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Posts Tagged ‘Buster Keaton’

I love silent cinema. It’s a new love. It started with the opening of the Bell Lightbox in September, 2010. Just over two years ago.

A stork landed on my doorstep with a Buster Keaton film swaddled in a padded envelope.

Sherlock Jr. What an incredible entryway into the magical world of silent cinema. (I’ve written about it here)

Buster Keaton taught me how to write scores. Buster taught me about timing, about how to introduce a character. He taught me about how you can describe a character through their theme, about how to comment on the action.

But he also taught me to never reveal what was about to happen.

There is a difference between foreshadowing and giving it away.

The story happens in real time. Things happen to people in real time.

When Buster is about to be accused of stealing, the scene starts with him getting ready to save the day. Buster knows that, and we must know that too.

The music must know that, because it makes the reveal, well, so much more revealing.

 

 

The Bell Lightbox opened with a concert series of silent cinema gems with various live music scores, including my klezmer/jazz sextet playing to “Sherlock Jr”.

I attended as many as I could. It was my silent cinema 101 course.

I saw “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with Richard Einhorn’s breathtakingly haunting score

DJ Spooky’s “Re-birth of A Nation”- fascinating!

Andrew Downing’s superb and seamless score for “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (you can find an excerpt here:)

and Gabriel Thibaudeau’s lush and beautiful score for “Metropolis”

This was my classroom.

I have since seen the incredible Bill O’Meara play on a few occasions, each time amazing me more and more by his ingenuity, respect for the tradition and his ability to tie it all together in a gorgeous package. Bill has taught me a lot.

Here are some other things I’ve learned:

A score, even improvised, still has shape and form. It has themes that develop along with the action on the screen. It should be able to stand on its own as a coherent musical work.

When the music is distracting to the film, it’s not working. The music needs to sound inevitable. Like it’s always been there. Even if the score is radical, when it can change the feeling of the film, it must never be a distraction from it.

 

Over the past few months I had the good fortune to delve into the surreal and fantastic world of Méliès and de Chomon and into an early horror film by Tod Browning – “The Unknown” starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. These were all presented as part of Nuit Blanche at TIFF. There were 19 films in all, (some very short) and for each of these films I came up with some melodic, thematic or textural idea which I developed in each film. I made use of prepared piano, melodica and harmonium, thought about Mozart, Chopin and Bach, free jazz and traditional folk music.

For Charlie Chaplin’s “Circus”, my melodic material was Chaplin’s own score, which became the basis for my own improvisation. I mean, how could I possibly improve on Chaplin? His score is witty, clever. he understands irony and how to translate that into music. genius.

So here I am on my birthday thanking the stork for this incredible gift.

And while I’m at it, I’ve just discovered Ada Lovelace via today’s google doodle. She was born 197 years ago today. Mathematician, computer wiz (!) and daughter of Lord Byron. How lovely to share a birthday with Ada!

ada_lovelaces_197th_birthday-991005-hp

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I decided to wear pants – for the mosquitos. sandals for the drive, but low boots just in case the bugs were out in full force. A choice of two sweaters to protect my arms from bites, only because I didn’t relish the idea of industrial strength deep woods off for sportsmen for ever on my favorite one. My wool felt Busterish looking pork pie hat, just in case I felt like being Buster at the outset.

I didn’t think about the wind.

I didn’t think about the cold.

I ended up wearing the boots, both sweaters, the hat plus a borrowed coat ten sizes too big.

The brave Barrie folk brought chairs, hot drinks, coats, hats and blankets. They knew it was going to be a blustery night for Buster.

You start with a large patch of green by the water. Heritage Park. Is that a great name for a park by the water? (are you listening, Toronto?) Stakes were driven solidly into the ground to tether the screen in place. It took six people to get the screen up. A giant balloon in the shape of a movie screen – kind of like those plastic jumping castles turned on its side, being filled with air to keep its shape.

 

 

The wind won the first round. But with one hour before screening, the stakes were unstaked and restaked in a more sheltered area, sound system in place, lap top, dvd (for back-up), blue ray and projector set up on the table and keyboard ready to go! Bravo to Robin Munroe of the Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival and to Claudine Benoit and John Arruda of the Barrie Film Festival!!

