On writing new scores for silent films.



What interests me in writing contemporary music scores for classic silent films of the past is the opportunity to time travel. In a medium which is essentially poetic, that is to say thought and feeling are conveyed through image and gesture (& the occasional title card), the role of music is heightened in its ability to shape and interpret the actions on the screen. Unlike a contemporary film, in which the music is inevitably shackled to conveying diegetic information and reinforcing information already being shown on the screen, serving as a policeman to make sure the audience "gets it" or else, the contemporary silent film score is free to dance around the film, now contradicting, now adding a new layer, now bringing out another reflection, bringing the attention to a small object in the corner of the screen.

My particular style, one among many possible approaches, is to combine an affection for historical musical styles, with a contemporary approach; to combine music that would be unlikely to be conceived at the time when the films were made, with music that sounds like "silent film music." In "The Unknown," a 1927 Tod Browning film, starring Lon Chaney & Joan Crawford, I particularly dealt with old music styles, but trying (among other things) to use them to contradict the traditional interpretation of the film, in effect to make the villain the hero, and the hero and heroine the villains. In "The Georges Méliès Project," an exploration of 7 films by the French pioneer of the fantastic and delirious, I attempted to use each of the films as a study in examining the relationship to music and film: each score approaches a film from a slightly different angle, some static, some ironic, by turns melancholy and hysteric.

In my latest project, the Japanese silent "A Page of Madness" (1926) by Teinosuke Kinugasa, I intend to explore more deeply a combination of written material and structured improvisation by the accompanying musicians. My other silent film scores have all been virtually completely notated and painstakingly coordinated with the film; this one will be also, but it will include elements of improvisation, drawing more on the skills and imaginations of the members of the Transparent Quartet (some of whom have been playing with me for over 20 years), in combination with written material. In this way we will take advantage of another element that is of interest in the live performance of music for silent film - ie. the fact that it is live. The score becomes a kinetic live event that is unique, never happening the same way twice, like a jazz performance in a night club, while at the same time still fulfilling its intended function to serve, elaborate and intensify the experience of a film made over 70 years ago.

"A Page of Madness" lends itself particularly well to this type of approach, as it is expressionistic and abstract, while still retaining a narrative element. Using simultaneous coloristic and story-telling approaches to music and jazz improvisation, we hope to share with the audience a whole experiential event that is a combination of these disparate time frames and artistic palettes.





Phillip Johnston, May 1998



Email Phillip Johnston.
return to Page of Madness