This is a guest post for Silent London by the composer and author Carl Davis. Today is his 85th birthday, and his new album Buster Keaton: The Carl Davis Soundtracks is released next week, 5 November. The two-disc set comprises highlights from the Carl Davis soundtracks composed for the Buster Keaton movies commissioned for Thames Silents and The Cohen Film Collection. The music is composed and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the Thames Silents Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of London and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. recorded between 1984 and 2020.
What makes Buster Keaton different from his two great rivals, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in the Hollywood of the 1920s? These three artists played very defined and different characters and supporting them in their differences is the role of the music.
Charlie’s Tramp evolved from 1914 and he played him until 1936 when the character made his final appearance in Modern Times. Chaplin was himself a gifted composer. As soon as sound film became the standard he completed and recorded his score for City Lights (1931) and did so for the rest of his career. Chaplin’s scores evolved out of the pre-1914 world of Victorian Music Halls: sentimental ballads, waltzes and polkas as well as melodramatic underscoring.
Early in my career as a silent film accompanist I had an experience, which in retrospect probably affected the way I think about the work. I was accompanying a Louise Brooks film that, as was typical at the time, I had not seen in advance. The piano was positioned directly beneath the screen, so that the image filled my field of vision. I recall it being one of those rare evenings when I was totally lost in the film and music seemed to flow directly from brain to piano, almost bypassing the hand.
At one point Louise was held in an extended close-up – her smiling, enigmatic beauty framed by silver light. Then she started to speak and, although there was no intertitle, it was very clear to me what she was saying. In fact, just for a few seconds, I could actually hear her voice speaking the words. At least, that’s how it seemed. In retrospect, I realised that I had almost certainly been lip-reading. However, something about the moment, as immersive as it was, made the words transform into the sound of a voice within my head.
When I saw Dovzhenko’s Arsenal at the British Silent Film Festival in Leicester in 2015 I was blown away. Yes, it’s a great film, but I had seen it once or twice before. However, the score performed that evening by Bronnt Industries Kapital, AKA Guy Bartell, knocked my socks off. If I’m strictly honest, it made me appreciate the film itself, which had previously left me a little cold, far more. You may have heard the band’s excellent score for Turksib – this one is even better.
I said, “Bartell’s score is expertly judged – an echo chamber of horror for the film to resonate inside. I urge you to catch the film with this score whenever you can.”And I wasn’t the only viewer impressed. None other than John Sweeney, who knows whereof he speaks, said: “An extraordinary soundtrack for an extraordinary movie, Guy Bartell’s sound score for Arsenal plugs the viewer directly into the nervous system of this shattering film.”
So I am very chuffed to share with you the news that Bronnt is releasing this new score for Arsenal on CD, (green) vinyl and digital formats on 12 January 2018 via I Own You records. The score was commissioned by the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre with the British Council to accompany the ODNC’s recently restored print. Which means …Yes, Bronnt is taking the music and the film on a little tour. Remember what I told you – catch it if you can.
On Saturday night at Glastonbury 2014, the mud, the terrible noodles and the hangovers will all be worth it. For the first time ever, a silent film will play the country’s leading rock festival. Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers will perform their rousing score for William’s Wellman’s rail-riding rollercoaster Beggars of Life in the Pilton Palais cinema tent, at 6pm on 28 June. We’ll be there – will you?
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand
In 1925, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, won a plagiarism case against film producer Albin Grau over the latter’s 1922 chiller, Nosferatu. To be frank, Grau didn’t have a leg to stand on – he had applied for a licence to film Dracula, been refused by Florence and gone ahead with filming anyway, changing a few character names. This hardly distanced his film from Stoker’s Dracula, whose plot he had lifted lock, stock and barrel for Nosferatu and Florence successfully sued to get his company closed down and every copy of the film destroyed. Thanks to one vital copy, lodged at the time in the US where Stoker’s novel was already out of copyright, we still have the movie and every print now available descends from that one saved positive.
But I’m beginning to think that a skilful lawyer could actually have argued Florence down. Over a lifetime of playing this masterpiece I have noticed that in two vital areas scriptwriter Henrik Galeen and director FW Murnau actually created a new monster that Stoker would barely have recognised – firstly Van Helsing is a small-part character who is in no way responsible for Dracula’s destruction; secondly Nosferatu, minus Dracula’s brides, only has eyes for only one woman – Mina Harker. And it’s beauty that kills the beast.