During that hour I sat in my car memorizing as much of my score as I could. No stand clips were going to hold any music in place. (not that I had remembered to bring them, d’oh!) I was loving the idea of improvising.

We even had popcorn!

It was a beautiful blustery bitingly chilly night, I was dressed ridiculously, my fingers were chilled to the bone, and I loved every minute of it!

Thank you, Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival and Barrie Film Festival!

 

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commission me

ring my rotary
vibrate my cell
RIM me an SMS
(save my soul)
facebook, twitter –
the writing’s on the wall.
blog my space
shout from rooftops
send up a smoke signal.
semaphore me
send it in code.

give me a project
to put my creative juices
through the blender.
tell me like you told Bach:
we need a cantata for next Sunday
and hey, we only have three sopranos
(and one of them doesn’t sing very well.)

pay-tronize
but don’t patronize me.
never, ever, ask me to sound like someone else.

tell me to research
settle on a score.
Buster my guts for a cabaret on halloween
or valentines at christmas on mother’s day.
give me a world series send-off
with hockey night in canada
played one hundred ways.
tell me to boogie my way through Mary Lou’s swing
or jazz my way
through a world music series.

a capella, tin whistle chase scenes
turn “turn of the century”
on Turner classics tracks
with Keaton as conductor.
woo-woo!

give me a deadline
put a gun to my head.
tell me how many, when and where
and I’ll do the rest.

stimulate my economy of means
with a bulk-head of
leg room to stretch my imagination.
I’ll dissolve my limits
in the ether of jet stream.

give me a challenge
calculate the risks.
give me a slate to work on
a leg to stand on
commission me.

in return I’ll create,
imagine, dream,
learn, grow and entertain
the idea…
go to the ends of the earth
to begin.

and when it’s done
I’ll tweet, blog, facebook
video, newsletter, interview
press my release
plug you into my stream
of consciousness,
invite all my friends
and write you this poem.

dedicated to Ontario Contact and Ken Coulter (who asked the question)

Last October I attended Ontario Contact. The conference presents an opportunity for touring artists, presenters, agents and workshop presenters to get together. It consists of showcases, pitch sessions, a trade show, formal talks and informal round table discussions. At one of those discussions about investing in the arts, there was a heated discussion about whether or not you are compromising an artist’s integrity by “asking” them to do something – perhaps in addition to a performance that may be “riskier” to present.  I immediately began to think about Bach and Mozart and how integral the patronage system was to the history of music. This poem came out of those thoughts.

Some of my best work and most incredible musical discoveries have come out of commissions.

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Project Keaton

I’ve recently become aware of an incredible blog entitled Project Keaton on the Kitty Packard Pictorial. This project is a wonderful month-long tribute to Buster Keaton honouring his 116th birthday. Writers, artists, journalists and “everyday Joes and Janes” (Miss Carley’s words!) are invited to submit postings about Buster Keaton throughout the month of October. There are gorgeous photos and fascinating articles on the blog. I’m loving it!

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(here is a link to part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this thread)

It’s not so easy!

TIFF had given me a dvd of “Sherlock Jr.” to work with. I based all my tempos, transitions and themes on the speed of that dvd. When I came to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for my first rehearsal with the film, I was in for a shock. The film was way slower than the dvd I had been working with! Fortunately, they were able to speed up the film to a frame rate that was really close to the one I was used to! (phew)

My klezmer/jazz sextet performed “Sherlock Jr.” four times (in one day!) Everyone at the Bell Lightbox was fantastic to work with from the sound guys, the production people and the caterers (!!) Each time I walked into the theatre, someone would move my monitor out of the way and put it back in place after I sat down. I could get used to that!!

TIFF recorded all four performances and later gave me a hard drive. Chris Perkins then worked with the hard drive and the dvd to put it together. The timing was extremely challenging because of the frame rate differences between the film I played to and the dvd. Nevertheless, we got it pretty close – at least close enough to really capture a live performance, even though some of the pool balls move before you hear the drum shots…

Enjoy the film!!

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(here are the first and second parts to this thread)

How do you compose music for a silent film?

