Alternative music

Now this is something quite novel. Ben Model (left) is a respected silent film accompanist, probably best known for being his regular live performances at the Museum of Modern Art and for New York’s regular Silent Clowns film series. He has now come up with, a download service providing alternative scores for silent films currently available on DVD. The scores are available as MP3 files, which (after paying through PayPal) you can download to your hard drive, then burn to CD, iPod or whatever. Put in your DVD, then start the MP3 file and following the synching instructions. Easy.

Scores currently are available for The Dragon Painter, The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, The Man from Beyond, Terror Island, Sherlock Jr., and Beyond the Rocks, with most priced at $3.95. There is a ‘freebie-per-month’ too (currently The Dragon Painter, the Sessue Hayakawa drama recently released by Milestone).

There is an ingenious bit of cheek about this whole exercise, but the more you think about it the smarter it is. I don’t know what the DVD producers think, but they are not going to lose anything by it. One or two of the original accompanists on those DVDs might feel a bit miffed. As for select group of punters, I suspect they are going to welcome the opportunity for choice. The beauty of experiencing silent films live is that you never encounter the same film twice, because the (generally) improvised score is different every time. Once you’ve bought the DVD you have just one film. Altscore introduces a small element of variety, based on an understanding that the silent film is a protean beast that, ideally, should never be the same film twice.

But we should not stop here. I’ve been thinking lately of creative ways in which music for silent films can be made available, and I’d like to see something done with scores that not only do you download but which you can edit and create for yourself. This could be an interesting element of a DVD release (perhaps with a schools/educational element), supplying the user with film and elements of music which is true VJ fashion they could then mix to create their own silent film accompaniment. This has already been done. Some years ago the BFI’s Education department produced Backtracks, an innovative CD-Rom with films clips with audio files for schoolchildren to experiment with blending the images with different kinds of music background (Neil Brand was involved). The BFI’s Creative Archive, which includes silent films clips, encourages you to remix and republish the downloadable films as you wish, under special licence. And recently the jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, whose Arbuckle-inspired album Moonshine has been praised here already, is offering you the chance to download the separate tracks for the title tune of the DVD as uncompressed WAV files, along with the Arbuckle/Keaton film of that title, to remix as you see fit. I’ve downloaded the file and can play the tracks individually (it requires WinRAR to extract the files, which you can download as trial software) though I’ve not been smart enough yet to mix the results (“a child of five could do this – someone send for a child of five”). But the concept is a grand one. Let’s have more such interaction between the user and the artist – the tools are there.