Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

Talking about music, consciousness, silent film, Italian food, travel, good books, married life, kids, and more

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Report from the Telluride Film Festival

Hi all, just back from my 5th trip to Telluride, what a great festival! The intermittent rain stopped by midday Saturday and we had a lovely three days after that. Here’s what I did…

Day 1. After the delicious morning brunch in the spectacular mountain and ranch scenery, with our wonderful friends Richie Meyer and Susan Harmon, I went to the sound check for my film the next day, see below. You can watch the entire 2hr. 20 with my score if you sign up for a free trial on In the evening I saw a riveting doc, End of Eden by Angus MacQueen, which explores different facets of the last remaining tribes in the far reaches of the Amazon who have remained isolated from the rest of the world. What happens when cameras and medicine come to their villages? Very thought-provoking. Also saw Louis Malle's visually ravishing but thematically depressing 60's drama of a alcoholic's slow slide into suicide, Le Feu Follet.

Day 2: Got to the queue too late to get into Sully, so went instead to Into the Inferno. Telluride regular Werner Herzog teams up with British volcanologist to stare into a number of active volcanoes, including one in North Korea, which sparks a mini-digression on the curious culture of that country. Stunning cinematography and sometimes typically-Herzogian wackiness emerges, such as a scene in Africa when Californian paleontologist Tim White explains with vigor the ins and outs of brushing the ancient soil for bits and pieces of bones. And an encounter with a South Sea tribal chief whose people have created a cult around a mythical GI, John Frum, who will one day descend from the sky to save them.

My film this year: Spies, the ur-crimi that got Fritz Lang back on his feet after the financially disastrous Metropolis. Volker Schlöndorff had programmed it and the Sheraton Opera House was packed to the rafters with a VIP crowd including Bertrand Tavernier, Werner Herzog, also Peter Sellars and Tom Luddy, both of whom, along with Schlöndorff, told me how much they had enjoyed the music. Got one of Sellars’ famous hugs. What a gas. In the evening I went to a tribute to Amy Adams, with clips from half a dozen of her films, including the great Central park scene in Enchanted. Then the premiere of her new sci-fi film Arrival, which I adored.

Day 3. Toni Erdmann, a 162 min. German film about an eccentric, practical joking father and his consultant daughter who is trying to do deals in Romania but Daddy keeps getting in the way. Very funny and touching. Great, great acting by German stage veterans Peter Simonischek (I met him, what fun) and Sandra Hüller. La La Land, by the director of Whiplash. A musical fantasy set all over LA with singing and dancing by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling playing young hopefuls in the entertainment biz. Fun, corny and I cried a lot. Justin Hurwitz's songs are effective but not his orchestrations, unfortunately. Rather clumsy in many places. Then Things to Come, a sensitive French drama starring a fabulous Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy teacher facing multiple family crises all at once.

Day 4: Kasper Collin’s brilliant doc I Called Him Morgan about the life and death of trumpet genius Lee Morgan and his wife Helen, who shot him in February 1972 in a NY club. Superb footage, interviews, editing, music. After the annual Labor Day picnic in the park I went to: Moonlight, a beautiful and poignant drama about a black boy in Miami and his coming to manhood in the midst of the drug culture. Then at last to Sully, Clint Eastwood’s paean to the US Airways pilot who saved his planeload of 155. Tom Hanks is fine and the structure of the film keeps things on edge despite having seen it on the news.  Finally, a truly wacky and delightful comedy by a Belgian couple, Lost in Paris. Shades of Tati and Keaton but with lots of original zaniness. Great fun to watch and a big audience hit.

Look for these films at your local theaters, you will enjoy! Some of the docs will be on Netflix…

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


I'm thrilled to announce that I have been commissioned to write an orchestral score for SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916) with William Gillette. It will be premiered at the Odessa International Film Festival on July 16, 2016, with 45 members of the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a fantastic opportunity for me, but the commission fee only covers the actual writing of the music, not orchestrating it, so I have launched an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the orchestration, which will be done by my dear friend, Peter Breiner, who can do this much faster and better than I. Please take a look at the campaign and contribute something if you can! Thanks so much.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wow! the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival

Just back from Korea, where we spent a wonderful week, touring the Hongdae and Gangnam districts of Seoul for two days and eating wonderful food. Then we boarded a bus with press and other guests for the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival.