I’ll go further – Nosferatu/Orlok is not Dracula, but director FW Murnau himself – with the result that today’s vampires flitting through Twilight and The Diaries are the children, not of Stoker’s night, but of Galeen and Murnau’s. And the music they make is very different.
The magnificent central section of the film depicts the vampire heading towards Whitby/Wisborg on board ship, disposing of the crew one by one like some hideous onboard buffet while Harker/Hutter plods back home across the mountains. Waiting on the beach is Hutter’s wife, the strange, other-worldly Mina, staring out to sea and during her sleepwalking catatonia delivering the devastating line: ‘My lover is coming!’
But which lover, the Count or the Husband? Let’s look at what has brought them all to this point – Orlok has seen Mina’s picture and is about to gorge himself on Hutter for the second night running. Mina, staying with friends who have rescued her from a perilous walltop sleepwalk, suddenly sits up in bed with a cry – across a single shot-cut (but miles of the Carpathian Mountains) Orlok freezes in mid-bite and turns to face the direction of her ‘voice’ – off camera right. In Witold, she slumps. In Transylvania, he moves away, his meal untouched. The next time we see him moving he is heading away from the castle and towards Mina, bearing his coffins. From then on it is as if she is already under his power – and, I would argue, he is under hers.
It is impossible to play Orlok’s arrival in Whitby/Wisborg as anything but heroic – the beautiful shot of the ship sailing itself to the dock; the scuttling figure with the coffin stopping outside Mina’s house for a brief smile and his first head-and-shoulder close-up in the movie; then the final river trip, standing proudly in a supernaturally powered rowboat, which deposits him at his new property where he enters by melting through the locked doors. No wonder Herzog chose Wagner for that sequence in his Nosferatu 70 years later. Orlok is a conqueror claiming his kingdom, from which he will stare balefully at Mina’s window while his rats destroy the city. And we are now, however unwillingly, rooting for him.
Murnau, by all accounts promiscuously gay and self-conscious about his appearance, obviously loved his vampire with the outsider’s love of a soulmate gifted with powers he can only dream of. Every flesh-and-blood male character in the film is weak or deluded; Hutter himself can only sit feebly by while Mina takes the strong course in dealing with both infection and infector. But as she makes up her mind we see Orlok imprisoned in his palace imploring her attention with a look that can only be described as heart-breaking. When she acquiesces, he comes to the feast like Don Juan triumphant, the shadow of his bony fingers enclosing, not her neck but her heart, which he squeezes as she writhes beneath him. Herzog would provide the perfect closure for their nuptials, Orlok looking up from her throat at the dawning light, only to have her draw his head gently back to her neck with the gentlest of arm-movements.
Audiences new to the film always laugh at the opening and the speeded-up actions, but it is a wonderful tonic to hear the silence descend as Murnau and his vampire exert their power. I have never been able to play triumph at the Nosferatu’s demise because we have been taught by Murnau to admire and pity him as well as fear him, and in the last thirty years Herzog, Coppola and Joss Whedon have all followed Murnau’s lead. Genius that he was, Murnau made the connection half a century before the rest of us did – we know Orlok because he is us.
Every silent film is an invitation to the musician to tell their version of the story and, yes, “Nosferatu, the Love Story” is a spin, one of many that could be applied to this great film. But here’s my point: treating it musically as a horrific love story opens vistas of new insight on this masterpiece that are vastly greater and more rewarding than the simple terrors of the night. And when the tension between horror, lust and desire is working, one can almost hear the new blood coursing through the vampire’s veins …
Update: the Flowers of London interactive goes live on 7th February, otherwise known as tomorrow.
A dangerous opportunity for silent movie fans this: time to put one’s money where one’s mouth resides and customise a film soundtrack of your very own. Arts website The Space, together with the BFI and The New Radiophonic Workshop, has built an interactive online player that allows users to mix different audio elements to accompany a film. The title they have chosen is Flowers of London (1924), from the Wonderful London series of 1920s travelogues.
Flowers of London will be published on The Space on February 7. Part of a series of silent shorts, Flowers of London is a poignant evocation of London – the city’s dirty streets contrasting with images of flowers, a symbol of hope throughout the film. The New Radiophonic Workshop, led by composer Matthew Herbert, brought in sound-effects experts alongside award-winning writer Laura Wade to add new dimensions to the film. Viewers have complete control of their listening experience and can choose their own combination of sound-effects, music and narrative … audiences can customise their own experience by deciding which soundtrack or combination of soundtracks the film should have, choosing to hear the New Radiophonic Workshop’s full mix or to use the player to select from the seven different combinations.
