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.

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.

Most of today’s endeavours are far removed from the norms of early cinemas. The closest I’ve ever come to what it might really have been like before the talkies was in a series at the National Film Theatre in London, where Greta Garbo’s “silent” movies were shown with live accompaniment.

What was most striking about that experience was the way an individual musician could affect how a particular film came across. Some of the pianists in the London Garbo series were real masters of mood and co-ordination, others almost never managed to make their cues on time, and engaged in lots of objectionably maudlin effects. What wouldn’t anybody give to hear what the young Dmitri Shostakovich sounded like in the 1920s, when, to make ends meet while working on his First Symphony, he served his time in a cinema. He once got unexpected applause from the audience, during a screening of a film called Swamp and Water Birds of Sweden. His listeners clapped ironically and made catcalls when a particular flight of Shostakovian fancy led them to conclude the man at the piano must have been drunk.

And what of this last month’s special screenings? Well, I’m not sure that I appreciate how Icarus at the Edge of Time really benefited from the live music-making. There is, to be sure, a sense of occasion in seeing a full symphony orchestra arrayed under a film screen in a concert hall. And there’s no doubt a film aimed at young viewers and shown in association with the Dublin City of Science Festival 2012 must have introduced new ears to the sound of a live symphony orchestra. But I don’t think for a moment that I would have enjoyed Icarus as a film or the bland pulsations of Glass’s music any the less had I seen and heard them in the darkness of a cinema.

The T’ang Quartet’s performance of Baudine Jam’s score for The Haunted House was, by contrast, a bare bones affair. The T’angs eschewed modern technology (click tracks over earphones, or monitors on stage with timings and cues) in favour of the raw experience of pure hand-eye co-ordination. The musicians sat to the side of the stage, and of the two who could see the film, the cellist Leslie Tan was the player designated to keep images and sound in sync. The score was in the spirit of the era of the movie, so much so that one almost stopped noticing movie and music as being separate from each other. Stravinsky said something to the effect that good orchestration is when you don’t notice it. On Saturday that matching of ends and means was exactly what was delivered.

Virgil Thomson: Film’s Pulitzer winner

VIRGIL THOMSON, the only composer to win a Pulitzer prize for a film score (for Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story in 1943; See began his cinema career with an emergency call-out at the age of 13, in 1909. “Since the pianist in those days never knew ahead of time what the films were to be,” he explained, “he had to fumble his way through the first show while watching the screen. After that he could with luck hit certain passages on the nose.

For comedies one played animated popular music, not disdaining a topical reference such as I Love My Wife, But Oh, You Kid! (see For the dramas one used slower stuff. Being unskilled in improvisation, I simply played pieces I knew while a trap drummer underlined the rhythm and added “effects” such as cowbells, horses’ hooves, bass drum thuds, and cymbal crashes. His flyswatter, always at hand in summer, could be useful, too, for light drum taps. It was soon to become, in fact, under the name of “brush”, standard drummers’ equipment.”

And in his 1939 book, The State of Music, Thomson summarised issues that have not gone away. “Film-directors are particularly upsetting to the musician, because, dealing with photography as they do, they live in constant fear lest music, the stronger medium, should take over the show.

“At the same time, they want it to sustain the show whenever the show shows signs of falling apart. They expect you, wherever the story is unconvincing or the continuity frankly bad, to deceive the audience by turning on a lot of insincere hullabaloo. Now insincerity on the part of actors and interpreters is more or less all right, but insincere authorship leads to no good end.

Theatre people and musicians all know this. Film people do not seem to. For all the skill and passion that have gone into the making of movies, the films are still a second-rate art form, like mural painting, because they try to convince us of characters and motivations that their own authors do not believe in, and because they refuse a loyal co-operation with music, their chief aid, choosing naively to use the more powerful medium as whitewash to cover up the structural defects of the weaker. It takes lots of tact and persistence to pull off a creditable job in such an industry.”

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