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Jewels of Silent Film Music

by DAVID YEARSLEY

There are few things worth giving up a perfect fall afternoon in Upstate New York for, but Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman with live music is one of them. A dinner break and a return for F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise,beginning as the sun sets on the other side of Lake Cayuga seals the sacrifice of those irreplaceable autumnal hours to the gods of the silver screen.

The venue further assuaged the pain giving up the best part of the day: the small-ish movie theater seating about 300 people and occupying the lowest storey of Cornell University’s student union was finished in 1925 in what were still the glory days of the silent film era, two years before Sunrise and three before The Cameraman.  Originally built as the university’s spoken theater, the Cornell Cinema is preserved in its Jazz Age state, with wooden doors, the spacious proscenium stage (reflecting its origins as the theatre for spoken drama), medieval decorative touches, and the rest of its quirky elegance intact. The building itself is in Campus Gothic, a style in the minority among the curious collection of structures spread across the Cornell campus perched on its hill between two deep gorges and commanding spectacular views north up Lake Cayuga. It’s as if Frankish knights had been airdropped into the forest primeval, then cleared the land in a westerly coda to Charlemagne’s Drang nach Osten and erected a cathedral to the glory of the Gods of the Silver Screen. The historical fantasy of this architecture provides an appropriate sanctuary for escapists still in their college years or well beyond them. If what students call “the real world” is that place beyond the campus and the college years, then it is doubly far from a college cinema. If you’re willing to flee to the movies on a perfect afternoon, you’ll be willing to escape from anything.

The newly restored print of The Cameraman is a gorgeous thing. Devoid of any jerks and starts caused by lost frames, it captures Keaton’s uncanny grace and gives back a vivid clarity to his mournful and infinitely expressive face. The movie was filmed in New York City, even though it was often difficult to shoot in the middle of the day because of the vast crowds the famous actor drew. The brightened images of the city give a thrilling immediacy to the street scenes.

The movie is by no means full of Keaton’s brilliant stunts, though some of the simple ones rank among his most memorable, as when he sprints after a bus and springs upward from the pavement to hook his elbow through an open window and perch there as if seated in midair so that he can be next to the girl he’s in love with and gaze into her eyes.

It is wrong to call these films silent, because they never were that. The term “silent movie” was only invented after the advent of talking pictures. Although Keaton’s face and physicality are enough to carry this film without a soundtrack, his screen presence is made all the more powerful by a good score. I’ve heard some great ones over the years, including several Harold Lloyd movies accompanied by the late Gaylord Carter, the Los Angeles organist discovered in his youth by one of Lloyd’s agents. As a young man Carter went on to premiere many of Lloyd’s films in the 1920s. Carter’s successor as leading film organist a couple of generations later is his sometime protégé, Dennis James, whose accompaniment to Keaton’s most famous movie, The General, will transform your experience of that film—and change your life, too.

For last weekend’s The Cameraman the music was made by the Colorado-based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, fresh from their triumph at the Telluride Film Festival, where they had premiered their score to the original version of Chicago. The group’s pianist and director is Rodney Sauer, who founded the ensemble in 1994 in order to “revive the art of silent film music” as the Mont Alto’s excellent website puts it. In his informative spoken introduction to The Camerman, Sauer described how, before the advent of the soundtrack, individual theatres were largely responsible for assembling the scores for movies, and to do this they had a library of music to be drawn on by a resident director, and performed by the house orchestra, often a small one the size of the Mont Alto’s five pieces. This music was culled from collections filled with contemporary music, as well as excerpts from the 19th-century symphonic tradition. Mostly, however, the repertoire came from the huge quantities of contributions to a now-forgotten genre: photoplay music—works written specifically for the screen.

