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Saturday, April 23, 2016

VARIETÉ: The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra & Coolidge Corner Theatre World Premiere Partnership

From the final scene of SUNRISE
On a Monday night in 2010, this budding classic film fan showed up at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for a screening in The Sounds of Silents ® program. I didn't know what I was in for, but the buzz in the sold-out crowd was energizing.  The film was SUNRISE, and the music consisted of a brand new score commissioned by the theatre, and composed, conducted, and performed by students from the Berklee School of Music Film Scoring program.  At the end of the film the crowd leapt to itscollective feet and cheered wildly; my heart was still pounding with the emotion of the final scene of the film. The theatrical experience I had at this screening is in my top five of all time, and I've attended most of the films in the program since.  As the latest Coolidge-Berklee commission is getting ready for its world premiere on May 2, I had the opportunity to speak with the program's co-founder, Dr. Martin (Marty) Norman, as well as attend a fascinating in-person 'master class' by Berklee's Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz, both of which illuminated the fascinating process of scoring and screening silent film for a modern cinema audience.
While 'The Sounds of Silents®' program was started in 2007 by Coolidge board member Dr. Norman, and Becki Norman, the collaboration with the the Berklee school started a few years later.  In our conversation, Dr. Norman first explained that the goal of the program for the Coolidge was simple: to present classic silent films in the way they were meant to be seen.  As a silent film aficionado for many years, Dr. Norman said "while there are great single musicians out there accompanying silent films, I've always felt that having an ensemble or orchestra, provided they have the right talent, enriches the theatrical experience of the film, and I make that a priority for the Coolidge."  He reached out to the Berklee school because, he said, it's a local university and just happens to possess the only undergraduate program in film scoring, with exceptional students from all over the world.  He found a willing partner in Emmy-nominated Mirowitz (go here for his website and bio).

To date, I believe I've only missed one of the so-far nine screenings with scores that have had their world premieres at the Coolidge from the now-named Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  They are branching out -- just last year they performed their score for F.W. Murnau's THE LAST LAUGH at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and performed their new score for NOSFERATU with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Halloween night.  Fortunately for those of us in the area, they continue their partnership with the Coolidge, at least in part because of the historic nature of the theatre, the educational experience for the students, and the educated and appreciative hometown audiences.
Prof. Mirowitz from
Berklee School of MusicWebsite

That brings us to May 2, 2016, when the BSFO will premiere at the Coolidge their new score for VARIETÉ (1925), recently restored by the F.W. Murnau Foundation. (I'm taking a red-eye flight back from the TCM Film Festival just to get back to Boston in time to attend).  This film was directed by E.A. Dupont, and stars Emil Jannings as a former trapeze artist turned carnival barker,who gets in trouble after falling for a much younger exotic dancer.  (Jannings was a celebrated silent film actor, who also is the star of THE LAST LAUGH, from FW Murnau, and THE LAST COMMAND by Von Sternberg, among others.)   In June, the BSFO will go on the road to perform their score for the 7:15 PM Friday evening (June 3) screening of the film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

On the evening of April 21st, Professor Mirowitz came to the Coolidge to deliver a 'master class' in silent film scoring, and shared fascinating insights about Berklee's process.  First, he explained that scoring a silent film requires so much work that he engages a team of six students each semester for the task.  The six students are chosen as the top student composers from over 400 film scoring majors at the Berklee.  The students meet for 15 weeks, and each student is assigned what roughly corresponds to a 'reel' of film.  Often Prof. Mirowitz develops the initial musical themes for the main characters or situations that occur in the film, and then students then compose with and around those themes to bring out the 'story' of the film.  As Prof. Mirowitz explained, he "knows the music works if it makes the story better.  We don't decorate the picture."  He shared his musical themes associated with the characters in the VARIETÉ:  Boss, the girl, the family, and the villain, which all were compelling to listen to on their own, but when combined in unique ways to bring out the drama, the result was sublime.  The students learn in class by critiquing each other's work during the semester, and create up to 12 revisions of each section before the score is finalized.  The process then of syncing the music with the film can be complicated, and a set of cuing techniques is used for the conductors.  In performance, each composer will conduct the orchestra for their composed segments and seamlessly transition the baton to the next composer.  [Watch the 12-minute fascinating documentary "Punches and Streamers", showing the technical challenges tackled by the BSFO in its collaboration with the Coolidge, for SAFETY LAST:]

Prof. Mirowitz mentioned that, when needed, sound effects to accompany the action (a salute, for example, with a whistle) are scored directly.  He mentioned that he learned from Carl Davis that Davis's orchestra usually just performs the effect live rather than writing it into the score.  "Why didn't I think of that?" he quipped.  At the end of this fascinating evening came a stunning piece of news: Kino Lorber has contracted with the BSFO to record their score for an upcoming DVD release of VARIETÉ, and has also bought the rights to their score for THE LAST LAUGH.  There is no other example known of a group of university students composing, performing, and recording scores to silent film.  But this is no ordinary group of college musicians -- elite, indeed.

BSFO rehearsing for SAFETY LAST
at the Coolidge (from the Emerson
College doumentary "Punches & Streamers")
I can't overstate the thrill of attending one of these screenings in my own neighborhood.  It's a true two-fer: you get a brilliant piece of new music in its first public performance along with classic work of cinema that is nearly 100 years old. I asked Dr. Norman the best way of supporting the program, and he encouraged communicating directly with the Coolidge with statements of appreciation, and any other way of spreading the word to build audiences for these screenings.

When comparing writing a score for a silent film vs. a modern one, Prof. Mirowitz said the bar is low for the former -- "anyone can use a movie to make music, but we aim to create the music to make the movie."  I expect on May 2nd the audience will understand exactly what Prof. Mirowitz meant.

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