In its eleventh year, the festival in this scenic resort area two hours southeast of Seoul focuses on films about music and musicians. Six theaters ran programs all day for five days. The 103 films in the festival were chosen from about 400 by Chun Jin-su, a middle-aged man with sparkling eyes and a great smile, who introduced us at both our film events, and chaired the panel. Mostly new films from all over the world, and concerts at night. We were invited for two silent film screenings and a panel discussion. A couple of our colleagues have already been here. We were the first silent film musicians at JIMFF to involve singing, and it went over wonderfully. The venue was a large open-air stage on the beautiful lake. We got to walk the red carpet and pose for photos at the opening ceremony, before being entertained by Bwung-wu Lee, a famous Korean film composer and his band, and watching a doc about the Kim Sisters of Ed Sullivan fame—one of them performed for us! Then there was a reception at our hotel, followed by a private dinner where we had a chance to talk with the musicians we had just heard, and jury members, who included Yonfan, director of the acclaimed Peony Pavilion.

Friday night we did Phantom of the Opera; I played synth, Joanna sang the Faust music beautifully. The audience was mostly young people, as the festival brilliantly packages the silent programs as openers for big-name Korean bands. So there was a full house, around 1500 people, who got to experience something that they might otherwise not have discovered. Members of the staff told us they really enjoyed the music. The audience was warm in their response, but the following night for Grandma’s Boy they gave us a really huge ovation, which surprised and delighted us. I played piano and synth and Joanna sang and played small percussion. We wondered if they would get all the humor, but the laughter for Lloyd was big from the outset and continued throughout. Slightly smaller house, maybe 1,000. Many people told us how much they enjoyed the singing and the whole experience. The mayor of Jecheon was there both nights, very charming and personable.

We stayed after our shows both nights for most of the rock/pop/disco/funk bands. The third night the film was Beatles, a sweet and funny coming-of-age film from Norway about 4 Oslo boys who are trying to start a band. The audience laughed a lot. Then roared for the two live bands, Sultan of the Disco and Norazo, and danced and sang along with many songs.

The whole festival was extremely well run, with 200 young volunteers dressed in green T-shirts, and all happy smiles and continuous greetings of "Anyeoung haseo!” We had a driver, a college-age girl to accompany us and translate at markets and in general. Our contacts spoke very good English. A large progressive national paper and a weekly film magazine with a circulation of 100,000 interviewed us.

Sunday they took us to a sensational Korean restaurant for lunch. We had a private room for us and our young translator. Plate after plate of side dishes, soup and rice were brought out. Different rice for Nick and me than for Jo, Mollie and Lilly. Something about the energy.

We sat on mats and ate as much as we could before we had to leave for the panel on silent film music, which took place in an 80-seat theater in the modern megaplex in the center of the city. We showed some clips and talked about our work for 20 minutes, with a first-rate simultaneous translator. We were followed by a representative from the Korean Film Archive, who talked about how silent films were shown in Korea with narrators (like benshis in Japan), and showed a clip from Way Down East with narration and music. Two groups of young Korean musicians presented clips of their performances and discussed their work. Each group has been performing for a few years and has a couple of films in their repertoire. One showed a clip from The Kid, with music from Rocky accompanying the fight scene. The other group, Floating Island, created a score for what is evidently the only surviving Korean silent feature film, the others having been destroyed in the war. The film, Crossroads of Youth, was a big hit at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, and the accompaniment included both narration and singing with string, accordion and piano accompaniment, very effective.

After the panel on Monday we finally had some time to relax and see some more films, including:

MAIKO: DANCING CHILD (Norway, 2015) stunning doc about the Japanese-born prima ballerina of the Norwegian Ballet and her tough choices between career and family. We cried throughout. Great dancing, great film.

MIX TAPE (Turkey, 2014) funny romantic comedy with an Andy Kaufman-type antihero who is struggling to find his voice as a writer while working as a DJ and wooing his lady friend with his mix tapes of great Turkish pop music. NUTCRACKER (Korea, 2014) Korean Ballet choreographed by Bolshoi’s Yuri Grigrovich. Nice dancing, but not well filmed, too many quick cuts and long shots.

AMY (USA, 2015) doc about Amy Winehouse. Nick said it was astounding. (I missed it)

KARA-ORCHESTRA (Taiwan, 2013) Nick liked it a lot. We saw the last half hour—a symphony orchestra performs a concert with tribal singers despite protests from the conservative element of the orchestra.

