Friday, July 18, 2008

Cue The Audience

Think of some of the your favorite movies. Then ask yourself if you can remember anything about the musical scores to those films.

Do the themes from Jaws or Lawrence of Arabia come to mind?

What about Close Encounters the Third Kind?

All of these films have essentially been "branded" by their composers with musical themes or leitmotifs that will make them instantly recognizable around the world.

Don't believe me? Then try listening to the theme from Jodhaa Akbar, a Bollywood historical epic which has led to great controversy in India because of its message about religious freedom. The Broadway show tune crowd will sit up on the edge of their seats as soon as they hear this music simply because the first four notes are an exact duplicate of Jule Styne's "I Had A Dream" theme for Momma Rose in Gypsy! But, once the sound of tribal drums begins, you'll get a pretty clear idea of how exciting this four-hour Indian film is.

Film franchises that lead to sequels and prequels (such as the Superman, Star Wars, or Jurassic Park brands) often rely on familiar sounds to establish a mood, heighten a moment, and broaden a marketing campaign. But ask yourself this question: Would any of these movies be as effective without their musical score?

The answer is a resounding no. If you were to delete the contributions made to film by composers like Bernard Hermann, Philip Glass, John Williams, and John Barry you'd be left with some very flat visual effects.

Musical cues must be well thought out and precisely rendered in order to achieve the correct effect and move a film's plot forward. Having spent many years reviewing opera and musical theater, I may be more sensitive to a film's musical score than some other viewers. While some audiences are eager to follow the action on the screen, I tend to have a fairly visceral reaction to the musical cuing which accompanies any film.

That's one reason why, each July, I get such enjoyment from attending screenings at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Whether accompanied by a single musician on piano, small musical ensembles such as the Baguette Quartette or The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, or a stellar artist like Dennis James on the Castro Theater's mighty Wurlitzer organ, the excitement of having live music accompany a film gives this festival a curious advantage which few other film festivals enjoy.

Prior to the closing night screening of King Vidor's The Patsy (starring the great Marion Davies), one of the festival's favorite organists, Clark Wilson, gave a mini-lecture detailing how musical scores were originally created in the heyday of silent film. Many silent films were accompanied by full orchestras. More often, local pianists had to watch the action and devise accompaniments for three full-length features per week (which might be screened five times a day). As Wilson later learned, the secret trick for musicians attempting to create a soundtrack for silent films was "When in doubt, trill."

One of my favorite contributors to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is an English musician named Stephen Horne. Several years ago he composed and performed a stunningly brilliant score for Anthony Asquith's silent noir masterpiece, A Cottage On Dartmoor (1929). Horne returned this year to accompany William Desmond Taylor's The Soul of Youth as well as several short films. However, Horne's score for Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro (1928) completely blew me away. Performing on flute, piano, and with Horne occasionally plucking the piano wires in order to mimic the sound of Japanese string instruments, this score was a huge asset to what could easily have been a very confusing film.

One can't help but wonder how easily a silent film would hold an audience's attention without a solid musical score. However, after hearing the scores created and performed by Horne for Jujiro and A Cottage On Dartmoor, one yearns for a CD of this composer's music.

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