Fortunately, not all these countless reams of sheet music have not been dispatched to the recycling center and converted into eco-friendly diapers. Sauer has logged many hours in archives holding what remains of movie house music libraries. His researches amount to the excavation of a lost practice and the rediscovery of some compelling composers. One of them, heard several times during these two films either under his real name or one of his fourteen or more pseudonyms, was J. S. Zamencik, a major photoplay composer, whose own life reflects the fact that the movies became the great repository for the 19th-century Romantic tradition. Born and raised in Cleveland, Zamencik had a solid grounding in harmony and counterpoint, before studying composition with Dvorak in Prague. After a stint in the Pittsburgh Symphony he composed and compiled one of the first collections of cues for movie houses. After serving as director of music in Cleveland’s Hippodrome theatre he moved to Los Angeles in 1924 and composed scores for major motion pictures, including Wings, which won the first Academy Award for best picture (another kind of best picture award—“for Unique and Artistic Production”—was given to Sunrise that same year of 1929). The Mont Alto Orchestra has dedicated a CD to Zamencik’s music, on which you can here the merest fraction of the 2,000 compositions credited to him. Visit the Mont Alto website to hear a classic storm scene by Zamencik, one deluged by dark harmonies and surging melodic figures. In this performance the piece is masterfully set by Sauer, so that cello swirls upward before the violin breaks loose in torrents of scales and quaking trills. If you wanted music for a storm or anything else likely to occur on screen, Zamencik could produce it with great fluidity. Complaints about a lack of originality are misplaced. This music accomplishes exactly what is supposed to, and does so with verve and originality. So much of music, and not just by so-called “minor” composers, relies on formula.  Well-crafted and effective, Zamencik’s work comes alive when performed with the conviction and expertise of the Mont Alto Orchestra. Equally important in their memorable performance is subtlety, the group’s defining quality, even if one not generally associated with music that many dismiss as exaggerated.

A pioneer in the field of photoplay research, Sauer works without the aid of previous studies and supporting bibliographic materials. His job is to find the music, fit it snuggly to scenes, orchestrate it, and then stitch these discreet elements together with bridging material improvised at the piano. The cue sheet for a Mont Alto score will be a succession of pieces by the likes of Zamencik, Borch, Bergé, with a few recognizable names such as Dvorak and Saint Saëns thrown in when the on-screen mood requires it or a touch of “respectability” arises. All these composers, along with and many others with wonderful names Poldini and Pintel, can be heard on the group’s latest CD Love, Betrayal & Redemption, whose title pretty much sums up Hollywood until this day.  What makes this CD so appealing is not only its period charm, but the sense that these representations of emotion and cinematic action have attained a kind of universality which endures over  several generations.  This music may evoke the movie-going experience of my grandparents’ youth, but it plays on my feelings as expertly as it did theirs, and I’ll bet even the hard hearts of Lady Gaga’s devotees would feel a few palpitations.

The Mont Alto players (Britt Swenson on violin, Brian Collins on clarinet, Dawn Kramer on trumpet and David Short on cello, along with Sauer on piano) know how TO draw the most out of the sweeping melodies for the Love part of things, then sharpening their tone for the Betrayal and then surrender to the lush embrace of Redemption. What the Mont Alto Orchestra also continually demonstrates is the nearness of these movie scores to dance music—dance and movies, being the main forms of entertainment for the young of the 1920s. The group treats these pieces with a keen sense of style, especially in the way they expand the measure with touches of extra time, resisting the modern, sterile temptation to play perfectly in time. These masterful and varied demonstrations of ensemble rubatogive to their music a rare suavity, without which it might seem merely quaint.

Cornell Cinema’s out-of-tune upright piano, perched on the stage above the ad hoc pit in the corner of the theatre, added a touch of charming neglect to the group’s sound, even if one a bit dissonant with the mission of restoration accomplished by the print. Still, the tinny black box sounded in nicely quavering counterpoint to violinist Swenson’s warm vibrato and well-judged swoops of portamento.

The lingering, yearning dissonances of love, thwarted when Buster seems to have lost the girl in the climactic boating scene to his rival, stay with you, even into the next picture.  Indeed, that very music was used both movies. It is called the Poéme Triste (at least I think that’s what Sauer said it was called, when I talked to him after the screening of Sunrise) byCarl Bohm, another hugely popular 19th-century composer, whose posthumous reputation rests nowadays on an etude in one of the Suzuki-school violin books. The firm Simrock was able to publish Brahms’s works  basically at a loss because Bohm was so massively successful.

With his double use of the Bohm, with its harmonies of suspension and release that play on your heartstrings like Fritz Kreisler himself, Sauer demonstrated the benefits of the generic. Sauer fitted this to another scene on water in Sunrise, the reconciled (or should I say redeemed?) couple returning by small sailboat from a marriage-saving afternoon and evening in the book city. This is music that supports the film, but doesn’t recede into the background, but rather becomes an actor in the story, one if not as timeless as Keaton and or Janet Gaynor as the wife in Sunrise, then as necessary. Sauer and his Mont Alto players have given us more than just a new perspective on a lost musical repertory. They’ve filled the silence of these films not only with something historically interesting, but also something beautiful. They’ve given us a new way of seeing and hearing, and yet another reason to seek out the big dark even when the sun is shining outside.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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