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.