It’s not the first time that The Space has got involved with silent film: you may remember its live stream of the Champagne restoration last year, and the site currently hosts a collection of silent titles, including some very precious Shakespeare adaptations. The Flowers of London interactive is being touted as part of the site’s coverage of the art of silent film scoring in particular. You can watch a video in which Daniel Patrick Cohen discusses his score for The Pleasure Garden – and we’re promised similar insights from Simon Fisher Turner on his score for The Great White Silence.
The Flowers of London interactive goes live on 7 February so I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet. If you have a go, do let me know what you think in the comments below – particularly whether it enhances your enjoyment or understanding of the film. With sound-effects, voiceover and samples, you’re unlikely to make what we would think of as a “traditional” silent film score. Whatever that means.
I must also share you with this intriguing snippet from the press release. Matthew Herbert, director of The New Radiophonic Workshop, “is constantly exploring alternative ways to listen and think about how we create and listen to sound and music … He has made records out of 3,500 people biting an apple at the same time, the sewers beneath London, the Houses of Parliament and most recently, the entire life cycle of a pig.” But has it got a good beat?
Before you go, enjoy this clip from another of the Wonderful London films, currently available on DVD. Avnd don’t forget that a second batch of Wonderful London shorts screens at the BFI Southbank on 15 February with musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne and an introduction by Bryony Dixon.
Visit The Space from 7 February onwards to mix your own soundtrack to Flowers of London.
It was hands-down the most controversial silent film score of the year, but French duo Air have expanded their music for Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) into an album. The record, named after the film, will be released on 7 February 2012 and features additional vocals by Victoria Legrand, the French half of Beach House, and lyrics written by New York keyboard trio Au Revoir Simone. The full tracklisting is as follows, and you can see already how scenes from the film are expressed in the music:
01 Astronomic Club
02 Seven Stars
03 Retour sur terre
05 Moon Fever
06 Sonic Armada
07 Who Am I Know?
09 Cosmic Trip
10 Homme lune
Air’s score was composed specifically to accompany the restoration of the hand-tinted, full-colour version of Méliès’s film, and limited-edition copies of the album will feature the film in full with its new music.
The news of the album’s release was posted on the music website Pitchfork yesterday, where they also shared this short modern silent, scored by Air, that was created as part of a promotional series for the jeweller Cartier.
Ensemble Amorpha are a contemporary chamber music group that puts the emphasis on contemporary. Primarily, they play music by living composers, and in some of their upcoming shows they are championing the art of modern silent film-making as well.
Shorts Amorpha at the BFI Southbank is a programme of contemporary silent films, which will be shown not in a gallery, but on the big screen at NFT1. Ensemble Amorpha will play music by Dominic Murcott, Luke Styles, Christopher Mayo, Marc Yeats, Damon Lee, Alwyn Thomas Westbrooke, Philippe Kocher, Naomi Pinnock, Phil Vennables and Yoav Pasovsky to accompany films by Pavla Sceranková, Jan Pfeiffer, Sebastian Schmidt, Daniel Bisig, Gabriela Lang, Damon Lee, Nicolas Wiese and Zoe Payne. The music will be played on strings, woodwind, percussion and electronically too. This promises to be a fascinating and experimental evening – plenty here to inspire musicians and film-makers alike.
Later in the month, at Kings Place, the ensemble are putting on programme called Modern Silence. This will include scores for modern silent films by Alwyn Westbrooke and Damon Lee, as well as Luke Styles’s beautiful music for Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). It’s great to see Kings Place continuing to support silent film, both here and with its Not So Silent Movies shows.
Modern Silence will be performed in Hall Two of Kings Place on 12 December at 8pm. Tickets start at £9.50 and are available here on the Kings Place website.
To find out more about Ensemble Amorpha and to listen to samples of their performances, visit their website.
After months of work on his score for Undergound (1928), Neil Brand is still, happily, a big fan of the film. In fact he’s enthusiastic, and generous, enough to offer Silent London a preview of the music ahead of the world premiere next Wednesday and to chat about the film, and the process of scoring it too. Anthony Asquith’s film is set in London, but borrows its visual style from the European and Soviet art cinema that he loved so much: expect dark shadows, quickfire editing and geometric compositions. “Asquith was never again so bold as he was with Underground,” Brand says, and this score represents Brand’s attempt “to make music as bold as the film is”.