Here’s what I did:

I bought an ipad (16 gig WiFi- why pay more?) for traveling and learnt how to make an mp4 of the film using HandBrake. It’s an awesome program!!

I also bought a new red moleskin notebook in order to write down preliminary ideas and impressions while sitting on a plane to Barcelona.

I allowed myself to listen to the existing sound track (Club Foot Orchestra– fantastic!!!) only a couple of times primarily to note tempi, musical themes and where they changed and how the characters, settings and situations were reflected in the music. I thought about where these musical transitions worked for me, and how I would do it differently.

I called Andrew Downing for advice. Andrew is wonderful silent film composer, bass player and cellist. Andrew gave me some fantastic guidelines:

1. repeat bars are my best friend. That way, if the tempo in performance is a bit quicker than I had planned, it’s very easy to cue repeats and transitions.

2. every character not only has their own theme, but their themes can interact when they’re in scenes together. This is also a fantastic compositional tool.

I began a new manuscript notebook. Here’s what the first page looks like:

TIFF had requested klezmer music, so I had a delicious mandate!

bulgars (for fast chase scenes), chusidls (slow 4 to set up Buster), tangos (for love), doynas (slow improvised- for tragic scenes) … what fun!

I added a rag (with a few uneven bars) for my first chase scene, an early Duke Ellington inspired theme for Buster when he assumes the persona of the great detective, a samba for my final chase scene and left a few parts fairly open for structured free improvisation. After all, I decided to hire musicians who are also brilliant improvisers: Quinsin Nachoff (clarinet and sax), Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Milos Popovic (accordion), Rob Clutton (bass) and Nick Fraser (drums). I led them at the piano.

For the most part, Buster told me what to do. Any time I got stuck, I watched Buster over and over again and asked him what he wanted. He taught me how to compose.

Buster was a genius. That is evident in every frame of this amazing film. I knew that my job was to write music that simply reflected the action, comedy, tragedy, zaniness and romance of the movie without getting in the way.

I feel very grateful to have been given this incredible project. Buster Keaton has enriched my life, and the time that I spent immersed in this film is a time I will always treasure.

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“Like the very first title says, Sherlock Jr is a story about being able to do two things at once: move and entertain, dream and wake, negotiate between our real and our better selves – how we are all, in the end, projectionists and detectives. That art inflects life and vice versa is not a new statement, but a celebration of that fact perhaps bears repeating. Sherlock Jr is a testament to the imaginative impulse, the creative wish- the amount of ourselves that we put into the movies, and what the movies give back to us. For when the lights come up and we’re shoved rudely back into our misfit selves, we find we’re a little better off. Our ghostly flights sustain us. And then it’s time to kiss the girl.”

Edward McPherson, Buster Keaton – Tempest in a Flat Hat

(click to enlarge- Photos by Sonia Recchia/Wireimage for TIFF. This photo was taken at our performance of Sherlock Jr at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto)

a band within a band within a film within a film…

watching/playing, interacting/reading, composing/improvising, listening/creating

In a much broader sense, I have found that when two major projects overlap, particularly when one project is nearly finished and another is beginning, they both benefit. While I was composing the score for Sherlock Jr I was also in the final mixing stages of my CD project, Two Kites. It’s almost as though my creative imagination needed to take a day off here and there to think about something else and be engaged in a different type of brain activity in order to return with fresh ears and ideas. When Sherlock Jr was ending, my Halloween cabaret show, That Old Black Magic Cabaret, at the Young Centre for the Arts was looming, which I think really helped me get over post-show letdown. There simply wasn’t time.

Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on arrangements for my newest project, Forgotten Melodies. This project will have its world premiere at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts on March 29. Forgotten Melodies brings the exoticism of klezmer/Yiddish/Eastern European music to modern jazz. This project has also inspired me to be in serious practice mode. Right now, most of my days are spent writing, practicing, recording, listening to my playing, analyzing and refining my ideas.

At the same time, I’m also preparing for my Two Kites CD release on April 28. I signed off the final proof for the CD package this week! There are still tons of loose ends to think about for the release of the CD and for upcoming concerts for its promotion.

That’s all I can handle. Two things at once!

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