Richard McKay

In Sight

The Dallas Chamber Symphony closes its fourth season with the third Sight of Sound Film Competition, in which filmmakers make short films to existing music selections.

published Sunday, April 17, 2016

Teddy’s Bear, directed by Caitlin Brown and set to Léo Delibes’ Pizzicato from his ballet Sylvia, is one of the films in this year's Sight of Sound International Film Competition


Dallas — Pop Quiz time: When you hear Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz does your mind produce images of elegant ladies at a European ball, or Stanley Kubrick’s phallic space shuttle attempting congress with a rotating space wheel? Does Rossini’s Thieving Magpie conjure up a larcenous fowl, or Alex and his Droogs engaging in ultra-violence in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange? Do you see a zaftig diva warbling in a Viking costume when you hear Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries or Robert Duvall leading a mad helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now? If you’re like me it’s the second choice for each, and therefore for you, classical music and cinema are a match made in heaven.

That’s why you shouldn’t miss The Dallas Chamber Symphony’s concert on Tuesday, April 19, featuring the Third Annual Sight of Sound competition plus performance by the winner of the 2015 Dallas International Piano Competition.

This closing event of the 2015-16 concert season will showcase original works by filmmakers both student and professional, set to short excerpts of classical music in the manner of Disney’s Fantasia. Competing filmmakers chose from a preselected repertoire of pieces roughly two to 10 minutes in length, from names like Beethoven, Debussy, Massenet, Offenbach and Grieg), and created their own cinematic interpretation. In the second half of the program, South Korean pianist Saetbyeol Kim, who triumphed over 73 contenders at the Dallas International Piano Competition in 2015, will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra.

Photo: Dallas Chamber Symphony
Richard McKay

In the four seasons since the Dallas Chamber Symphony debuted in 2012, DCS Artistic Director and Conductor Richard McKay has established a commitment to commissioning original scores to classic films, including movies by master comedy filmmakers of the silent era, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, as well as early entries in sci-fi and horror: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

“The DCS has always been interested in performing music to film,” says McKay, speaking at a recent media roundtable. “First was the silent film series we launched, where we screened classic silent films with new scores, which we started doing from our second concert. There was this idea I had one day at a restaurant in Dallas—wouldn’t it be interesting if we did the opposite of this, where we had filmmakers create new films for classic music. Of course, we’re all familiar with Fantasia, and other animations set to classical music. This is very similar in concept, where we set up a playlist of a number of short pieces and we had filmmakers from all over create new films to those pieces of music, they submit those films and we have a jury review them. We select the best ones and screen them in concert. Like Fantasia, the orchestra performs live to film in exactly the way the filmmaker intended us to perform them. That’s what Sight of Sound is all about, a reversal of the silent film [process].”

Metropolis and The Lodger were both collaborations with the Video Association of Dallas and Dallas VideoFest, whose founder Bart Weiss was a judge for the 2016 Sight of Sound competition.

“There’s more animation this year,” says Weiss. “Music and animation both deal with abstraction. The two together can really resonate with each other.”

For McKay, this event is a no-brainer for broadening the community reach of the DCS, which has been successful in attracting audiences that don’t typically attend other classical music performances.

“The purpose of the competitions is to get the community involved in ways they otherwise might not do…people come to concerts and that’s great,” McKay says. “Having activities that get all kinds of constituencies involved with your programming is even better. Dallas has a very powerful and established niche audience for piano music and competition. If you want to make it as a concert pianist, you have to learn your concert repertoire. Finding opportunities to work with an orchestra, that’s what really launches a career so well.”

For this year’s Sight of Sound, there were 72 submissions, many from film schools across the country, plus international submissions from Turkey, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and Portugal.

“Students often enter as part of their curriculum, learning cinematic language by not using dialogue, which is what this is all about from a filmmaker’s perspective,” says Weiss, who also teaches film at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It’s so easy to rely on dialogue to tell a story…[they learn] using elements of visuals and moods to tell a story instead of what people say.”

