Live music and the silver screen
WHAT’S JOAN of Arc got to do with Buster Keaton? Don’t worry. It’s nothing obvious, because it’s personal to me. It was a Cork Film Festival screening of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc that introduced me to movies with live orchestral accompaniment back in the 1980s. And on Saturday, at Galway Arts Festival, Buster Keaton’s 1921 film The Haunted House became the first film I’ve seen with live accompaniment by a string quartet.To be honest, I never would have predicted the kind of venture the RTÉ Concert Orchestra embarked on in Cork would have a future. But it had. Philip Glass has been a major player, and Ireland has seen screenings of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi with the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Belfast Festival, and Tod Browning’s Dracula at the NCH with the Kronos Quartet. AL and AL’s Icarus at the Edge of Time, again with music by Glass, was screened at the NCH earlier this month, with live narration (Louis Lovett) as well as live music (the RTÉ NSO, no less). Glass also made an opera out of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (also seen in Belfast), in which the composer removed the original soundtrack and music, and replaced them with material of his own.
The RTÉCO has also been involved in playing live for screenings of the films from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy – the next instalment is scheduled for the O2 at the end of October – and, leaving orchestras aside, there have been any number of silent classics screened in churches with the full resources of the organ used in improvised accompaniments.
It’s a peculiar anomaly that we talk of silent films, because, of course, they were anything but silent. Music was a crucial part of the deal. In a world where gramophones were a luxury and radio shows were part of the future, cinemas were an important conduit for music. Some of it was just anodyne fodder, but, especially in smaller communities, cinemas were significant in the dissemination of newly popular tunes.
Cinemas were also important musical employers. Not everyone who sat at a cinema organ was restricted to that particular line of work. Philip Dore, who in the 1930s was the organist of the Savoy Cinema, had before that been the organist of Mullingar Cathedral, and was later the director of music at Brighton College, and director of music and organist at Ampleforth Abbey and College. If you’re lucky you might find his recordings of Mendelssohn’s complete organ sonatas, issued in the early 1970s, in a second-hand record or charity shop.