Silent London

A place for people who love silent film



Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

Jane Shore (1915) has been described as the first British epic, and one that rivalled the best productions coming out of Hollywood at the time. A cast of thousands is used to great effect by producer/cinematographer Will Barker (founder of Ealing Studios) in this ambitious retelling of the story of Jane Shore: one of the many mistresses of King Edward IV who described her as one of “the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots” in his realm.

The BFI has made a stunning new print of the tinted version of Jane Shore (recently discovered in its archives) for its centenary. Composer Laura Rossi has written a new score for the film, which is being performed on a tour of the UK. Here, she answers a few questions about the project, and her writing process.
How did this commission arise and how did you choose the film?

Classic Cinema Club – Ealing wanted to commission me to score a silent film for a live music and film screening at their cinema club. We decided it would be good (as I also live in Ealing) to try and find a silent film made at Ealing Studios. I approached Bryony Dixon at the BFI, who dug out a few films for me to view in a BFI basement room on an old Steenbeck machine.

I was taught how to use the machine and change the reels. It was a very magical day watching reels of footage filmed over a hundred years ago. Jane Shore seemed the perfect fit – a film made at Ealing Studios by the studio founder Will Barker.

For this centenary tour the BFI made a specially restored digital print of the tinted version of the film which looks stunning. We were lucky enough to secure a grant from PRSF Women Make Music fund for the commission and first performance, and an Arts Council grant to help fund the tour.

What do you think is so special about watching a silent film with live music?

Watching a silent film with live music is such a magical experience and can be enjoyed on many levels. The music makes the images come alive and fills the auditorium, giving a four-dimensional experience.

It’s not just about watching the film, but also being transported back to this era. It’s fascinating to see how people acted then, the exaggerated gestures, and the early techniques of making films.

Continue reading “Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’”

Music for Charlie Chaplin: Carl Davis on scoring ‘The Mutuals’

This is a guest post for Silent London by Carl Davis CBE to celebrate the 126th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth. Renowned as a composer, Davis is a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has written music for more than 100 television programmes, but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films – including his score for the Kevin Brownlow restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon.

In 2003 and 2004 the British Film Institute released, in two volumes, 12 comedy shorts by Charlie Chaplin, created by him at the contractual rate of one a month across the years 1916-1917. They are known today as “The Mutuals” after the company that produced them and, as in my case, they are often the first glimpse that people have into the art of Chaplin. My first adult look at this project occurred in 1983 while scoring the Thames Television three-part series Unknown Chaplin: virtually the entire first episode consisted of an analysis of Charlie’s working methods, brought to light after a hidden cache of Mutual out-takes had recently been discovered.

The next step forward occurred in 1989 after the successful experiment of transcribing the orchestral score and parts of the 1930 recorded soundtrack of City Lights for a live performance at London’s Dominion Theatre. The performance started a vogue, thriving today, of stripping the scores from the soundtracks of all manner of sound films and performing them live. After the London screening I found myself conducting City Lights around the world and subsequently I expanded my Chaplin repertoire with The Gold Rush and The Kid. Out of sheer enthusiasm I added the shorts The Immigrant and Easy Street to my list. But the real impetus to continue came in 2003 when I discovered that the BFI were planning to release the complete Mutuals. I declared my interest and our collaboration began.

Continue reading “Music for Charlie Chaplin: Carl Davis on scoring ‘The Mutuals’”

Review and competition – Neil Brand’s Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes

Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes, by Neil Brand.
Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes, by Neil Brand.

If you attend the occasional silent movie screening, like I do, you’ll have experienced a particular bittersweet feeling. As much as you enjoyed the show, you fear you could never quite recreate the magic. You know the film is out there waiting for you to watch again (somehow), but nine times out of 10, the improvised music that accompanied it lives only in the corner of your memory.

The genius of improvisation is that the melodies, or that special combination of them, are conjured out of thin air, and disappear just as fast. Unless … someone, say Neil Brand, were to sit down at the piano and record some of those tunes for posterity.

So that is exactly what Brand has done – he has released an album of some of his favourite tunes to accompany classic silent films (from Pandora’s Box to Safety Last!). It’s a pleasure to listen to, and an enjoyably infuriating silent movie quiz too: the sleeve notes will tell you which film each track belongs to: can you guess without looking, and for an extra 10 points, can you pinpoint the scenes that inspired each excerpt?

Over to Brand’s notes to explain further:

In this album I have tried, for the first time, to give my improvised silent movie accompaniments a little life of their own away from the films, as piano pieces. They carry the essence of my musical thoughts on what these films are about, but you can listen to them without knowing the films, and let the pieces create your own pictures in your head.

Those sleeve notes also include a short intro by Brand to each film. So if you like what you hear, and you haven’t yet encountered the movie in question … well you couldn’t really ask for a better introduction.

Pandora's Box (1929)
Pandora’s Box (1929)

I’ve had a listen to the album, and it really is wonderful. What I didn’t expect, was to feel the same shivers down my spine that I would experience when watching Louise Brooks dance, or Murnau’s camera swooping through the morning mist. This is the most evocative of music – I felt that I was in the film as much as viewing it, whirling through the streets of Berlin (People on Sunday), Charlestoning with Clara Bow (It), marching in step with John Gilbert (The Big Parade) and dangling precariously with Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!).

Continue reading “Review and competition – Neil Brand’s Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 5

Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)

We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.

Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.

