“…And when you nailed that high Bb,” I said to Amparo, our horn player. “Do you remember, I turned to you and smiled? That was an incredible moment.” We were giddily talking about last Friday’s show.
“Actually, you smiled maybe a second before the note! When you smiled, we both knew the note would come out perfectly. I wasn’t worried about it anymore.”
This is just one anecdote that illustrates how magical Friday’s performance was for everyone involved. But it’s significant to me because it represents the same feeling that every musician and composer in our team had as the final chord of the finale thundered to a close, and which we felt even as we said our goodbyes at the airport the next day: the exhilaration of having done something impossible.
Friday’s performance was the culmination of the third installment of Berklee’s Scoring the Silents series, the product of an exciting and fruitful partnership. A couple years ago, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which had been presenting films with live music for a while with their “Sounds of the Silents” series, contacted Dan Carlin, the chair of Berklee’s Film Scoring department, to propose a collaboration. Dan and assistant-chair Alison Plante designed a course and appointed Sheldon Mirowitz fearless leader. Last fall, under Sheldon’s direction, five handpicked student composers, myself included, orchestrated and composed an original score to the silent film Battleship Potemkin and conducted it live at the Coolidge in December. This performance, along with the previous two highly-successful installments, was made possible by a generous grant funded by a Coolidge board member. And, in an incredible turn of events, we were able to take our show on the road this year, performing on Friday at the Kennedy Center in DC!
To understand the essence of our project, you have to know a little bit about Sheldon. Though I’ve learned much from him about music technology, orchestration, and the industry, his greatest gift (and one of the crucial sources of his success in the field of film scoring) is his deep understanding of cinema. He operates like a surgeon, cutting to the core of the story and exposing it. Like any true lover of film, Sheldon has investigated its history thoroughly. His passion for silent films of the 1920’s sparked his thought: although scores to silent films are performed often, usually with solo piano accompaniment, it is rare for the audience to really experience them as they were intended, with a live chamber ensemble and a meticulously prepared score.
It’s easy to see why this kind of performance is so rare. The process is a huge undertaking, which I can say having gone through the wringer myself. First there is the problem of synchronization. The original reels have to be projected from film machines, and old ones at that. They don’t always play at the right speed, and in fact at the time the films were made there were no standardized speeds. Also, there is the obvious possibility of a catastrophic failure of technology. Thus, using the original reels makes such film scoring synchronization techniques such as click-tracks and punches and streamers nearly useless. We resolved this issue with a system Sheldon designed himself. We use two laptops displaying digital versions of the movie overlaid with synchronization markers, and pairs of composers seamlessly switch off, one conducting and one “scrubbing”, in other words desperately trying to keep the small movie in sync with the big one. With this system you can’t count on hitting every specific event intended for synchronization, but you can get close. At the performance on Friday, we were told that the audience gasped as Justin, the first conductor, nailed each impact as a disgruntled sailor chopped meat. In the second conductor’s reel, a mutiny on board and the ejection of the corrupt officers from the ship resulted in splashes of the suspended cymbal every time the bodies hit the water.
Then there was the difficulty of ensemble size and scope. Sheldon’s vision for the score was symphonic, but our budget and venue only allowed for a 10-piece chamber ensemble. How could we achieve a sound that lives up to the movie within those limitations? This we answered by essentially demanding superhuman powers of our players, which makes what they achieved sort of a miracle. Our horn player, Amparo, due to the blending capabilities of her instrument, was the third voice in not only the brass, but also the string and woodwind sections, so she had to play incredibly challenging music constantly for more than an hour. Our percussionist, Sharon, had to the do a job intended for four, athletically racing around her claustrophobic set to deliver the exact right sound at the right time. She even made special tools for the occasion, combining normal drumsticks with mallets and scrapers. Finally our keyboardist, I-Yun, who was a new addition and had less then a week to study the score, had to be the entire sound of our orchestra, switching patches manically between strings and various synths in order to bolster our otherwise small sound. We had the absolute best student chamber ensemble for the task, and what they achieved is still incredible to me.
Finally, there is the problem of the story. The cinematic language of the silent films is often very difficult to understand the perspective of the present. This was the era in which innovative directors such as Eisenstein (who directed Battleship) were figuring out what it meant to be “cinematic” and not just display a story as if recording a theatrical play. Hence, a lot of film devices we now take for granted, most conspicuously montage, were still in a slightly awkward, though undeniably exciting and effective, stage of development. Our goal was to translate that older language in order to make comprehension effortless for the audience by enhancing the drama with music. Also, the story is unconventional in that there are no main characters, really, and the whole arc can be relayed in a sentence. This is a film about large movements, and about humanity in general. The most difficult moments during the writing process came from a lack of understanding of this story. Personally, learning that telling the story is much more important than writing good music was my most important lesson from this whole process, and maybe from Berklee in general.
The thing I cherish most about this trip, however is not the lessons that I learned or the enthusiastic reception from the audience. It was the friendships I made and strengthened. We left this trip with a handful of inside jokes, from singing the score and inserting our own lyrics to making a full blown plan for a movie starring all the members of the team (think Meet the Parents plus Telemundo). Accompanying my joy is also a pang of nostalgia, because though I don’t know how I survived the whole process, I feel like I would do it again in an instant. Luckily for the students at Berklee and the film-lovers in Boston, there will be many more seasons of Scoring the Silents to come! You can put this spring’s performance on your calender – on May 7th at Coolidge Corner Theatre, a completely new team assembled by Sheldon will be performing Piccadilly, a thrilling British comedy-drama, stocked with song-and-dance numbers, sex, murder, and a dramatic courtroom climax. Hope to see you there!
Written by Akhil Gopal (www.akhilgopal.com). A video of the entire performance is available on the Kennedy Center website at: