Dallas — The lights are dimmed. Rapt faces crane upwards to watch the flickering black and white action on the screen, grimacing at the mustachioed villain’s dastardly deeds, weeping at the rag-strewn heroine’s sufferings, howling at the baggy-panted clown’s pratfalls. Each gasp, each sob and each guffaw is augmented by the emotive strains of music improvised on the theater’s upright piano or cheap electric organ by a brave and solitary figure near the stage. Or in the expensive theaters, perhaps by a whole pit orchestra resplendent in white tie and tails.
This is the enduring image that we in an age of Dolby and Surround-sound have of the silent film era. The moving pictures, hampered by the primitive technology of the early cinema were brought to exquisite life by so-called “mood music.” As with much of the Golden Age, a lot of this image is romanticized myth. Many silent films played out with no soundtrack but the flickering of the film reel in its spool and the audience’s reactive responses. Even when present, the impresarios of the Odeon most likely were not improvising but playing from scores distributed by the film companies. Often, the music was not even live performance, but rather was recorded on discs to be played over phonographs in small viewing halls.
Nevertheless, in recent years, there has been a great deal interest in “reconstructing” the mood music of silent films and early un-scored classics. Composers from a broad range of genres have applied new music to some of the Greatest Hits of Hollywood from that age. One such effort is on display this weekend when Dallas Chamber Symphony presents a showing of Buster Keaton’s remarkable 1923 comedy Our Hospitality on Oct. 13 featuring the world premiere of a score by decorated composer Scott Glasgow, a prolific soundtrack writer, scoring everything from blockbusters to independent films.
Composing for a new film and creating a score for an existing one are two very different arts. In the former, the music is often produced early in the filmmaking process and can be used as a template to the direction of the cinematography. One needs only to look at the work of John Williams or even Mr. Glasgow himself to see the impact of the score on the finished work.
Overwriting an existing film requires a different hand altogether, even if the original is from the era before sound. Silent movies are not just a blank slate. The pacing, the direction, the acting and even the cinematographic technique are discrete from the skills used in the Golden Age (1930s to mid-50s) through now. The score needs to reflect the stylistic differences and to respect the fact that the effects were not just absence of sound but were an art form unto themselves. Other works in the re-scoring genre are overplayed and hyperbolic, as much satirizing as aggrandizing their subjects. How Mr. Glasgow’s work plays out in this instance remains to be judged.
But even if done with appropriate reverence, there is an inherent risk in overlaying art onto another medium. Of course, there is a technical difficulty not just in the composition but in the performance as well—timing of a score is essential and although there are clever digital metronomes which have been developed, there are always episodes of mistiming and miscuing which can be distractingly humorous. Silent films preclude this risk to some degree, because there is not an inherent timing built in. The music is inventing its own pace, rather than reproducing one.
From an artistic standpoint, the biggest pitfall in this setting can be the loss of balance between the existing work and the overlaid one. Any student of film will insist that Buster Keaton’s genius deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated in its own right. Our Hospitality in particular is a rare treasure not just in its primacy as one of the earliest and most intact comedy films but also in the inventiveness and subtlety that Keaton brings to his skilled mime performance. A complex musical score may distract from the brilliance of the performance. Film music is meant to be supportive and in this case particularly the movie can stand well-enough on their own.
The converse may be true as well. Glasgow’s composition, as clever and as brilliant as it is, may be lost in the face of the action it is supporting. It is not for nothing that composers in general are cautious about applying their skills to film scores.
There is also the crucial issue of artistic intent. Again, less so in silent movies, since they always had remote scores, due to the limitations of technology at the time. In an atmospheric early film, however, such as Tod Browning’s Dracula or James Whale’s Frankenstein (the subject of new score performance by Dallas Winds, later this month), the absence of music was not solely due to technical limitations. The directors chose silence for a reason, using the tension of film and actor to create the mood. The act of adding music, regardless of how brilliant or how interesting an exercise, may alter the original work in much the same way that colorization changes a film’s texture.
The enhancement of audience awareness and interest in classic and silent movies is a laudable goal. Dallas Chamber Symphony’s and Scott Glasgow’s endeavors (as well as those of Dallas Winds and Michael Shapiro, Frankenstein’s soundtrack composer) are to be cheered in that regard. And the finished product can be without question a unique and polished piece of art unto itself. But extreme care and balance must be afforded to the addition of music to early films, for fear of losing or corrupting their essence in the process.