've also seen this done to Len Lye's films, most of which were created to accompany and illustrate specific pieces of music. There are plenty of fantastic silent films out there without creating new ones.

Some particularly fond memories are a great piano-and-percussion accompaniment for Nosferatu and the full-on Shostakovich New Babylon (though this is a case where the original score comes very close to overshadowing the movie).

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#31 Post by david hare » Sun Jan 15, 2006 8:15 pm

Ben, quite familiar with the Castro, but haven't been back to the States in yonks. Last time I was in SF Folsom Street was still leather central. Now I gather it's boutique central. Paris or bust these days.

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Rufus T. Firefly
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#32 Post by Rufus T. Firefly » Sun Jan 15, 2006 10:04 pm

Some ramblings with no particular point in mind:

Surely Marty was just being ironic/sarcastic. Not only were silents almost invariably accompanied by music, but music was played on the set to get the actors in the right mood. Watching any silent film without music is unidiomatic, and most silent films are excruciating without sound anyway.

I agree that the Alloy Orchestra are almost always terrible, though their score for Strike seems to work well. Their accompaniments to the Keaton films are awful. I also note their leader's unrepentant attitude towards their approach - criticism of their work on the silent movies newsgroup usually results in an indignant response of the "I'm an artist, you're not" variety.

For me the criteria for a good score is that it does not draw too much attention to itself and/or that it enhances the viewing experience. It does not need to be of the era of the movie or based on music of the period. For example I think that Carl Davis's score for Ben Hur is one of the best ever written, even if it dates from decades after the film. I find it heightens my emotional response to the story without distracting me from it. On the other hand I could not imagine the need for new scores to Die Nibelungen and Metropolis to replace the fine ones by Huppertz. However we are always going to need new scores to be created for silents, as the bulk of them did not have specially composed scores and often the scores haven't survived. On that basis I have no issue with DVD releases with both old and new scores on them, as it keeps silent film composers in business.

One modern composer not mentioned in this thread yet (unless I missed it) is Maria Newman, who wrote an abysmal chamber ensemble score for a Mary Pickford film on DVD - one set in Italy during WWI, can't quite remember the name of it. I've heard reports of even worse scores that she has "created", which I find difficult to imagine based on what I have already heard.

I don't mind organ scores though. Gaylord Carter did some fine ones, such as on the original DVD of The Thief of Bagdad which utilised themes from Scheherezade. I've heard some good piano scores by Neil Brand (e.g. on the Bauer films) and Jon Mirsalis, and some not so good ones by Mirsalis and Robert Israel as others have noted here.

Also worthy of mention is the use of public domain recordings to accompany silents, as is done on most of Grapevine Video's offerings. They tend to have much the same music on each release. I gather that smaller cinemas in the silent era often did exactly this, playing gramophone recordings of music instead of having live accompaniment. However I find this approach rarely works well in anything but comedies.

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#33 Post by HerrSchreck » Mon Jan 16, 2006 2:54 am

dmkb wrote: For some reason, I'm reminded of a film prof of mine who once played Frank Sinatra over Eisenstein's October in a silent film class -- "Oh the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear...." (:shock:).

I do hear what you're saying about the music being "right," but isn't the sound (i.e. the instrument[s] chosen) part of that? Robin Hood is a good example. Even though Beheim is working from the original score, the synthesizer puts its themes over with a dull, metallic sound that reminds me of early videogame music or .wav clips created on synthesizers.

So I think even though the music itself may fit a given film, synthesizers generally (but not always) lack the emotion and/or depth of a piano or an ORGAN (emphasis added for David). What you said about the adventure films, reminds me of William Perry's piano accompaniments (surviving mostly on the Killiam collection films) which work far more effectively for me in creating a light, fond mood even though they weren't based on the original scores. (The Iron Mask for example).

What did you think of the score for Die Nibelugen This one hurts because I really like the score but the sound distortion (willing to bet this is the result of their chronically poor PAL-NTSC conversions) ruins it... I'm looking forward to MoC's new version so I can say goodbye to the Kino disc.


