Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Today's French lesson courtesy Abel Gance: 'Roulette' = little wheel; 'La Roue' = BIG film

Proof that people really WILL turn out to see Abel Gance's 'La Roue' (1923). Well, a few, anyway.

Once in awhile I like to scale a mountain.

Sometimes it's an actual mountain, like Kilimanjaro in Africa, which I climbed in 2015.

Other times it's an aesthetic mountain, such as doing live music for Abel Gance's 'La Roue' (1923), a movie that runs about 4½ hours.

That's what I did this weekend, over two screenings on Saturday, April 27 and Sunday, April 28 at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

That's a lot of film, and it's a lot of music. But it came together in a way that was very satisfying, I thought.

As you might imagine, a 4½-hour silent French drama didn't exactly sell out the house, especially when competing with a nice spring weekend in New Hampshire.

Still, just over a dozen brave souls took advantage of a rare chance to experience Gance's highly regarded drama the way it was intended to be shown — in a theater on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

What made it work for me was that I'd created a suite of inter-related musical ideas that were all based on four ascending notes in the minor scale: A, C, D, and E.

Played in sequence, and repeated and varied, they made for a great way to bring to life the many railroad-in-motion images that occur throughout Gance's film.

And the range of moods and emotions they can carry just on their own is quite wide, depending on how they're played and what kind of bass line or supporting harmony is applied.

Ivy Close and Séverin-Mars in 'La Roue.'

And when played all at once, they create a pungent chord (a minor triad with an extra note added in) that has just enough of a characteristic dissonance to hold its own as a motif. It sounds vaguely like a train whistle, too, which is a bonus.

Then I took the same four notes and they became the bass line of a yearning melody that was also present throughout. (Someday I'll get some fancy software to capture and post it here, but not today.)

And with just those elements, I had enough material to carry me along with the film on its long journey from the congested railroad yards of Nice to the high-altitude climax on the wide-open slopes of Mont Blanc.

I hadn't studied the film prior to the screening, which was by intent. I wanted to respond to the film musically the same way an audience would in seeing it for the first time. And 4½ hours is just too much to prepare in advance anyway.

A scene from 'La Roue' (1923).

This worked out well, for the most part. However, if I could do it again, I would be better prepared for moments such as when we see a character repeatedly blow a whistle. I would have done that as well.

Also, there are at least two dreamy dissolves to a medieval fantasy setting. Had I known that was coming, I would have transitioned to a plucked string or guitar texture to better underscore the proposition.

Finally, the professional of one of the characters is making violins, so I should have expected sequences in which a violin gets played. There indeed were, and for those to really work from a keyboard requires some real preparation and strategy, neither of which I had.

Still, it all held together really well. And there's so much room in a 4½-hour movie that you can't help but just come up with material that comes in handy.

For 'La Roue,' some rowdy tavern scenes early on gave birth to a rude melody with a lot of repeated notes that was catchy enough to keep re-appearing anytime excess of any kind was depicted onscreen.

And for the scenes between Norma and her violin-making pseudo-brother, a quiet waltz-like tune in 3/4 time just came naturally to my fingertips near the start, and continued to reappear at tender moments for the rest of the film.

So 'La Roue' turned out to be a grand adventure musically as well as cinematically. For the small group who attended both parts (and the few who say either just Part 1 or Part 2), I salute your willingness to take a chance on Gance.

Will I ever do 'La Roue' again? Well, I may circle around to it. Har!

Looking ahead: the pace of screenings picks up this month with summer series starting in Brandon, Vt.; Ogunquit, Maine, ad Somerville, Mass. I also have one-off shows at venues ranging from the Antrim (N.H.) Town Hall to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Calif.

Stay tuned for more details!

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