The Glorious Adventure (1922)
The Glorious Adventure (1922)

It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 5”

Making Tracks at Rich Mix, 30 May 2012

Making Tracks

File this one under Not Quite Silent Film – but that doesn’t mean it  won’t be of interest to the esteemed readers of this blog. And if you scroll down, you’ll be able to get yourself a special deal on tickets too.

Pioneered by Whirlygig Cinema and film-score artists The Cabinet of Living Cinema, Making Tracks is an ongoing interactive event that provides a unique platform for new filmmakers to get their work seen. The premise is simple; Whirlygig seek out amazing films to showcase, strip them of their original soundtracks, and The Cabinet perform brand new live re-scores. It is a perfect way for filmmakers who have had problems with music copyright to get their work screened in public.

Put simply, Making Tracks is all about the magical combination of movies and live music, and even if the films themselves weren’t originally silent, they will be on the night. They can be, however, and you may remember that the award-winning short film Dogged featured at a Making Tracks night a few months back.

Here’s a lovely blog review of a Making Tracks night that puts it in context of the silent film revival and how lucky we are in London to have so many silent film and live music screenings.

With a live soundtrack you feel the vibrations, hear and see everything intensely, get a few shivers down your spine, and share your entrapment in the vision of the filmmaker with your fellow audience.

Making Tracks returns on 30 May at the very hip Rich Mix arts centre in east London. You can find out more details on the Making Tracks website, but the properly fantastic news is that if you follow this link, you can get a special two for one deal on tickets. Don’t forget to tell them I sent you!

Silent Birmingham – Street Act

A few weeks ago, I posted about a competition held by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The task set was to create a short animation, featuring a city landmark, to be accompanied by one of the pieces of silent film music recently unearthed in the archives of Birmingham Library. Now the winner, whose film will be screened at a gala event on 20 April, alongside some Charlie Chaplin classics and accompany by the CBSO, has been announced.

Gareth Hirst’s short film Street Act explores the dark and violent side of slapstick comedy, and the action takes on Birmingham’s Corporation Street. The movie uses the Indian War Dance music from the archive, to great effect – you can listen to eight more extracts here. If you want to find out more about Hirst, his animation work and his prize-winning film, you can read more on his blog. You’ll see that he put an awful lot of work into the film, including a heck of a lot of research. I understand he is a keen silent movie fan and a regular visitor to the Slapstick Festival in Bristol. Congratulations, Gareth!

Tickets for the Charlie Chaplin gala at the Symphony Hall Birmingham on 20 April 2012 are available here.

Competition: Listen to long-lost silent film music – and make an animated film

Some of the scores discovered in Birmingham in 2011
Some of the scores discovered in Birmingham in 2011

You remember, I’m sure, the exciting haul of silent film music that was discovered in Birmingham last year: the stash contained stock pieces to suit different moods, genres and locations as well as one very specific tune, a Charlie Chaplin theme. There were around 500 manuscripts in total, including compositions for small orchestras as well as solo pianists. The music had been ignored for decades and almost certainly not played in 80 years.

Neil Brand was quoted in the Guardian, explaining the significance of the find:

“This collection gives us our first proper overview of the music of the silent cinema in the UK from 1914 to the coming of sound. Its enormous size not only gives us insights into what the bands sounded like and how they worked with film [but also] the working methods of musical directors. Above all, it gives the lie to the long-cherished belief that silent films were accompanied on solo piano by little old ladies who only knew one tune. When they are played we will hear the authentic sound the audiences of the time would have heard.”

Read more, from the Bioscope, here.

The good news is that this spring, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will be playing some of the music as part of a special Charlie Chaplin night on Friday 20 April (they’re screening One AM and City Lights). The even better news is that you can hear some of the music on Soundcloud now. I’m quite fond of Dramatic Love Scene:

And how about The Great Ice Floe?

Or The Smugglers?

You’ll find nine tracks on the Orchestra’s Soundcloud page here. The reason that the tracks have been recorded and uploaded is that the Orchestra is holding a competition, and if you’re a whizz with animation you really should think about entering. The deal is that you have to make an animation to accompany one of the tracks, which includes the word “Birmingham” or an iconic image of the city. The winner will see their work on the big screen at the Charlie Chaplin night in April and receive a placement at the Charactershop animation studio and an Introduction to Final Cut Pro X course.

There are more details on the Orchestra’s website here.

Video: Air talk about scoring A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès

Culturethèque met French duo Air during their trip to the Institut Français on 12 December 2011 for an exclusive screening of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), in its restored colour version. Watch this interview with the band about Air’s contribution to A Trip to the Moon and about their new album, released on 6 February.

Silent Christmas: Cage Against the Machine

John Cage, composer of 4'33"
John Cage, composer of 4'33"

It’s a fairly safe bet that the discerning readers of this blog won’t be buying Matt Cardle’s single this Christmas.* But what should we be slipping into the fleecy stockings of our loved ones instead?
Well, in a moment of rare cross-medium helpfulness, Silent London advises you to forgo Surfin’ Bird, When We Collide and anything that has ever been recorded by Cliff Richard, in favour of 4′ 33″ by Cage Against the Machine. Not just because it’s the most genuinely subversive record to have a chance of entering the UK charts in ages, but because of the video. Yes, there’s a video, and it’s a thing of beauty.

Continue reading “Silent Christmas: Cage Against the Machine”

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