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Bart Weiss

“We’ve been ‘enculturated’ by this music, and how it’s been used in film before,” McKay adds. “One thing we did different this year, I selected pieces that were a little bit shorter, and a bit more familiar—more pops oriented. More taken from operas, whether a short interlude, meditation or something that belongs to opera. I selected eight to 10 numbers they could choose from—many filmmakers are coming from a place where they don’t know classical music that well. [There are] lots of things we have to consider, such as what size orchestra it takes to perform certain pieces of classical music. We suggest pieces that don’t require a 100-piece orchestra.”

Another innovation for this year’s contest is the Wild Card music selection, wherein filmmakers can bypass the supplied excerpts for one of their own choosing.

“They can do that if they know a piece that they already like, and can request to use it…we’ll look at it and decide, well, is it public domain, could we get the license to perform it, the license to sync it, enough [musicians] on stage to perform it. Most people gravitate toward pieces that require 100 people on stage and a chorus as well. We have to point out, ‘that’s not gonna work’…I love [Wild Card entries] typically because we see a lot of collaboration between young film composers and film makers. One was a finalist last year, and this year we have another strong Wild Card entry, an excellent piece of music. I hope it becomes its own division [in future years].”

There are some pitfalls in the film creation process that McKay sought to avoid this year. “Out of the eight to 10 pieces of music, the top three on the page were ones everybody knows. Last year everyone preferred those. We warned them about that this year so people picked some different ones. Those who pick the same piece [as others] are in more competition, as are those who pick the same theme. There’s common subject matter that people gravitate toward. They tend to choose the idea that comes first…they ought to realize that their first ideas are the most obvious ones, in common with the 70 other filmmakers going through the same process. It’s astounding how every year we have five to 10 doing the same thing, perhaps to the same set of music…I recommend they write for awhile, take a break, take a walk, come back, try some new ideas.”

After the semi-finalists have been selected, the jury narrows the number of films down to as many as 10. This year there are eight, and two cases of dueling films that use the same piece of music (two use an Offenbach selection, and two use Léo Delibes). Other factors figure into this decision making, not least of which is considering the flow of a concert with the works. “We can’t just have all fast pieces and slow pieces—it has to be all curated,” McKay says.

Photo: H. Paul Moon
A still from H. Paul Moon's Time Crunch

The jury selects one winner for the Best Picture Award, which comes with a $500 prize. Then there’s an Audience Choice Award, and people who attend the concert can text a vote for their favorite during the intermission. We’ll tabulate those votes and announce the winner as well, after intermission, before the Tchaikovsky is played.

“One of the extra perks for the filmmakers is, we will audio-record the performance,” McKay adds. “The filmmakers who entered have permission to use the recording with their film, finalists and semi-finalists.”

This films that will be shown at this year’s Sight of Sound are:

  • Bloom, directed by Margaret To, set to the Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann
  • Time Crunch, directed by H. Paul Moon, set to Jordan Kuspa's Time Crunch
  • Experiment, directed by Lili Gu, set to Edvard Grieg's Heart Wounds
  • Teddy’s Bear, directed by Caitlin Brown, set to Léo Delibes’ Pizzicato from his ballet Sylvia (see film above)
  • Food Fight, directed by Aparna Hegde, set to Léo Delibes’ Pizzicato from Sylvia 
  • Red-Green, directed by Jade Small, set to Debussy’s Clair de lune 
  • Routine (Reversed), directed by Jabari Canada, set to the Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann 
  • Zero Sum, directed by Rebecca Shenfeld, set to the Meditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs

By the way, McKay’s favorite use of classical music in cinema is The Blue Danube and Thus Spake Zarathustra from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mine is still Valkyries from Apocalypse. Oh, and the unforgettable 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?, with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Turns out it’s one of Weiss’ too, so we ended the chat with our duet on “Kill Da Wabbit, Kill Da Wabbit!” Thanks For Reading

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In Sight
The Dallas Chamber Symphony closes its fourth season with the third Sight of Sound Film Competition, in which filmmakers make short films to existing music selections.
by Gordon K. Smith

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