Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

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

Monday, November 17, 2008


MANHATTA (1921), the first American avant-garde film, brought the talents of painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand together to give motion to the New York cityscapes they had each captured in still frames. The resulting 10-minute film was shown a few times in the 20's, then disappeared for almost 30 years. Till now it has only been available in a very blurry, damaged version that has circulated widely, and can be seen on numerous websites with a variety of musical accompaniments. Critics have always considered the film a great milestone in American cinema, and praised its composition and lyrical quality, despite the poor picture quality.

Now the film has been digitally restored by archivist and filmmaker Bruce Posner, and the results are something to cheer about. Posner showed the new version for the first time in the US at the Museum of Modern Art Friday and Saturday (it was screened at the Pordenone silent film festival and at the London Film Festival in October) to sold-out audiences who got to compare the old and new versions, and learned about the various methods used in cleaning up the print.

To accompany the film, I was asked to create an orchestral score from the synthesized version I composed three years ago as part of the Unseen Cinema project, in which Manhatta and 150 other short films were gathered together in a 7-DVD box. I scored a number of these films then, including A BRONX MORNING, $24 ISLAND, SKYSCRAPER SYMPHONY, LIFE AND DEATH OF A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA, ANEMIC CINEMA, and GHOST TRAIN. Starting with an improvisation while watching each film, I expanded some of the material, added other instruments to a basic string or piano track, and went on to the next short. MANHATTA itself was written in about half an hour's worth of short takes, and the synthesized orchestration took a couple of days. I wrote in an accessible Copland-y style, and tried to give a sense of what I felt was essentially a very silent city, despite billowing smokestacks, the bustle of Staten Island ferry commuters, tugboats and steamships.

Making this music playable by a 39-piece ensemble was a more involved process. I went back to the finished synth track, which had been recorded in Digital Performer without any kind of a click track or reference to bar lines. I tapped a metronome beat along with the music to create a score that made sense time-wise, adding meter changes and revising tempos to fit the timing of the new print.

Then I transferred the digital information as a MIDI file to Finale, the notation program I have used for 20 years and spent about two weeks orchestrating the score, which calls for woodwinds in pairs, two horns, trumpet, trombone, percussion, timpani, piano and strings. With a few keystrokes the program extracted instrumental parts from the score, and although it's supposed to be pretty automatic, in practice there are always things to tweak: the placement of measure numbers, dynamic expressions, tempo indications that collide with notes, etc. I spoke about all this at MoMA and showed some examples of the files I had been working on.

Finally everything was ready to deliver to the conductor, my dear friend Peter Breiner, whom I had met in Bratislava 25 years ago during recording sessions with my mentor, William Perry. Bill had brought me there to orchestrate some of the songs from WIND IN THE WILLOWS, which I had conducted and arranged for its premiere at the Folger Theatre in Washington. Peter, the producer of these sessions, is a consummate composer/arranger/conductor/pianist; he and I chatted about music inbetween takes, and became quick friends. But he wouldn't talk politics in those Communist and probably bugged environs until we were in his car 50km out of town and he felt he could whisper that conditions weren't so good.
We parted, not knowing if we would ever see each other again.

But we stayed in touch, at first by snail mail. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, he resettled in Toronto, and we saw each other a few times as I went there or he came here to conduct. Finally, in 2007 had the chance to move to Manhattan. You can imagine the incredulous joy of our reunion in his triplex in a renovated co-op on the Lower East Side, complete with concert grand and a view of the Chrysler Building.

Peter was already performing in Kosice in March, so he was able to piggyback our recording session with the orchestra there, in a fine concert hall originally built as a synagogue but never used for that purpose. The recording was done in 14 channels, and all the audio files were transferred to a little USB drive that I took out to Chace labs in Burbank to be mixed from the takes I had chosen.

The silent 35mm film runs at 16 frames per second, too slow to add a soundtrack, which requires 24 fps for a steady, reliable pitch without flutter. So the music was on a CD, and I stood next to the projectionist, making sure that film and music stayed together, requiring a slight increase or decrease in speed every 15 seconds or so: a live performance of a film to recorded music!

It was a treat to have both Peter and Bill there at the Friday night shows.

So we have come full circle: Bill was playing at MoMA when I wrote to him in 1971, having heard his wonderful scores for THE MARK OF ZORRO and ORPHANS OF THE STORM on PBS, and when I moved to NYC I began subbing for him, and when he left the museum, became its regular accompanist. These days I play there every couple of weeks. Today's film was HEARTS OF THE WORLD, a repeat of 2 weeks ago, and the 50 or so people who came cheered for the Yanks and laughed at some of the sillier moments, and had nice things to say about my score afterwards. Not a terrific film, but has many wonderful small moments and beautiful photography.

A day of rest and then back to BAM for MOCKERY on Tuesday.

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  • At 2:42 AM , Blogger Cuban Bach said...

    Hello! I love, love, love William Perry's piano score to Orphans of the Storm! Some years ago I wrote to him online and I don't know if he is still alive.

    Thank you!

  • At 12:40 AM , Blogger Frozen_Ian said...

    (Mon/19/01/08 - Just afer midnight, EST): Dear Mr. Sosin - I have just caught the restored version of the film "Manhatta" with your musical score, as it was just broadcast on TCM - Turner Classic Movies. So compelling was the score that I was sorry the film was only a few minutes long. With the impression still fresh in my mind, I googled you and here you are! I just wanted to tell you how much your score enriches the images contained in that film - such a score really helps captivate viewers like myself, born well into the era of multimedia (and who might otherwise find a "silent" film somehow wanting). Your score underlined the visual mood of the film, and was, to my ear, evocative, poignant and elegiac, capturing the wonder and singularity of the era in which the film was made as well as the aesthetic vision of the film makers. Congrats on a wonderful piece of work that really was so neatly tailored to suit the film that one could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that you worked directly with the original film makers to craft it! Everyone who sees the title "Manhatta" in upcoming TV or film festival listings should really make an effort to see it and to hear your most excellent accompanying score! Congrats and all the best in your current projects!


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