PS, the Shepard version of The Black Pirate wasn't accompanied by a synth but a small ensemble conducted by Robert Israel. I have fond memories of watching them record that session in 1996.
When you're wrong you're wrong-- and I'd guess I'm misremembering the BLACK PIRATE. Sad thing is I own it too-- own so many films I get a little mixed up. I haven't gotten back home to check yet (been at old lady's apt since Fri) but I'm almost positive there's another Beheim Fairbanks score aside from Robin Hood-- Three Musketeers maybe (how's that for an entertaining film? I always think of Samurai pictures [I know he was an influence on the Japanese to at least some degree, and at least by proxy for Kurosawa, whose brother narrated the translations], the way Fairbanks would so meticulously rehearse the fights... and use real swords. Like watching the finest ballet, only hi-risk. I love the outtakes on PIRATE, where you see 'banks getting cut by his opponent's sword... and looking none to fucking happy about it.)

As to your comments-- well, yeah. I'm qualifying my statements about Beheim & his cheap analog synth by saying he's the more tolerable of a shoddy lot... because whereas some ahem "composers" use clunky anaolg synths AND play (what registers in my head as) absolute slop having no connection to the action onscreen, and the era from which it arose, Beheim is only guilty of one of these sins, and the far lesser one at that. At least he's playing the right music. Silent film music will always be a bleak terrain as far as production budgets go, and I've accepted this sad fact years ago. The days of the omnipresent orchestra, even for the smallest radio jingles & cartoons, are long gone.

One thing I don't understand about Beheim-- why these cheap late-70's/early 80's analog synth simulations of orchestral sounds, whereas actual orchestras can be skillfully reproduced with a true digital synth? If you've heard the Warner/TCM Chaney collection set, and listen to the score for ACE OF HEARTS (and I think LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH as well), you've got scores written by young aspiring musicians who entered their compositions into a TCM scoring contest... and scored full orchestra on digital synth. The technology advanced long ago to where the average non-musician listener will never know the dif. Sampled orchestras are such old news (the computer/keyboard/sequencer rigs available at reasonable prices at least since mid-80's) that I can't believe that guys like Sosin (NOSFERATU, CALIGARI's alternate track) and Beheim (all he ever uses is these cheesy late 70's-era analog voices, whereas Sosin at least sometimes-- see SPIONE, KING of KINGS-- uses sampled orchestral voices) use these voices as actual substitutes for an orchestra. Some guys fall in the middle and mix it up with sampled voices and purely synthetic analog voices (a la Turrin on his INTOLERANCE score for Kino... which by the way is by far the defenitive presentation of this film).

The distortion bugs the hell oout of me in NIBELUNGEN, incidentally. Unforgiveable. Bret Wood stunned me in an interview where he said that using un-preconverted PAL masters in NTSC makes no difference whatsoever and the only way you'd even detect the issue is when you freeze frames.

One thing, btw, that always drove me NUTS on the Israel recordings with his small ensemble (i e MABUSE SPIELER, VAMPIRES... and even his solo piano, i e ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL) is the man has no conception of sound design-- the recordings sound like they were recorded in a tiny concrete room with the mic running straight into the board with no reverb whatsoever. Orchestral music derives a sense of majesty via the sense of playing in a large space, which is why you'll hear reverb-- plate or spring or digital-- on most recordings made in a dead, confined space. It's the most basic professional idea, and it's testament to a very amateur ear that he listened to those recordings and say "sounds good to me Shepard-- send it in."

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#34 Post by HerrSchreck » Mon Jan 16, 2006 3:31 am

davidhare wrote: But obviously Hupperz is the man, and this rumored new score of his sounds intriguing. I don't mean to just ride Marty but he really should play the game.

Nobody has mentioned the fine Carl Davis scores for Turner, esp. The Wind (a birlliant piece of music) and The Crowd. Certainly orchestral scores for big pictures like this are ideal. But I really don't like scores (in silent or sound movies) that set out to fight the image (viz. Glass and Kundun, mentioned elsewhere.)

