Dallas — The Dallas Chamber Symphony continues its fifth season with a concert featuring two chamber music works by living composers, and its latest original silent film score, written by composer Craig Safan for Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid (1921). Safan's scores include the films The Last Starfighter and Stand and Deliver, and for the TV series Cheers. We spoke with DCS Music Director Richard McKay and Safan for this latest marriage of classic film and music, which will be performed with the live orchestra on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at Dallas City Performance Hall. (The film trailer above features the original score, not Safan's.)
TheaterJones: Richard, for the first half of the show, you’ve programmed a couple of chamber works: Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes (1982) and Kevin Puts’ Seven Seascapes (2013). Why those?
Richard McKay: Fog Tropes is interesting because it’s written for brasses and tape, so this is electro-acoustic music, written by Ingram Marshall who is a composer who’s really made a name for himself as a composer of electro-acoustic music, meaning it’s got a taped element that the musicians in the ensemble perform alongside. A sound effects track essentially, designed to replicate the sounds of boats and shipping channels at night. So you’ll hear distant foghorns, winds, things like that in addition to the brasses who introduce musical content on top of the tape…it’s all about creating ambience, so it’s kind of an out-there musical work that we think people will enjoy. It’s certainly a very famous piece that put the composer on the map. That’s about a 10-minute piece that starts the program.
The next piece is Seven Seascapes by Kevin Puts, a young composer who’s doing very well for himself. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize [for the opera Silent Night]. His music is not at all the electro-acoustic angle, he’s all about purely acoustic instruments. It’s a piece that’s inspired by a number of poems. Several movements, each inspired by a different poem, intended to be representations of nautical themes…in the first half of the program, you really get this nautical theme between Fog Tropes and Seven Seascapes, from two composers who really couldn’t be more different in the way they approach music…in the second half we bring both of those two ensembles together, to comprise a complete ensemble of 14 musicians who will perform the new film score by Craig Safan.
And then on to the Chaplin film. Who picked The Kid?
RM: I did, actually. We talked about it with a number of people—the composer talked to Brian [Satterwhite, who has written several silent film scores for DCS] about it. We realized we hadn’t actually programmed a Chaplin [film] since 2013, so it’s been awhile. This was one of those works that was the right length, it was also very accessible, it’s well known, heartwarming, funny. We thought it was the kind of accessible Chaplin film that people would want to see right now in the season. Some Chaplin films can be quite challenging to watch for people who might not already be silent film enthusiasts. This is one that develops the characters well, so there’s more contiguous narrative. And it’s also the kind of film that Craig Safan, our composer, is keen to compose for. He loves Chaplin, so it’s in his wheelhouse, something he genuinely loves.
Did this present any problems for you and Craig that you haven’t encountered in doing these before?
RM: I would say not, except that the ensemble that Craig is writing for is a bit more unusual, because we have pairs of brasses…we’ve actually never had a film score composed for pairs of French horns, trumpets and trombones. And there’s no percussion in this particular score. Those things present challenges because percussion’s very versatile in creating a lot of color and variety. I think the challenge he has is in trying to create that variety with instruments that perhaps can’t do what percussion can do.
Anything else you can tell me about The Kid?
RM: It’s totally different from anything else we’ve screened before. This season we’re trying to do a couple of things in film that we’ve not done before. For instance, we’ve done plenty of comedies before. In our first year, we started with comedy, feature length and short, then went on to German expressionism with Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, then science-fiction with Metropolis of course, and suspense thrillers like Hitchcock’s The Lodger. Then of course we started this season with Sunrise, which is an amazing drama. [The Kid] is a dramatic comedy. This is something that is longer than the other comedies that we’ve done, and has a dramatic story to it…a lot of his films had a political mission. The Kid hints at that, but doesn’t beat you over the head with it. You see that emerging in Chaplin, so we think it’s an important work for him. And an enjoyable film to watch. It’ll be new to most of our audience, and in some ways new to us as well.
Chaplin was an accomplished composer himself. Do you think he’d approve of your new interpretation?
RM: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I’d like to think he would…if you stick with performing the score that he wrote for this film, it would require a much larger ensemble…I like the idea of creating a version that would allow the work to be more versatile with live music, so I have to believe this is a worthwhile endeavor, one that Chaplin would appreciate.
Tell us about the $50,000 “Takin’ It To The Streets” grant you received from the National Endowment for the Arts.
RM: We were initially told we were being awarded the grant in April 2016. The design of the project coincides with the NEA’s “Our Town” program. That focuses on making the fine arts, concert music more available to populations are less likely to participate for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons might be socioeconomic; some might be people with illnesses that don’t have mobility.
