Suddenly, silent film is back. This year’s Best Picture Oscar for The Artist (a mostly silent film) is only the most high-profile evidence that audiences have been discovering how vital and engaging silent film can be. When it is accompanied by live music, the experience of seeing a silent film can be even more exciting. Cantate is now a full participant in this movement, presenting the premiere of a new score specially commissioned to accompany The Wind, a 1928 MGM silent drama starring Lillian Gish, among the greatest of motion picture actresses.
The story of The Wind, based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough, is simple and strong. Letty Mason (Gish), a young Virginia belle, is forced to move to West Texas to live with her cousin on his ranch. The vast differences between her Virginia home and this new land create misunderstandings, hostility, and danger for Letty. Hardest of all is the ceaselessly blowing wind, which steadily drives her towards madness.
I chose to score The Wind because I believe it is a film that will be very entertaining for audiences, combining humor, adventure, and high drama. Because it shows so many different moods, The Wind presents opportunities for a composer to draw on a full range of musical expression. Cantate’s 28-voice chorus joins with nine instruments, including theater organ, to help tell the story of the film.
So-called “silent” films are not truly mute, but meant to be seen with accompanying sound, usually music. In fact, during the silent era, directors frequently employed musicians on the set to play while actors performed scenes on camera. The music that accompanies a silent film should neither dominate the film nor work against it; rather, at its best, it should partner seamlessly with the film, supporting its actions and amplifying its emotions, making the viewing experience more special than it would otherwise be.
Music and film both unfold in real time: both tell a story. Music can track the dramatic curve of a film in many ways. One way is to create a small number of key musical ideas that recur and modify to match the evolving drama. I have taken this approach for The Wind. You may be able to recognize some of these themes, and follow how they change as the story progresses. The wind itself becomes a character in the film: I have created a special style of music representing the wind’s strangeness and (for Letty) horror. The wind’s music — dissonant, ethereal, and mysterious — differs strongly from other music in the score; director Victor Seastrom deliberately created these sudden shifts of atmosphere, I believe, and my music reflects those sharp, immediate contrasts.
The different moods of the film have also allowed me to use many musical styles, each chosen because I feel that they support the mood of the scene taking place on screen. So, you will hear some music that reflects folk idioms (fiddle tunes, a waltz, a folk song), some that serves as transition, and some that draws on wider sonic resources: the chorus whistles, whispers, and sings through its full range in the course of the score.
The texts have been assembled from a variety of sources, or have been written by me. To help convey the distant nature of the wind, I chose some words of Cherokee — a language unfamiliar to most — to underscore this. Some phrases in Spanish also appear in what is still a mostly English libretto.
I composed the score with a software program called Sibelius. It was written in order, front to back (not the normal procedure for my nonfilm scores!), and I was able to synchronize the music with the film by importing a QuickTime version of The Wind. So, as I worked, the video appeared in a small window, and I could see instantly how the music linked to the images and could adjust it as needed.
Synchronizing computerized playback to a film is easy to do. Performing a fully notated score such as this to synchronize with a film — live — is extremely difficult. The reason is fairly simple: when musicians perform a piece of music, they naturally change tempo slightly, sometimes speeding up a little, sometimes slacking up a bit, as inclination or the moment of performance might dictate. All this is perfectly fine for human beings playing together; the problem is that film does not change speed. Film is projected at a constant rate of speed (in this case, 24 frames per second!), and so the musician must necessarily adapt to the unchanging film.
Today’s performance is being synchronized in real time, without a click track or other assistive technology, very much as it would have been done in the silent era. Gisèle Becker, the conductor (and Cantate’s Music Director) has thus taken on a special challenge.
Gisele and I, in preparing for the performance, have held several piano rehearsals: she conducts while watching the film on a laptop, and I play a reduction of the score. As conductor, Gisèle needs to be able to do three things in addition to her normal duties as leader of the ensemble:
So, the challenges facing the conductor of live film music are immense.
In presenting this premiere performance of The Wind, I would like to acknowledge the help of so many who have made this possible: Cantate Chamber Singers, who commissioned the score as part of my position as Composer-in-Residence; Todd Hitchcock and the AFI Silver Theatre, which is copresenting this event as part of this spring’s Silent Cinema Showcase; Rob Stone and Mike Mashon at the Library of Congress and Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art, all of whom have been tremendously encouraging to me as a silent film musician; and Catholic University, my institutional home, which has allowed me to pursue silent film music as creative artist and teacher. I also cannot fail to mention and thank my friend and Snark Ensemble cofounder Maurice Saylor, who first introduced me to The Wind; Gisèle Becker, who has championed and supported this project from the beginning; and all the performers, without whose work The Wind would truly be silent.