Schrecko, if I never hear another organ again I'll be a happy man. I was disabused of them at a young age. Paramount had a flagship 1920s movie palace in Sydney (demolished in the mid sixties) which roadshowed all their "A"list and Vistavision titles. I remember as a kid going to Saturday matinees at which an old tart called Maureen Hennessy (as in cognac) played organ medleys on a hydraulically elevated grand Wurly before the show. We used to pelt her from the balcony with candy, which was generally successful in shutting her up. There are still a couple of old cinemas doing this here with "classic" revival fare. The whole experience sounds hyper-camp. You wouldn't catch me there for quids.
I'm pretty sure I did mention Carl Davis. His rendition of Rabaud's original score for THE CHESS PLAYER was about as fine a full-orchestral revisitation-revival of an old original silent score as one can hope for-- absolutely fucking GLORIOUS. Every once & awhile you get scores to silent films you've never seen before (CHESS PLAYER was never released in the US, even originally) which are so excellent that it's a double-discovery. As well this are Davis' his work on the Lloyd's & Chaplins. Another nice score is Adrian Johnston's score for Anointe's LA TERRE. I'd say the group that seems to me to be consistently getting it Quite Right is the BFI-- I have most of Milestone's releases of absolutely fantastic BFI projects... CHESS PLAYER (transfer could be better though), HINDLE WAKES, YEVGENI BAUER, PICCADILLY (the score works ok for me but not as crazy about this one as you dave... something blank & self-consciously repetitive), LA TERRE, I believe SPARROWS has a decent Carter organ score... need to go gome and check the disc) and assume that all these scores were selected by the BFI and part of the masters licensed by MILESTONE. Most of their silent scores I've acquired are right on the money, and never irritating a la Zoyd.

Along a different line, among the sonorized silent films like MAN WHO LAUGHS, TABU, SUNRISE, KING OF KINGS, etc, I'd have to say Hugo Reisenfeld impresses me. I've owned the Fox SUNRISE disc since it became available (became an um 'reviewer' to skoink a copy, first & last time I've ever done such a thing... the release was just too important to play the buy four, send proof of purchase and sit and wait nonsense), and still have not gotten around to listening to the Brock score... and I admire Brock quite a lot!

Another early composer whose work I really admire is Wolfgang Zeller-- I love the VAMPYR score... as well as Pabst's MISTRESS OF ATLANTIS. His music is so utterly unique, moody, and highly exotic.

Here's a bizarro American rarity by Pabst I have a pretty decent VHS master of which I have my doubts will ever make it out on DVD, and am curious if anyone here has seen it: A MODERN HERO.

marty

#35 Post by marty » Mon Jan 16, 2006 3:39 am

Rufus T. Firefly wrote:Surely Marty was just being ironic/sarcastic.
Thanks Rufus. =D>

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#36 Post by david hare » Mon Jan 16, 2006 3:42 am

Maybe but it comes across as juvenile.

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#37 Post by HerrSchreck » Mon Jan 16, 2006 4:16 am

zedz wrote:In a lot of cases striving for authenticity is futile: original scores have been lost, and the majority of viewers probably didn't see the film with its original score on initial release.
Where did you hear this idea, zedz? I've never come across this before in my (naturally incomplete, thus my interest in this) research on silent film. I mean, going all the way back to the Edison company, producers provided exhibitors complete preprinted promotional packages, marketing paraphanalia, mechanicals for program handouts, with elaborate plot renderings and cast/scene photos, lobby cards, etc, even for their one/two reelers... this went double if it was considered a plum release that operated as a real calling card of quality, so to speak, to stick in the head of the veiwer & distributor... as competition for selling reels even in the very earliest days was feirce.

The practice of writing music for full blown silent features (which of course were marketed even more strenuously to exhibitors with vast increases in budgets/means as the films went up over 4-5 reels and their own budgets exponentially increased as means evolved) was important for studios, as it had a marketing tie in in which additional revenue was generated: the selling of piano sheet music for A Signature Song-- placed somewhere in the film, maybe just before or after, or both-- to the everyday consumer, exactly the way film soundtrack albums are sold today. The sheet music came out at the same time as the film, rode the release bubble (just like KING KONG lotteries & Burger King action figures today) to maximize exposure and sales of sheets (which usually had the film poster, or star photo with the fillm logo, on the cover sheet)... The songs had their little moment in the sun just the same as today, being sung in saloons & parlors & family get-togethers with little Agatha showing off her piano lesson-progress while the family gathered round after dinner & cognac and sung to her awkward plunkings. Therefore it was critical for cinemas to play the cue sheets provided by the studios, for the studios' investment in the manufacturing and delivery to all exhibitors of both their sheet music cue dupes for the whole film as well as the consumer sheet music for "flagship songs" (i e. "Broken Blossoms" from the 1919 film of the same name, and "When Love Comes Stealing" from THE MAN WHO LAUGHS in 1928)... and of course cover costs for hiring songwriters.