It’s about taking concert music, and our musicians, out of the concert hall and into places where they are more accessible to people who don’t ordinarily engage in the arts. So the grant is designed to fund 22 public and private concerts out in the community and public space. In December, for example, we had concerts at Parkland Hospital…we reached hundreds with those concerts. We had one at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Oak Cliff. These are all free concerts, by the way.
We’re also taking music out into public transit stations, just to have high quality music in places where people wouldn’t expect it—a DART station, for example…In addition to that, we’re presenting a number of concerts at Dallas County Juvenile Center…these musicians are all volunteers, going into these places and giving these kids some attention, perhaps even getting them to the Concert Hall for a field trip concert, teaching life skills, social skills. These are social programs that these departments may not have funding for, but they want them, because they keep their students learning and engaged. So the NEA grant is all about supporting those types of activities out in the community. And it’s a matching grant.
Craig, how were you chosen to write this score?
CS: My publicist called me, she had a conversation with Brian Satterwhite, who expressed interest in reaching out to other composers for DCS. She mentioned me and that was it. I got a call from Brian and we talked about it. I was intrigued, as I’ve never done a silent film score before. Great idea.
Besides the obvious, what are the main differences between scoring a silent and a sound film?
CS: I’ve always enjoyed silent film but something about them makes me a little tired, the lack of variety. Sometimes they’ll have a score, and it would just be relentless, you don’t get the usual things that give your ears a rest, [such as] ambient sound, dialogue, sound effects, moments of silence. My goal in trying to write this was to give it a lot of variety, a bit of open space at times, to not always be full blast. Quote some old songs, have as much variety as I could, because it’s like 54 minutes. That’s a lot of music to listen to straight…we’re so used to a very complex audio environment when you go to a typical film today. This is one dimensional, if you let it get that way. So that was the big challenge.
So your score takes up 100 percent of the screen time?
CS: Yes it does. Sometimes it’s soft and slow, sometimes it’s fast. I tried to give as much color as I can with the orchestra. Let people’s brains breathe.
Buster Keaton was a master of the medium of film itself—he would speed up, slow down, reverse for comic effect. Chaplin was more of a master of timing within the frame, so exquisite and precise. Did you try to match his timing with the music?
CS: Not too much. First of all, it’s difficult to match it, and it ends up looking cartoonish if you do. What I do is let it play, and pick certain moments that I will actually hit musically. I’m giving more of like a pattern in which Chaplin does his thing, and the music sort of floats by…when you write a film score, you’re looking at it frame by frame, over and over. And you realize that every move is planned, every little gesture, every facial expression. It’s so specific; it’s really amazing actually.
You can’t try to catch everything, that’s what we call in the film business “mickey mousing” a movie. You try to find a balance, because this has a lot more work to do than a traditional film. You want the music to represent some of the subtext, maybe offer some nostalgia, because we’re not looking at it with the eyes of a person in the 1920s. You want to bring in the sounds of that era, with some modern sounds too. In other words, there’s moments where the composition is very modern, but then it keeps going back to something a bit old-fashioned.
Did you go back to music of that period, like ragtime or early jazz?
I do my own version of that, yeah. I definitely do a lot of cakewalks in it, and a sort of “Minnie the Moocher” kind of grooves…I think some composers, especially of classical music, would kind of ignore that part and just do their thing, whether it was very atonal or whatever. For me as a film composer, I like to find ways to bring out more of the film, engage the audience emotion, and play a lot of the subtext, which is what I think film music does so well.
Chaplin was an accomplished composer himself and wrote a score for The Kid. Have you heard it?
CS: I’ve heard his music, written much later for the film. It tends to be very orchestral and a bit sentimental…I do have a couple of slow melodies that I use. One of them is purposefully sort of—there’s a composer named Gottschalk, his music was very sentimental. Beautiful but very sentimental—so I sort of give that, a nod to the period and the sentimentality of this woman who gives up her child…but the key melody is hopefully emotional without being overly sentimental.
Who’s your favorite film composer?
CS: That’s a tough question…I guess overall it would be Bernard Hermann, maybe Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein. Those are the people I thought were the greatest.
The same three I would have picked! There have been murmurs, shall we say, about the death of the NEA. What’s your feeling on this?
CS: I’m a huge believer in the government helping to support the arts. For the arts that make money, that’s’ great, but there are lots of arts that are not moneymakers, and should be given assistance for the betterment of everybody. Who doesn’t enjoy going to a museum or hearing a beautiful concert? I think that’s a place of the government, to support artists who are not commercial. What I do is pretty commercial, and I don’t need support from the government if I’m writing film music, ‘cause I get paid. But if I’m writing other kinds of music that may be valuable and inspiring, that help people feel good, learn more, think more, I think that’s a civic thing…a lot of art that wasn’t commercial ends up being extremely important to people and very influential. I think great art is great for everybody, so I’m all for the NEA.