Friday, September 7, 2012

Notes on scoring 'The Bells' (1926)
for reissue by Reel Classic DVD

I recently got to do music for a new release of 'The Bells' (1926), an obscure melodrama with a cast featuring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff, of all people. (There they are together in a frame capture!) The film, a feature from Chadwick Pictures (Slogan: Each Production an Accomplishment), was transferred from a 16mm print and just reissued by Mark Roth under his "" label.

By the way, Mark's extensive catalog of public domain releases is worth browsing at, with a lot of interesting titles you won't find elsewhere. I have film scholar/archivist Bruce Lawton to thank for recommending me to Mark, who was great to work with. It was a fun project, and now that it's out, here are a few notes on the process of developing a score for 'The Bells.'

First, the obvious: Yes, I used bells in it. :)

About the film, which is set in 19th century Europe: Barrymore is great as a debt-laden small town businessman tempted to commit murder. But I was especially intrigued by Karloff as "the Mesmerizer," a creepy carnival hypnotist who gets drawn into the case. His role resonated with me because hypnosis (of a sort) plays an important role in silent film music, I think—at least the way I do it. So 'The Bells' was an especially appropriate picture for me to tackle.

The thing is, I have a very hard time with recording music. I'm much more of a "do it live" kind of guy. One barrier is practical: I just don't have a set-up that allows me to record anything conveniently or easily, and so must to rely on the indulgence of friends and acquaintances to lay down any tracks.

Also, I just don't do well when I know I'm being recorded. It leads to self-consciousness that's very difficult for me to overcome, and that makes it tough to do music that I think "sticks to the screen."

It's not like I'm nervous in front of people: I have no problem performing live for audiences, the bigger the better. Rather, the act of recording, or the knowledge that I'm being recorded, somehow short-circuits the process by which I get into a trance-like state that's conducive to effective scoring, at least with me.

I find that in doing music for films, I do my best work while "in the moment" improvising during a live performance. If all goes well, I get so absorbed by translating the film's action into music that my usual self-consciousness fades away, and the process of creating music flows naturally and without hesitation.

When I'm doing it, it almost seems like I stop thinking. Perhaps that's because there's just no time for thinking. Whatever the cause, when I'm "in the zone," it all becomes second nature, and that's when I find that the good stuff happens. Of course there is a lot of thinking going on, but it's all happening under the spell of the creative, artistic part of my mind that's in the driver's seat.

This state cannot be switched on and off. Rather, it is achieved by immersion, meaning that it takes awhile for me to settle down and reach it. It's kind of like a self-imposed trance. Hence my interest in the Karloff character in 'The Bells.'

On the other hand, when I'm recording something, I can't help but think of all the equipment around me and how something could go wrong, or I'm worried I'll mess up, or I'm wondering about synchronization, or just concerned about a dozen different things that might happen. It's times like this when I'd like to have someone like Karloff's "Mesmerizer" on hand to just put me under. After all, hypnosis was how a young Rachmaninoff got over the debacle of his first symphony. I'm no Rachmaninoff (my hair is too long), but if it worked for him...

Well, anyway, I keep saying yes to recording projects, in part because I hope I'll get accustomed to the process if I do it more, and also because I feel I should be able to handle it. Plus, it never hurts to have your name on a few commercial discs.

So when Mark first approached me back in January with 'The Bells,' I didn't hesitate. At the time, I prepping for a busy calendar of shows in February and March, so it would have to wait a bit. Then, at the end of March, my mother injured herself in a fall and that sort of took over things for awhile.

The next thing I knew, it was July, and Bruce Lawton was in town as guest projectionist for the 2012 Sons of the Desert international convention, held this year in Manchester, N.H. Bruce mentioned that Mark was still waiting but about ready to give up on me, which prompted me to make arrangements to finally get this done.

Without access to a recording studio, the best way I have to record anything in a useable format is to enlist the services of Bill Millios, a local independent filmmaker (Back Lot Films is his company) with whom I've worked in the past. Bill has a digital motion picture camera that allows for direct input of sound, which makes things easy: just hook it up to my Korg synthesizer and we're ready to go. (To record a sound file, the camera must be running, so somewhere there's a visual record of me playing the keyboard, which was yet another distraction.)

Bill is a busy guy, and so am I, so it worked out that we had only a single afternoon in August to get this done for Mark. Our date—Tuesday, Aug. 14—turned out to be hot and sticky, which was too bad for us, for we were recording in my non-air-conditioned home office. Because I need to hear myself, we couldn't run any fans, either, so it was pretty much sweat city right from the beginning.

I had watched 'The Bells' a couple of times—once back in January when I first got the work disc from Mark, and then again more recently to remind myself how it went. In terms of themes, I hadn't prepared anything elaborate, but the old "Dies Irae" melody from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead seemed to keep coming to me while watching it, so I would go with that.