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#38 Post by HerrSchreck » Mon Jan 16, 2006 4:26 am

marty wrote:
Rufus T. Firefly wrote:Surely Marty was just being ironic/sarcastic.
Thanks Rufus. =D>
I think Rufus--to his credit-- was simply being generous to a fellow Aus.

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#39 Post by tryavna » Mon Jan 16, 2006 11:07 am

HerrSchreck wrote:you've got scores written by young aspiring musicians who entered their compositions into a TCM scoring contest... and scored full orchestra on digital synth.
Interesting that Schreck brought this up in passing, as nobody else had mentioned it yet. What do people think of these "young composer" scores that TCM sponsors? Personally, I think they're pretty decent. The fact that older, experienced composers like Elmer Bernstein have served as advisors helps a lot, I'm sure. I just sometimes wish that TCM were looking for <ahem> better movies rather than some of the more sentimental ones they have been using.

Incidentally, TCM will be premiering this year's "young composer" movie later this month.

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#40 Post by htdm » Mon Jan 16, 2006 2:26 pm

I found them to be generally good as well.

There have been exceptions though and, correct me if I'm wrong, wasn't Maria Newman a Young Film Composer selection? (I may have that wrong --I know she is Alfred's daughter which probably means wouldn't need the competition) Her score for Mr. Wu was perfectly awful -- aiming for stereotype over atmosphere, constantly overpowering the image, and just plain hard on the ears -- and it set off a cycle of deservedly negative posts over on the silent film newsgroup. But for every Newman, there have been many genuinely enjoyable scores.

I imagine that this competition must be difficult for the composers. On the one hand, they want to use this as an opportunity to do something more than simply turn in a seamless accompaniment. But at the same time, the better ones realize that their score must balance their artistic interpretation with expectations about silent film accompaniment in general as well as show sensitivity to the film.

The score for Camille was a good balance I found as was that for Laugh, Clown, Laugh (I was relieved that he didn't rely on the title song as I've heard others do, but surprised that he didn't even use it at all).

As for the program itself, I can't praise TCM highly enough for thinking of such a creative way to provide new scores for films that are languishing in their vaults with an opportunity for new musicians to reach a wider audience. I think this is a huge contribution to keeping interest in silent film alive.

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#41 Post by djali999 » Mon Jan 16, 2006 4:17 pm

The TCM Young Composers stuff often turns good results, I was especially pleased with The Cameraman and The Unknown from them. I can't deny I was somewhat disappointed at the announcement of the next TCM Archives being Laurel & Hardy, but pickers can't be choosers.

Some disorganized thoughts on silent film music:

The worst, by far the WORST original effort I've run into in creating a new soundtrack to a classic silent is the Kino disc of The Penalty - it's been touched on before in this thread but suffice to say it's distracting to the point of madness. Let's not forget that this, too, samples voice tracks... various shrieks, whining voices, and at one point what sounds like a, I kid you not, evil laugh from Doom II. The quality and superb lunacy of the film more than supports itself in such poor company, and the disc itself is well done, but damn if that isn't a significant blemish.

The absolute other extreme end of the spectrum is Carl Davis' work for Phantom of the Opera - like the film it sometimes plays right over the top and, like the film, this is weirdly arresting and entrancing. I especially approve of the union between image and music in the rooftop scene on Image's DVD, with the newly restored color tints... the wide shot of the Phantom's red cloak billowing in the wind as Davis' score thunders in the background gives me chills.

Nosferatu is a frustrating case. The image quality of Kino's DVD is excellent but it's impossible to enjoy the film with the provided soundtracks. I kept and find myself returning to Image's second DVD, which may not be great but at least allows me to sink into the atmosphere of the film. Schrek noted something interesting that I find especially true about Nosferatu: the older and more incomplete the thing looks the more weirdly engaging it is. For what it's worth I much prefer the unrestored Image version, with semi-incomplete title cards and characters that float in and out like a dream. Kino's restored version just explains too much of the mystery out of the film.