BLACK GOSPEL 2 (Korea, 2015) follow-up to first film about Korean singer who meets many Harlem music ministers. Lots of wonderful music. Heard some of them sing live post-film.

MATEO (USA/Cuba/Japan, 2014) doc about first American white mariachi singer. Nick and Jo saw and liked a lot.

Wanted to see but no time: KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON (saw in Telluride, would happily see again),

MAX AND LENNY (director Fred Nicolas was there, we enjoyed talking with him)

WRECKING CREW (Nick just watched on Netflix and said it was hugely inspiring)

THE PIANO, TRUMPETER, WANGEN 3D, FOREVER AND A DAY, and the shorts programs. etc. etc. has links to most of the films. We’re still exhausted but it was a trip we will cherish forever—warm, wonderful people, fascinating sights, and really delicious food. Can’t wait to go back.

Friday, September 20, 2013



Alfred Hitchcock cut his filmmaking teeth on the nine films he directed in the silent era. He quickly learned how to create fast-paced, visually absorbing dramas, and even produced some light comedies during the 20's. But the one element of filmmaking over which he had no control in those days was the music, which was left to the music directors in whichever theater the films were playing. It would take some time before he was able to hire composers who were able to translate his visions into sound. By the fifties he had achieved a level of sophistication in his films that was completely matched by the scores, by such Hollywood greats as Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann.

Listening to their music accompanying clips from several Hitchcock films at the NY Philharmonic's “Film Week: The Art of the Score” concert Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, I was struck by how much of the music harked back to the silent era in its function. Long passages of perhaps five minutes without dialogue and minimal sound effects drew the listener in, creating an altogether different feeling from sound films. One can appreciate film music in soundtrack albums but it's a pleasure of a higher order to see the images the music was intended to accompany. Great films and music are a combination that makes for a unique artistic experience.

The Philharmonic played superbly under the direction of guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, making his debut with the orchestra. There was no extravagance of gesture on his part, his motions seemed suave and relaxed, in comparison to the nerve-wracking tension of the chases in To Catch A Thief (music by Lyn Murray) and North by Northwest (Herrmann), or the climactic fight on a carousel gone mad in Strangers on a Train. The brass was in top form, and solos and duets emerged from the ensembles with subtle grace. I had heard some of this music played by a good Italian orchestra earlier in the summer, but the Philhamonic is in an entirely different galaxy.

The waltzes of Dial M for Murder, a Tiomkin score, were charming but the effect was less satisfying. In the film the music is mixed well behind the dialogue. Onstage with a big ensemble even playing softly there was no choice but to crank up the dialogue track, as the point of the evening was to hear the music. Dialogue became painfully loud at times. The emotional climax of the evening was the suite from Vertigo. For the love scene between James Stewart and Kim Novak, Hitchcock let Herrmann's expansive, Wagnerian strings take the place of dialogue. Again, hearing the familiar themes in this context was richly satisfying.

A special treat came in the form of home movies with Hitchcock romping with his family, alternating with his wry promo piece for North By Northwest, all underscored by Gounod's “Funeral March of a Marionette,” the theme song of Hitchcock's two TV series. Philharmonic host Alec Baldwin (at Wednesday's repeat performance Sam Waterston presided) introduced each of the film segments with a bit more restraint and dignity than the evening demanded.


Imagine a concert where both the performer and audience members are wearing headsets to measure the synchronicity of their brainwaves. Sounds like sci-fi? Not according to neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel, author of Music, Language, and the Brain. He spoke on a panel discussion entitled Mind, Music and the Moving Image co-sponsored by the World Science Festival and the New York Philharmonic on Sept. 21.

The main attraction for the sold-out audience was probably the presence of the Coen brothers, Academy Award-winning screenwriter/directors, and actor/Philharmonic host Alec Baldwin, who moderated the discussion. But for this audience member, the most informative parts of the 90-minute event were the comments from Patel and the Coen's composer of choice for their fifteen films, Carter Burwell. Patel spoke about the cutting-edge field in "neurocinematics" being studied at Princeton, and the possibilities of films that could be designed to "take over the minds of the audience" through artful manipulation of sound and image.

Sounds rather Big-Brother-ish? But film music (as well as advertising jingles) has always been about engaging the audience on a subconscious level, starting with the compilations of the silent era and the romantic wash of Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann, proceeding to the wide-ranging styles of Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein, the sweeping orchestras of John Williams and James Horner, and the hi-tech sounds of Zimmer and Trent Reznor, the soundscapes of David Lynch, and hundreds of other fine composers including Burwell, whose scores for the Coens include BARTON FINK, MILLER'S CROSSING, and TRUE GRIT.