It hasn’t been an easy task. At first, he says, he was intimidated by the task ahead: the difficulty about writing for Underground, as opposed to Blackmail, which Brand scored for the BBC Symphony Orchestra last year, was that Asquith’s film requires snatches of lighter music. Blackmail is like an “icicle to the heart”, but Underground has wry, comic moments, at least towards the beginning of the film, before the characters make some disastrous decisions, and the film’s romantic triangle becomes an “Expressionist nightmare”. “Those first 20 minutes were horrendous to write,” he says. But four months later he has a complete score, which will be played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Brock, at the Barbican Concert Hall next month.
Brand is of course known for his piano scores, often improvised, for silent films, and here he has incorporated a piano into an orchestra score for the first time. He tells me this is partly because he wanted to use the love theme he had written for the film when he accompanied it at the London Film Festival with the Prima Vista Social Club two years ago. He also wanted to use the piano’s percussive bass sound and he enjoys the sound of a solo piano, at moments, over a quiet orchestra. “It’s almost a Morricone effect.”
Other than that though, Brand tackled the score as he always does, from the beginning to the end. This means that every morning, before starting work on the next segment of the film he would play through the existing score from the start. So he has heard the opening of the score, on his home computer setup, many, many times.
This is a silent film screening, a concert, an experiment and lunch, all rolled into one. Not So Silent Movies will happen on the first Sunday of every month at the Kings Place arts centre in Kings Cross. It’s the brainchild of composer and cellist Philip Sheppard and puts a range of leading musicians to the ultimate test of their improvisational skills – accompanying silent films. The films will be a complete surprise to the musicians, who will have had no opportunity to watch the movies in advance, or heaven forfend, rehearse. This is what Sheppard says about the project:
‘I love throwing caution to the wind and creating a spontaneous composition, and I have absolute confidence that these musicians can pull it off. There’ll be as much slap-stick on stage as on screen; we get such a buzz from taking the risk with no safety net – it’s the adrenalin that makes it work, and when it’s over you can’t repeat it – it’s a one off!’
The choice of films will be a surprise for the audience too, of course. But a little bird tells me we can expect plenty of Buster Keaton (from the shorts to the features), some Harold Lloyd, maybe even some Chaplins in the future. Sheppard is huge fan of silent comedy and keen to show a broad range of films. He has something very special planned for Christmas, too, hopefully involving a special guest. But he’s keen to hear suggestions from Silent London readers. So if you want to nominate some silent comedies that you would like to see with a spontaneous score, comment below.
The roster of musicians involved is very impressive, and changes from month to month. Here are the line-ups for the first three Sundays.
Sunday 2 October:
Special guests Guy Pratt bass (Pink Floyd & Roxy Music) Geoff Dugmore drums
House band Philip Sheppard cello Elspeth Hanson violin (Bond) Pip Eastop horn (London Sinfonietta) Mark Neary pedal steel guitar
Sunday 6 November: Special guest Dame Evelyn Glennie OBE percussion
Sunday 4 December: Roger Eno piano
Robin Millar CBE guitarist/star producer Steve Mackey bass player, Pulp
Not So Silent Movies takes place on the first Sunday of every month in Hall Two of Kings Place. Tickets cost £9.50-£12.50, or £29.50 with Sunday lunch and a bloody mary at the Rotunda restaurant included. Find out more here.
Which silent comedies would you like to see shown at Not So Silent Movies? Please leave your comments below.
But the Ritzy plans to mark its centenary with more than just film screenings. Its Around the Decades parties will kick off on 20 May with a swinging celebration of 1911, the year the cinema was built:
It’s spring 1911 and America’s hottest trend has finally set sail for Europe’s shores. Have you heard that “everybody’s doin’ it now”? Leave behind Mazurkas, Schottisches, Polkas, the Grizzly Bear and the Turkey Trot, and ready yourselves for London society’s most contemporary steps… RMS Lusitania Orchestra are flooding the town with the sound of RAGTIME.
The decade The Ritzy began was filled with a fair amount of war, several sinking ships (Titanic included) and even more Spanish flu but no need to be glum! We will be making sure that we only bring the best bits to our party Upstairs. So leave your bunkers and don your most opulent gowns and suits, whilst we take you back, waaay back to a time of true class and style. A night of foot-hopping rhythms, vintage chic and many a Singapore Sling. All hail King George V!
Music, vintage frocks and cocktails in one of London’s best cinemas? Well, why the devil not? Tickets for the party are £6 or £4 for concessions and the music starts at 8.30pm on Friday 20 May. More details here.