One score I like which is practically universally despised is the Club Foot Orchestra on Sherlock, Jr. Although I admit preferable accompaniment is easy to image in this case, it tends to avoid adding fakey "zips" to a lot of the jokes and really gracefully slides though that brilliant billiard-balls scene, which plays exactly as it should: suspenseful and hilarious. Generally the Keaton scores are pretty good, although many of them try too hard to add little percussive sounds every time the man performs a pratfall.

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#42 Post by zedz » Mon Jan 16, 2006 4:58 pm

HerrSchreck wrote:
zedz wrote:the majority of viewers probably didn't see the film with its original score on initial release.
Where did you hear this idea, zedz? I've never come across this before in my (naturally incomplete, thus my interest in this) research on silent film.
My understanding is that in many cases the official scores for big films would often be played at premiere engagements and then sit on the shelf (or disappear completely). A lot of cinemas wouldn't have the musical resources to deliver an orchestral score and would rely on an organist or pianist to semi-improvise an accompaniment based on well-known tunes, books of themes and a loose cue sheet (e.g. Ballroom scene - Blue Danube Waltz; Romantic Interlude). Many modern accompanists to silent films do the same thing. A signature song of the sort you mention would have been part of the mix (such as 'Always' in Lonesome), but it's a big leap from a signature song to a composed score. The organist at the local theatre wasn't learning several new symphony-length compositions every week.

There are several examples that spring to mind. I believe the Shostakovich score for New Babylon was only performed a couple of times (disastrously) when the film was originally released, and only rediscovered much later, with its kinks only finally ironed out in the last few years. The Criterion release of Haxan, as I recall, relates a similar story of early abandonment of the original score.

Big Hollywood productions certainly produced, and enthusiastically promoted, original scores for their films, but then, as now, big Hollywood productions were in the minority, and a lot of silent films didn't, to my knowledge, indulge in the extravagant expense of a bespoke score. The original accompaniment for many of these films was more likely to be one of those semi-improvised, semi-generic accompaniments mentioned above.

EDIT: Here's wikipedia on the differences between and relative popularity of Improvised, Compiled, and Composed scores in the silent era. This suggests that Cue Sheets were aimed at perhaps 25% of cinemas and their actual usage was haphazard at best.

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#43 Post by viciousliar » Mon Jan 16, 2006 5:17 pm

You're so wonderfully down-to-earth, Gregory. Calm, collected and very bright. Not to mention benevolent. You're a great asset to this forum.

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#44 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Jan 16, 2006 8:02 pm

The kinks in "Last Babylon" were due mainly to political censorship. Because of the very careful relationship between the score and the film (contrapuntal -- as opposed to mere "accompaniment) -- any slashes also impacted the coordination of image and sound.

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#45 Post by unclehulot » Mon Jan 16, 2006 9:17 pm

zedz wrote: The Criterion release of Haxan, as I recall, relates a similar story of early abandonment of the original score.
Ah, but here's the problem with many "original" scores, they're often quickly assembled hodge-podges better forgotten! Perhaps a better case can be made for it than Gillian Anderson's lazy effort at reconstructing this one ....when the composition (basically ONE for each reel) is done, she simply starts over. There's nothing remotely scene-specific in this approach, even if one prefers a different approach. The music the original "composer" selected is hardly inspired either.

Sure, there are some wonderful original composed scores, but the art in breathing life into many of these (many are merely cue sheets) is the manner in which they are woven into the performer's approach to performing a score. A FANTASTIC example is the Milestone disc of "The Adventures of Prince Achmed". I've seen the score to it, and it's wonderful music, but requires a MAJOR effort at editing to make it synch....much of the score has to be left out, or it would have to have been played at unidiomatic tempi.

By the way, another wonderful original score, marvellously played and synched is included on the French Gaumont DVD of L'Herbier's "El Dorado", composed by Marius-Francois Gaillard, a name otherwise unknown to me.
Last edited by unclehulot on Mon Jan 16, 2006 9:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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zedz
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#46 Post by zedz » Mon Jan 16, 2006 9:20 pm

unclehulot wrote:
zedz wrote: The Criterion release of Haxan, as I recall, relates a similar story of early abandonment of the original score.
Ah, but here's the problem with many "original" scores, they're quickly assembled hodge-podges!
Which was the other point I was making. Oh well: swings and roundabouts.