As a composer of primarily silent film music, I am always thinking about how the music will affect the audience, whether to speed up the tempo to help move a slow scene along, or create a counterpoint to fast-paced action with a postmodernist pullback of the tempo that can give the feeling that the audience is more removed from the action than might be the case with a fast, pulsing rhythm.

"The landscape is changing for how we measure responses to art,” says Patel. And it looks as though the rate of change is increasing every moment.

Monday, June 10, 2013

UPSTREAM, ORLAC and other silent projects

Just after my last entry I finished scoring 41 Mack Sennett shorts for Paul Gierucki that played on TCM shortly afterwards. Joanna and I accompanied the wonderful Raymond Griffith feature HANDS UP! at the Telluride Festival, and then taught a workshop for U. Colorado Denver students who collaborated with us to produce a fine score for THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. But right after that a bizarre medical situation put me in the hospital—a pituitary tumor, benign but scary—and I was forced to cancel my appearance at the Pordenone festival for the first time in years. Fortunately I was back on my feet in a few weeks, and have spent the past several months conducting three musicals in our area—JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, PETER PAN, and OLIVER! while working on the score for John Ford's UPSTREAM for the National Film Preservation Foundation. That lovely film will be on DVD in the fall, and also on TCM. And as I write I am on my way to Vienna for the premiere of my score for THE HANDS OF ORLAC, by Robert Wiene (who directed CALIGARI). Dennis James, the fabulous organist, had asked me to write this for both of us to play at the Konzerthaus, one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. We will rehearse and record the score and then perform on Thursday night. More soon about this!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

MIDI images, images into MIDI

Our son Nick noticed that the pattern of the MIDI graph I was editing looked like a picture. This morning he showed me his rendition in MIDI of the Batman symbol.
I told him I had done a project in 10th grade called Geometric Music, in which I drew various symbols—a square, a triangle, a parallelogram—and put them on a musical grid, exactly as a MIDI chart would have done, with pitch as the x-axis and time as the y-axis. I also charted an electrocardiogram. Years later I read that Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked on this idea also, crafting musical lines to the images in ALEXANDER NEVSKY. Peter Lehman in his book, DEFINING CINEMA, writes,

In looking at Nick's Batman logo, I wondered if anyone had created an app to convert images to MIDI, and lo and behold, he discovered photosounder.

Check it out, it's amazing.

There's also Nicolas Fournel's AudioPaint. And a reverse program that generates images from a MIDI guitar controller, also called Audiopaint. It would be great to take the Lumia Suite of Thomas Wilfred, a beautiful animated light piece that used to be on display in the theater lobby at MoMA, and hear what it sounds like. Although I used to enjoy just watching it in silence. Obviously the whole idea of looking at images and converting them to sound is part and parcel of my everyday work, but this is somewhat different.

After the Silence

Hi friends, It's been a long time since the last blog, due to some technical glitches. I'm back in action here, though I have posted various things on FB in the interim. It's been a busy year, with new scores coming out soon from Criterion (THE LAST PERFORMANCE, with Conrad Veidt, a powerful Paul Fejos film; from Milestone (CAPTAIN JANUARY, with Baby Peggy) and the forthcoming monumental Mack Sennett retrospective on TCM that will also be on DVD from Laughsmith. Every Thursday night in September starting at 8pm it will be nonstop Mack Sennett into the wee hours, and I will have a bunch of new scores and a few earlier ones there with these highly entertaining films, newly restored by Paul Gierucki and his crew. Visit our website at for details later this month. Have a great summer! D

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

ESTHER, a one-act opera for families

Hi, it's been a while, and I'll have more to say soon about the festivals I've been performing at: Denver, Pordenone, and the coming shows at MoMA, MOMI and the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, but right now I'd like to invite readers to click on this link to my current Kickstarter project and pledge any amount, large or small, towards the production and DVD of my opera ESTHER, which will return to the stage next year in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the founding of Hadassah.

ESTHER Is a very kid-friendly opera, and tells in simple terms the well-known Bible story of a Jewish girl who risks her life to reveal her identity to the Persian king Ahashuerus to save her people. Watch a video introduction and hear excerpts here:

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