Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A few notes on 'Ben Hur' in Wilton, N.H.

It being Easter Sunday afternoon and the weather not being terrible, we had a smaller crowd than usual for our screening of 'Ben Hur' (1925) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, April 24. But the film itself remained big, big, big.

I did 'Ben Hur' in Plymouth, N.H. earlier this month, so had most of the kinks worked out. Still, I didn't hit the groove until about 20 minutes into the film, when Judah accidentally knocks the brick on the new Roman governor, stopping the parade and changing his family's life forever. That's when I felt it click, and I was in the zone from then on.

Things built nicely to the scenes at sea; this time, I was able to keep pretty closely with drumbeats (seen on screen) used to keep the galley slaves rowing in unison. And then the pirates showed up, allowing me to let loose with some energetic action music, it built very well.

The sequence eventually ends on a fade out, with the battle still going on. And I found it seemed very satisfying to keep the music going full tilt even as the scene ended, and then finally end on a big fat sforzando chord. By accident, I think this helped give the audience a sense of closure; behind me, I heard someone say "phew!" as the chord echoed out and I changed the setting to just strings for what followed.

I completely blanked on what I wanted to do for the scenes where the sultry woman tries to get information about Judah's true identity. So I just vamped with a minor 6th chord in the base, and floated a melody on top, and it just sort of went from there. Turned out to be more effective than anything I could have planned, so sometimes this improv thing really works!

Same thing happened with the "day of the chariot race" sequence, which needed to be grand-sounding but not too big as to overwhelm the race itself. There's one very impressive shot where the camera travels through a tunnel and into the arena, revealing for the first time the scale of the stadium, and by pure dumb luck I found myself running through a series of chords that fit it just right.

The chariot race was a real workout—about 10 minutes of an intense 2/4 gallop, not loud (at first) but still relentless as it builds throughout the sequence. With crisp offbeats in the right hand, and with single notes behind held above it all with my right pinkie, I was going for breathless excitement and I think it held together okay.

So the chariot race finished, and all was great, and there's a quick cut to the women who are still in prison, and for that I wanted to go back to plain strings. So I cycled through the settings and then hit a note as the scene came up, and to my disappointment I had called up an "Asian Techno Pop" setting that was all glitter and rhythmic percussion. Crap! No way to save that one so I just switched quickly to strings and looked ahead, not back.

Maybe I'll get another chance this week to get that right. :) Not sure if I'm doing 'Ben Hur' or another film at Stonehill College in Massachusetts this Thursday, April 28. It was supposed to be 'The Big Parade,' but then the organizer ran into something about the church venue he's using not allowing a secular film to be screened. We'll see...

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