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#47 Post by Alonzo the Armless » Wed Jan 18, 2006 4:06 pm

Well, here's one person who loves the Alloy Orchestra and the scores they did for silent films. I have no problem what kind of percussion they use, as long as they set the right mood for the scenes being shown. I admit I enjoy seeing them perform live with a film, but I still think their music works well on DVD.
Should STRIKE, UNKNOWN & Image's MAN W MOVIE CAMERA (though still better than Kino's Nyman edition) really have heavy rock drum solos with constant leaning on a swish cymbal (technical name for the cymbal he always hits which sounds like a garbage lid)?
If it works in setting the right mood, than, hell, yeah! Just because those sort of instruments weren't used at the time the story takes place doesn't mean that they don't convey the atmosphere of what you're watching onscreen. The music is stirring and rousing when needed and sad and melancholoy at the proper moments. The Alloy also has a sense of humor about them in their choice of instruments like toy whistles, which work perfectly in silent comedies.

I've always looked forward to the Alloy visiting Detroit and have introduced a few people (including my 8 year old nephew) to silent film that had never seen them before. They all fell in love with the movies and gave me the impression that the Alloy Orchestra had a lot to do with it.

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#48 Post by HerrSchreck » Mon Jan 23, 2006 2:55 am

zedz wrote:My understanding is that in many cases the official scores for big films would often be played at premiere engagements and then sit on the shelf (or disappear completely). A lot of cinemas wouldn't have the musical resources to deliver an orchestral score and would rely on an organist or pianist to semi-improvise an accompaniment based on well-known tunes, books of themes and a loose cue sheet (e.g. Ballroom scene - Blue Danube Waltz; Romantic Interlude). Many modern accompanists to silent films do the same thing. A signature song of the sort you mention would have been part of the mix (such as 'Always' in Lonesome), but it's a big leap from a signature song to a composed score. The organist at the local theatre wasn't learning several new symphony-length compositions every week.

Big Hollywood productions certainly produced, and enthusiastically promoted, original scores for their films, but then, as now, big Hollywood productions were in the minority, and a lot of silent films didn't, to my knowledge, indulge in the extravagant expense of a bespoke score. The original accompaniment for many of these films was more likely to be one of those semi-improvised, semi-generic accompaniments mentioned above.
Of course only large cinemas in the silent era provided full orchestra accompaniment-- they were of course the minority. And absolutely, even a mid-20's Fairbanks big budget all-cylinders turning blockbuster would go out with two types of sheet music, one with an orchestral score for NY/Chicago/LA, etc./major European cinema venues (still the minority in those cities, you're absolutely right), and the piano-organ cue sheets for the rest of the world. And you're absolutely right that the former was the form of supplied sheet music that was a full-blown original "score" in the true sense of the word, while the majority of supplied paino/organ sheet music was a mixture of some original figures mixed with a hodgepodge of "sound-effects" ie piano notes mimicking doorbells, suspense to match onscreen action (music cues noting "catch" this or "catch" that), and a general filler soup of musical references from contemporary tunes & classics that the studio felt matched the feel of the film.

One thing: I seriously doubt that most of these guys playing piano were "learning/rehearsing" anything. If they could not go in with little rehearsal and play their cue-sheets by sightreading (like many professional studio musicians do today for the lighter side of jingle work), chances are they couldn't handle the job to begin with. The amount of material coming weekly precluded memorization. So that was not a point I'd ever tie to my inquiry.

But I don't know that most paid accompanists discarded the sheet music provided to them, for first run features in particular-- regardless of what the original-music-to-existing-figures percentile was on the sheet music itself. Following the cues provided allowed them to anticipate action onscreen and provide dynamic counterpoints & sound-effects, and taking the liberty of ignoring the sheet music and dooing your own thing could suck a lot of the liveliness out of the film for the audience, especially during the first few screenings of the film where the player hadn't seen the film yet and had no idea what was coming (which would allow him to correspond to/anticipate action onscreen). We all here are complaining about bad accompaniment because we know how it can interfere with your digestion of a silent film.

