Friday, July 17, 2009

The (Silent) Sound of Music

Stop and think, for a moment, about the people who compose music for film. Don't just think about a movie's hit theme song or a film adaptation of a Broadway musical. Think, instead, of orchestral scoring and the way it creates suspense, evokes a sense of tenderness, builds to a climax, or guides the audience to focus on an important moment about to take place on the screen. Here's a list of 15 truly great film composers:
I don't know about you, but an outstanding film score adds a tremendous amount of satisfaction to my movie-going experiences. While you can easily sample the creative output of the composers listed above by renting films they have scored, there's someone else whose name should be added to that list. You won't find too many recordings of his music because he works primarily as an accompanist for silent films. To say that he is a brilliant colorist, a formidable composer, and an astonishing talent would hardly do justice to his craft.

My first exposure to Stephen Horne was in 2007, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Anthony Asquith's film noir triumph, A Cottage On Dartmoor (1929). I was instantly struck by the dour moodiness of Horne's score, the brilliant ways in which he created tension to match and support what was happening on the screen as well as his meticulous use of the piano's percussive and lyrical abilities to communicate a wide range of emotions.

A Cottage on Dartmoor is now available on DVD with a full orchestration provided by Horne. You can hear snippets of his music in the following trailer:

Horne returned to San Francisco in 2008 to accompany William Desmond Taylor's The Soul of Youth (1920) and Teinosuke Kinugasa's haunting Jujiro (1928)

This month he was back in the Castro Theatre for two more virtuoso performances. His work as a composer/accompanist for silent film is so exhilarating that, when the 2010 festival schedule is announced, I would urge you to purchase tickets to hear him accompany any film whatsoever -- without the slightest bit of hesitation.

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On Saturday, Horne accompanied a screening of Underworld (1927). Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Josef von Sternberg, this early film noir gangster movie practically drips with menace and suspense.

The plot focuses on the perverse ways in which gangsters display affection, trust, and prove their loyalty. Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is a major thug whose girlfriend, "Feathers" McCoy (Evelyn Brent), tries to stay loyal to the end. When Bull gives some money to a down and out drunk lawyer named "Rolls Royce" Wensel (Clive Brook), he acquires the fierce intellect of a loyal, strategic henchman.

At a New Year's Eve ball, Bull is insulted by another thug, Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler), who runs a flower shop specializing in floral tributes to the deceased. When Bull kills Mulligan in his flower shop, he ends up going to jail, sentenced to hang from the gallows.

Although one of his henchman, Paloma (Jerry Mandy), assures him that Rolls Royce and Feathers have a plan to spring him from jail, Bull learns via the grapevine that his two assistants have been having an affair behind his back. To his surprise, the two sidekicks remain loyal to the bitter end, which turns out to be a classic gangland shootout with the police.

As you watch the two clips I've included from Underworld, pay careful attention to how the music so often does not match up with the action but is, rather, a sustained piece of music that has been slapped onto the film. Horne's approach is quite the opposite -- his scores are acutely wedded to what is happening on the screen, with appropriate dramatic pauses and, what Barack Obama has referred to as "the audacity of now."

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On Sunday afternoon, Horne's vast knowledge of the silent film repertoire helped the festival's artistic staff recover from a small setback. One of the short films originally scheduled to be shown as an "appetizer" to a scheduled feature could not be screened for technical reasons.

Recalling that there were two silent versions of The Fall of the House of Usher produced in 1928, Horne alerted the festival's producers that the 13-minute short American film by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber was available as part of a four-DVD box set released by the National Film Preservation Foundation under the title of Treasures From American Film Archives. A copy was quickly located (you can watch it in the following clip) and Horne improvised a score for the short.

That was a minor feat compared to his accompaniment for Jean Epstein's 63-minute French version of The Fall of the House of Usher, which was similarly based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Horne accompanied the French film not only by playing piano and flute simultaneously but, at the same time, employing an electronic keyboard positioned above the piano into which he had programmed hundreds of styles and sound cues.

As a result, there was far more than piano music accompanying Epstein's surrealist film. Drawing on a wide range of programmable voices, guitar, organ and other sound effects, Horne created a unique musical soundscape, the likes of which I have never before heard accompanying a silent film.

Epstein (who had dropped out of medical school to become a filmmaker), was one of the first Frenchmen to introduce elements of Freudian psychology and refer to the unconscious in his film criticism. As someone who has dealt with an overactive dream mechanism for many years (going to bed is like a nightly Fellini festival), I found Epstein's images fascinating.

However, there was no mistaking the fact that the visuals Epstein placed upon the screen had been dwarfed by the sheer magnificence of Stephen Horne's musical score. If this gifted composer ever releases his score on CD, you'll definitely want a copy.

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