Sunday, July 15, 2012

Thoughts on scoring 'Orphans of the Storm'

This past Saturday (July 14) was Bastille Day, and what better way to mark the occasion than screening 'Orphans of the Storm?' Director D.W. Griffith's 1921 melodrama, starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish and set during the outbreak of the French revolution, is the next best thing to reading "A Tale of Two Cities" on the flight to Paris. (Or speed reading, if you hope to finish before landing.)

And our enthusiastic audience at the Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. seemed to agree, even laughing at my lame joke about celebrating by eating French toast for breakfast.

I haven't done 'Orphans' in a couple of years, but the original music I did for it in early 2010 was notable for including a faux 18th century minuet that wound up being perfect to sing to a young dog we had just adopted. What started as being the 'Orphans of the Storm' minuet lived on as the "puppy play care song," with suitable lyrics:
Puppy play care,
Puppy play care,
It's not day care,
It's where puppies play
And so on. But this past weekend, it returned to its roots, once again accompanying the Girard sisters as they made their innocent way to Paris, and then being worked into the score in one form or another in dozens of places.

Besides occasional use of the opening of "La Marseillaise," I couldn't recall any other music I'd used or created for this film. So I had to dip into the well, and that's when interesting things can happen.

For instance: Without any preparation at all, I launched into the film's prologue with a busy sequence that contained a seven-note kernel that I wound up using throughout the film as my "things are happening" theme.

And just prior to the screening, I imagined a musical signature for the evil 'Mother Fourchard' character: a simple motif alternating between C minor and Ab minor, but easy to incorporate into all sorts of musical textures. (Incidentally, I just discovered that the actress who plays Mm. Fourchard, Lucille La Verne, would go on to supply the voice of the Wicked Queen in Walt Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' in 1937.)

As the film ran, I came up with some maestoso 4/4 music for the aristocratic scenes that even now I don't think I could recreate, but which was in the air for me right then. And its rhythms stayed with me throughout as well, enriching the texture of scenes for the remainder of the film. (Oh, I just remembered how it goes: ya, dum-da-daaaa, ya, dum-da-daaaa, ya dum-da da-da-da, ya dum-da-daaaa. Geez, I gotta get with posting sound files as part of this effort.)

And some nice love music came to me when needed, mostly based on the dissonance of a suspended note above a minor chord, and having it resolved. Very handy. Need some more tension? Move it up a minor third. That sort of thing.

So after 30 minutes of 'Orphans,' I really had more than enough material to create a film score that I think helped tell the story and bring out the emotions and keep an audience in its spell. As I went for the final cadence, I thought it came out pretty successfully.

And that would have been that, until our after-film Q & A turned to the music. A woman paid me the compliment of saying that it sounded "so emotional," which was certainly high praise. I've heard that before, and of course it's mostly the film that the person is reacting to, with the music helping enable the emotion. I like to think I have enough tricks in my bag, plus an insistence on some kind of melody as part of my technique, that it does help unlock the emotional power of some of these older films.

I was further flattered when someone wanted to know if I've recorded any of these scores I do, but I had to reply that I generally don't record because the idea of making my music permanent somehow seems to make me too self-conscious to be effective. I get the occasional recording project, and I always drag my feet and never feel satisfied, even though I'd like to get over this.

But for now, I make art that lives primarily in the moment, and it's never the same way twice, and I think that freedom is an important element to me losing myself in the moment, of getting in the zone and creating live music that has enough emotion in it to help an older film spring to life.

Afterwards, I thought: Why? Why not record? Why don't I feel the need to? Why don't I want to do that? And I think the answer lies in the "emotion" that sometimes people hear in the music. And that's all related to why I find creating silent film music so satisfying in the first place.

I am a person of strong emotions. I feel things deeply. I am easily moved. Love. Hate. Joy. Envy. There's this whole opera going on inside me.

I've learned to control and channel these emotions as I've moved through life, but they remain within me, strong as ever as I near age 50. And I think with silent film music, I've lucked into a medium that's exactly the right canvas for me to take my somewhat limited musical abilities and use them to express some of the emotion that I've always had within me.

Maybe we all possess emotions like this, at some level. If so, I'm truly fortunate to have found a way to express mine in this way - through music created on the spot, in public, and as a subordinate part of a larger experience,which reduces the personal risk involved.

The process of creating music live is so absorbing that it alone divorces me from all the self-critical barriers that anyone inevitably erects around one's self. And because the film is not mine, it reduces the risk, which further frees me from self-consciousness. It's a very safe place for me to let loose, and that's where some of the best stuff seems to come from.

Each score I do, then, is sort of a mini-catharsis in which I forget myself and all the restraints and filters that I place on my emotions to get through life, and instead allows me to tap deeply into the well of energy and excitement and breathless wonder that's somewhere in there struggling to get out. Another bonus, which I often joke about, is that I'm collaborating with dead people, so you don't have to worry about egos and can just concentrate on doing the best you know how to do.

So silent film in live performance (with me in the dark, no less) turns out to be an excellent way I can give voice to my emotions and express them in public. It's a kind of self-therapy in which I allow myself to explore intense emotions in a way that I otherwise couldn't, short of psychoanalysis. And that's something I'll never know because it's against my middle-class religion.

So that's an element, anyway, of why I've yet to become excited about recording. Something about knowing that what I'm doing will be permanent really makes me self-conscious, and that's a big barrier into tapping where all the magic is — the stuff that I think comes across to audiences as "emotional."

Wow. You know, I'm reflecting on this, and I think I'm about to cry. Someone get me a Kleenex!

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