Which was why I was interested in hearing about that-- it would be a sustantial liberty taken by the accompanist, a replaceable schmo with a job description who is essentially being paid by the studios (via the trickle-down of exhibition profits) to play what he's told. It was a stricter job with existing parameters versus what we're used to today when we sit down & listen to Don Sosin in MoMa do whatever he feels like becuase he's A Silent Music Expert. Back then it was a clearly defined job, very much so when running first run features with sheet music and a large studio investment needing recoup. I wonder how much effort was put by the studios into making sure their sheets were being followed.
Alonzo the Armless wrote:Well, here's one person who loves the Alloy Orchestra and the scores they did for silent films. I have no problem what kind of percussion they use, as long as they set the right mood for the scenes being shown. I admit I enjoy seeing them perform live with a film, but I still think their music works well on DVD.
Should STRIKE, UNKNOWN & Image's MAN W MOVIE CAMERA (though still better than Kino's Nyman edition) really have heavy rock drum solos with constant leaning on a swish cymbal (technical name for the cymbal he always hits which sounds like a garbage lid)?
If it works in setting the right mood, than, hell, yeah! Just because those sort of instruments weren't used at the time the story takes place doesn't mean that they don't convey the atmosphere of what you're watching onscreen. The music is stirring and rousing when needed and sad and melancholoy at the proper moments. The Alloy also has a sense of humor about them in their choice of instruments like toy whistles, which work perfectly in silent comedies.

I've always looked forward to the Alloy visiting Detroit and have introduced a few people (including my 8 year old nephew) to silent film that had never seen them before. They all fell in love with the movies and gave me the impression that the Alloy Orchestra had a lot to do with it.
It actually makes me feel somewhat better knowing people out there enjoy this group. I wouldn't dare debate your taste-- taste is taste, end of story. What bothers me most is the idea that maybe nobody is actually liking this stuff, and these soundtrack gigs get farmed out because they're a freind of the disc-producer's step-daughter or something like that. Some of these soundtracks-- PENALTY is a perfect example-- I swear it's simply because these discs are produced within a small social circle and they "keep it in the family" and use some dweeb with a Cobain haircut and a goatee and a dream, and let him wheedle away and live out his Composer Fantasy to his heart's content... and to everyone else's irritation.

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dave41n
Joined: Fri Jan 13, 2006 12:17 am
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#49 Post by dave41n » Fri Nov 02, 2007 2:15 pm

This thread has long been dead, but I have a question that I think is relevant. I recently saw MENILMONTANT screened with Arvo Pärt's "Fratres" and "Tabula Rasa" and was fucking blown away. Already one of my favorite films, this accompaniment sent me into the stratosphere. I've always disliked the score on the Kino Avant-Garde DVD, so a change was welcome. But I didn't expect it to work as well as this did. I've tried it at home and it works just as well in that environment. Usually I don't like anachronistic music or that which doesn't seem to be in the tradition of silent scoring or common to the period and many of you seem to be in agreement. But for the sake of discussion, I'm wondering if anyone here uses music from their own collection when viewing silents? Particularly classical music as it has relationship to silent scoring practice. I would imagine it's not common for most because of the kind of effort and knowledge it demands, but if anyone could provide ANY examples that would be great. Maybe an example from a screening? If not, my recommendation for the Pärt accompaniment to MENILMONTANT still stands. It's worth trying.

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markhax
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#50 Post by markhax » Fri Nov 02, 2007 3:26 pm

Gregory wrote:Has anyone seen really interesting live musical accompaniment for silent films?
Back in 1996 I saw Die Nibelungen screened at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin, with the original Huppertz score performed by the Babelsberg film orchestra. It was an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately the sound quality of that score on the Kino release is sub-par.

One of the most encouraging things in recent DVD releases is the recuperaton of the original film music where such exists--Metropolis (also Huppertz), Hans Erdmann's 1922 score for Nosferatu, the Meisel score for Potemkin, on which Eisenstein consulted, and tomorrow in NY, we will hear his score for Berlin, Sinfonie einer Großstadt, which I assume will come out on DVD.

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