Friday, December 3, 2010

Higher Scores

I’m not a musician, so I can’t fully appreciate the challenges of composing a silent film score. But as someone who watches a lot of silent films, I’m pretty sure those challenges begin well before the first notes are arranged. They begin with a choice of which master to serve.

There’s the historical master: demanding fidelity to the instruments and arrangements of the time. Use a piano, not an electric keyboard. Use Japanese instruments for a Japanese silent film. Or don’t, but be prepared for the dissonance that results. Be willing to embrace it.

Then there’s the visual master: obliging you to the images and events on-screen. Sound grim when things turn grim; be light when they’re funny. Be sympathetic. Or be combative and play against the images; but be prepared for the dissonance that results from that, too. U.S.-based DJ Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) achieves this in Rebirth of a Nation, his re-cut of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which sounded like (and enhanced) the feelings a modern audience has while watching century-old racist imagery. He made the film into an object, and made the audience feel like observers.
Now consider the challenge of composing scores for a very different medium: video games. Like silent film, video games withstood an agonizing crawl to respectability; today they’re the elephant in the room during any debate over modern art—what it means, what interactivity means to it—all the while drawing huge profits and a widening range of top artistic talent to assist in their development. Composers included. This link takes you to an NPR article and interview on the subject of video game composition. Pay special attention to the following:

For Epic Mickey, developers wanted the music to adjust with the actions of the game’s hero, Mickey Mouse. When Mickey acts in good behavior by following missions and helping people, the music becomes more magical and heroic….The music shifts when Mickey acts more mischievous and destructive….“You’ll hear a lot of bass clarinets, bassoons, essentially like the wrong notes… Probably the hardest part of this job is to do dynamic music, which feels natural, as you start playing and it adapts to your game style.”

Unlike film or TV, video games have no definitive ‘running time’—it may take a player hours, days, or weeks to finish a game, depending on his or her skill level and time commitment. And many modern games are non-linear too, meaning players reach different points at different times. The player is outside the game, contributing to it; in a sense building it through the playing. And so a composer must shift his or her focus from the game as a whole to the player’s feelings at a particular moment—selecting notes sympathetic to a world created by the player’s input. I think Miller does something similar with his Rebirth of a Nation—letting his audience take the lead and responding accordingly. This is one more way silent films can continue to intrigue modern audiences. Not the only way, but one of many.


  1. In one way, the composer of any film score is a privileged member of the audience or perhaps its stand-in in that he or she is asked to serve as an observer and anticipate audience response, thus adding to the film an aural layer that comprises the cultural and emotional reality of its viewers. This is why I enjoy silent film classics that are accompanied by contemporary scores.

    About 20 years ago, I attended a screening of Buster Keaton's "The General" with live piano accompaniment. The young pianist attempted a period-specific improvised score that didn't work because he was clearly trying to play what would have been expected in 1926 rather than infusing his performance with his own reactions to the action in the context of music that was relevant to him.

    When scoring a silent film classic, the composer becomes an artistic collaborator entering into a one-way partnership with the past. When opting for a period-specific approach, this partnership is curatorial in its attempt to preserve and recreate the long-ago experience that a film's director intended. In this mode, the composer disappears.

    Choosing a contemporary score adds an extra layer of dialogue that invites the audience to confront not only the visual matter at play but also the tension between the original artwork and a new musical creation. Also, because the visual vocabulary of cinema has expanded over the course of a century of film, adding a contemporary score renders less alien a visual grammar that may unfamiliar to many modern viewers.

  2. Well put.

    I have a personal pet-peeve with composers who create 'weird' scores to silent films that are not weird themselves. In such cases they're not scoring the film at all, but the medium, which they don't appreciate as much as they think they do.