Last night (Monday, Sept. 13) we showed the Douglas Fairbanks film 'Robin Hood' (1922) to a small but appreciative audience at Manchester's Palace Theatre, and more and more I'm convinced that I do my most effective music in the big spaces of the epic historical costume drama kind of films. I don't know if it's the atmosphere or the situations or just that they're so long and there's room to settle in and relax. But more often than not, once one of these kinds of films is underway, the music seems to flow just so naturally.
I might have one or two melodic ideas in play, and at some point they seem to flow naturally into underscoring that somehow fuses with the action on the screen, punctuating it or extending it or setting it into relief. Often it's quiet stuff, and can be as simple as playing a melody starting on a different step of the scale (so creating a modal effect), which then creates a harmony that allows me to veer off into something where a fragment of the other melody finds its way into the texture.
All this is happening instantaneously, and nearly without thought on my part. (Not that there's much of that in any case.) And I've found this is more likely to happen in the big films with some drama, which allows for a greater deal of freedom to just turn off the "thinking" part of the brain and just produce music from, well, the heart.
This doesn't happen too much in comedies, where timing is so important and I find I never quite stop calculating as the film unspools. With comedy, my radar seems to be always asking the question: "How can I use music to bring out the comedy?" Even in feature comedies, where you'd think there would be room to spread out, it doesn't seem to happen. This doesn't preclude a successful score, but it's definitely a factor in how things go.
'Robin Hood' was a textbook example of how "flow" kicks in. After some suitably mystical music for "let us return to medieval times" opening, and then some rousing stuff for the opening joust, I found things came quite naturally after that. I had a main 'horn call' like melody that could be transformed into many different forms, a nice contrasting countermelody for romance, and a few chord sequences to indicate evil (Prince John) and astonishment. Once I got those under my fingers and settled in, I found myself weaving a score that I felt helped the film come to life.
The high point for me was in the convent, when Robin Hood discovers that Marion is still alive. The music had been pretty busy and loud for some time up until then, and so the contrast (slow, soft) came across as really effective. And with a slow, climbing melody to start, I was able to work in little pieces of other melodies at just the right moment, I felt, to underscore the action on screen. I found myself sitting there watching the film, and having my fingers play stuff that was just coming to me without thinking about it.
Another moment like this was when Fairbanks decides to return to England; for this, I found myself using a little piece of the main melody repeated again and again, rhythmically (it wound up sounding a little like the famous falling arpeggio from Mendelssohn's 'Fingal's Cave' Overture) and it also served to build excitement and anticipation quite naturally, with little help from the thinking part of my brain.
After all this, it was somewhat amusing to be told afterwards that I used the theme from the old TV show 'F Troop' too much. Funny—the main melody I came up with for 'Robin Hood' and the old TV theme (by William Lava. How did I know that?) serve the same purpose emotionally, but I looked at it and the only actual harmony/melody contour that's remotely similar is the part of the F troop theme where the words are "WAR WAS NEAR," as in "The end of the Civil WAR WAS NEAR..." But that little lick was enough to trigger 'F Troop' in the mind of at least one movie-goer.
Sad laughter: One element of 'Robin Hood' that doesn't hold up very well in a theater today is how Fairbanks moves. As Robin Hood, he tends to mince about in a way that some folks are bound to find comical in its own right. I think of it as 'Phantom of the Opera' syndrome, after the reaction provoked by the female lead's overacting in the 1925 Lon Chaney version. Too bad, as this tends to spoil the mood, or at least gets in the way of an audience really buying a film. "If someone's laughing at it, I can't take it that seriously, can I?" One of the pitfalls of resurrecting vintage cinema.