As for texture, Mark had suggested some special underscoring involving bells, obviously a key element. I could do this easily enough on the synthesizer, but only for a few important sequences. For the balance of the film, I needed a sound that would contrast with the bells but also be versatile enough to evoke moods ranging from heavy drama to light comedy. I chose 'Romantic Piano,' which is mostly a resonant piano keyboard sound, but with strings underneath it that come out behind any sustained notes.

Then, the day before the recording session, I went through 'The Bells' on fast forward, just to note when I'd switch settings. I'd start with the bells over the main titles, but then go with piano until much later, when strange things start happening and Lionel Barrymore begins hearing the eponymous bells. I counted about a half-dozen spots where bells would be appropriate, each of them in a fairly obvious place, so I didn't feel the need to write anything down.

And that was it. Bill came over on Tuesday afternoon and we set things up. I popped the work disc in my small office player, and Bill turned his camera on, and off we went. Mark's work disc included a "countdown" to a tone signal, which he would use to synchronize the sound file to the video. Once that happened, there was no turning back. I knew that the only way I could get it done and not get bogged down with endless retakes and overthinking was just to do it in one gulp, just like a live performance, and hope for the best.

I have to admit, at first I was not very satisfied with what I was doing. My timing was off, the score wasn't setting right, and the music for another film seemed to be coming out of me. Plus, with our improvised recording set-up, it was hard for me to hear myself, even without a fan running. A couple of times I was close to stopping for a "Take 2," but I pressed on, with both Bill and I literally sweating it out while Lionel Barrymore did battle with his wife and creditors.

The usual process eventually kicked in, and after about 20 minutes I thought I was keeping up with 'The Bells' (1926) pretty well. A little motif of running eighth notes that I used right at the start proved versatile enough to show up again and again, signaling everything from foreboding to (in a major key) rural tranquility. And the Dies Irae fit nicely under a lot of other music as an internal harmony or a bass line.

And so it went, the intensity ramping up when Barrymore faces temptation that could change his life. I don't want to spoil it, so I'll leave it at that. The climax is a surreal dream sequence that sports a daring visual style, especially for a poverty row silent feature.

I've been doing this enough so that I think I have pretty reliable instincts about when to hold back, when to push, and when to pull out all the stops. 'The Bells' followed a pretty standard arc, and by the final scenes, I thought I had something that held together.

And so I finished with a dramatic flourish, playing a little long (after 'The End') to allow for a music credit, and then came the final chord. I then recorded another track for a companion short, 'Having Their Picture Took,' and that was that.

That night, Bill posted the .wav files on his Web site for downloading, which Mark did. And lo and behold, several weeks later, the films were in his online catalog and a copy of the DVD was in my mailbox.

I tend to avoid listening to recordings of music I do for the same reason I avoid making them. It's just not the same as doing it live. The permanence of it disturbs me—every time I hear something that sounds off, I regret the inability to do anything about it. But of course I was curious how 'The Bells' turned out, and the analytical side of my brain does realize that I can really learn a lot from hearing myself.

So in went the disc, and I was surprised when out came a score that worked pretty well, I thought. I did that? Even at the beginning, it held together and followed the exposition without being cloying. Nice! And it really did seem to get better as the film progressed. What was funny, too, was that even though I had recorded it only a few weeks earlier, I sometimes would have absolutely no recollection of playing the music that I was now hearing. Sometimes, knowing my instincts, I could anticipate what would come next. But I was often wrong!

It wasn't all peaches and cream, however. Throughout the film, I could clearly hear one bad habit that I need to work on. When in the middle of an idea that I'm working out in real time, I have a tendency to think ahead to where the phrase or melody will go next, which is all part of the process. However, that causes my fingers to rush what I'm playing, as if I've figured it out and so let's get this over with, shall we? This was really noticeable, and I need to work on it.

Also, I need to reacquaint myself with simple power of a single note, which can do so much to bring a scene to life. The music doesn't always have to be dense and moving, which seems to be my default mode. So many scenes would work effectively with spare accompaniment; as a bonus, it provides a nice contrast to when things really do get busy.

Finally, repeated notes. I use a lot of them, and some in 'The Bells' were rhythmically quite sloppy. So back to basics on that. I'll use Mr. Bean's synthesizer performance at the 2012 London Olympics as motivation.

But overall, the score for 'The Bells' turned out a lot better than I was prepared to expect. So thanks to Mark Roth for giving me the chance to work on something that not only turned out well, but helped me learn about stuff that will benefit what I do, I hope. I'd love to get your thoughts, so please hop on over to and order your copy today!

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