It’s important to try new things, and I was inspired by BJ Brooks’ presentation of his silent film scores at the SCI Region VI Conference back in October. Now that I’m conducting the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, and I can pick our repertoire, I have the chance to try my own hand at such a thing. The orchestra at West Texas A&M, where BJ works, has been presenting silent movies with BJ’s scores every other year for the last few years, and they’ve been doing feature-length films, which is an exciting proposition. I decided for Lakeland’s first effort to choose a shorter film (more on the difficulties of that later), but even at 13 minutes, this will be the longest single movement I’ve written for orchestra. The film is Georges Melies’ Le Voyage Dans la Lune, from 1902, a somewhat groundbreaking piece from a groundbreaking era in cinema.
If you watch the film, you can see that Melies is operating in an era when the technology of film was brand new. Many of the things that we take for granted about cinematography aren’t present–the movie is shot as though the action were happening on a stage, and the camera were an audience member, with no close-ups, no pans, no framing shots… some of the things that make film what we think of it today. What is present, though, is the magic of cinema, which is not surprising, since Melies started out as an illusionist of note before switching to film. Particularly fascinating are his special effects, which are somewhat crude, but surprisingly effective.
Composing to this has been interesting–I’ve completed the piece in short score, and will be orchestrating over the next couple of weeks. I’m not the first to score the film–there is a score by George Antheil, and at least one uploaded to archive.org. I made the decision early on to stick to sounds that could have been a part of the musical sound of 1902, so my score has references to Debussy, Elgar and Strauss, although not specifically. The tricky part has been making things fit–identifying the places where the music needs to change, and making the notes change at the same time. This is my first film score, unless you count my entry a few years back for the TCM Young Composers Competition. Since then, Sibelius has added the ability to sync a score with a video, which has been invaluable–both in finding “hit points” and in seeing how my ideas fit the action on screen.
The style that’s coming out is different from how I usually write, which is somewhat intentional. I’ve ended up with more repetition, and a great deal more of a “tonal” style than I’ve customarily used; in some ways, this is some of the most predictable music I’ve written. Part of this is a decision to use the sounds typical of 1902, and part of this is knowing that I’m dealing with an orchestra and audience who aren’t expecting dissonant, angular music that might have been my first choice.
The sense of time in the music is intriguing as well. Watching the movie with no sound, alone, as I have several times, is somewhat difficult. A few weeks back, some of the orchestra members and I watched it together, again with no sound, and the experience was more rewarding. But–now that I have a draft score to add to the film (which I now know very well, of course), the story seems to come to life–it will be incredible to see and hear it with live instruments! The dimension that the music adds to the film is even more important than the “dimension” that 3-D aims to add. Thirteen minutes that seemed to positively crawl by in silence are enlivened by the music in a way that explains why, as Richard Taruskin writes, “the movies were never silent.”
The other challenge has been dealing with the inherent flaws in Melies’ narrative–events are repeated (the moon landing, the celebration at the end), and the pre-launch events dominate the structure in a way that is somewhat unfortunate. Melies was dealing with this brand-new idea–telling a story in moving images–so it’s not surprising that his early work moves somewhat creakily, but making my music work with this narrative has been tricky in the sense that some things go longer than I would like them to, while others peter out just as they are getting going in the score, but there are no more images for them. Melies was really making science-fiction, which, for a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, is exciting–he made this movie at the same time that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were inventing the literary genre.
The premiere is in April, and rehearsals start in five weeks, giving me time to finish the scoring and get the parts to the concertmaster, if I work hard. Look for more as it progresses.
I’ve also spent some time over the last few days helping Daniel Perttu with his new trombone sonata, which has been interesting. It’s been interesting to consider someone else’s ideas about my own instrument (it’s almost been an education in Dan’s instrument, the bassoon, because I feel like much of what he’s written for the trombone would work better on bassoon). It leads me to wonder about how I know what I know about “how” to write for an instrument, and how best to communicate that. Certainly part of my training as a music education major has been useful here–the chance to take “methods” classes and get to play every instrument, even if only a few notes, makes writing for that instrument a different experience. This is why I required two instrumental methods classes when I wrote the composition degree plan at OPSU, and I would push for the same thing again if I had the chance (now that I’m at a two-year school, I don’t think it makes much sense to be thinking about an Associate of Arts in Music Composition). I recall an incident in Jean Sibelius’ biography where he spent an afternoon with an excellent English horn player–I don’t recall whether that correlated with his composition of The Swan of Tuonela. It’s too bad that he didn’t write any film music.