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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!

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here’s my October newsletter

This weekend I was in the studio at the CBC chatting with Karen Gordon about scoring and playing for silent movies. I love the CBC and how supportive they are of musicians in this country.

Karen is a wonderful interviewer. It was a total pleasure. Here is the interview. Fern Lindzon Interview by Karen Gordon on CBC Radio’s Fresh Air 20121028

At the end of the interview the CBC aired I Thought About You from my first CD, Moments Like These.

Thank you, CBC.

In the studio with Karen Gordon

 

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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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