Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

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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.


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