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.

10 responses

  1. As one of those producers, I’m all for it. Ben’s a fine composer and another interpretation of one of our films is always welcome. And hey, it might inspire somebody to buy one of our DVDs! I also have found the silent film composer/musician world to be very friendly so I suspect they feel the same.

    Milestone Film & Video

  2. Thanks for the nice write-up! The response has been positive, both from people who’ve bought and downloaded scores and from fellow accompanists. I’m hoping the site catches on, helps DVD sales and, especially, encourages people to re-watch and re-visit a film they’ve seen only once when they bought the DVD.

    Thanks for showing me seated at the Miditzer (the virtual theatre organ), too!

    Sient Film Accompanist/Artrepreneur &

  3. I almost commented yesterday, but now I’m glad I didn’t since I see the actual behind-the-scenes people are reading/commenting, because I was going to say what a godsend this was for certain scores that I disliked that undermined the films for me. So I’ve said it, but at least I didn’t bash a particular person or musical group (on the off-chance they also might have been reading). Already in the above list one of my particular pet peeves is rectified! :) (No, it’s not a Milestone release! And it’s pretty rare that I will strongly dislike a score anyway.) Now, I will have to figure out the technology part of it, but it sure sounds easy. (P.S. – I love Milestone, and I will also keep an eye out for more Ben Model. I realize now I have been listening to him on my Edison Kino box set. Perhaps he is on the new Méliès box set also which I just started watching.)

  4. I’m a little apprehensive on the part of the musicians on the original DVDs, and I hope this innovation will be taken up in the spirit of providing choice rather than an excuse to bad mouth an accompaniment that doesn’t appeal to all tastes. Handled right, this could be a significant innovation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Milestone, Kino et al didn’t monitor the situation and think about providing a similar alternative download option for their silent releases in the future. In the future, when DVDs and their ilk disappear and downloaded films take over, alternative scores may become a given. It’ll be interest to see how things develop.

  5. Glad to see this is catching on. I think it’s a great idea and told Ben so and am in the process of getting my huge library of recordings of live performances ready to put online for similar use. Another avenue that my wife Joanna Seaton and I are exploring is training young musicians to make their own silent film music. We lead workshops for high school and college music students, giving them the opportunity to see a wide variety of film styles, from early Edison clips to Griffith, Keaton, some avant-garde material, Murnau, Vidor, and so forth. As we screen these excerpts we talk about the various ways that the film might be accompanied, and try out all sorts of different approaches. The students write their own themes and perform them in concert, and then Joanna and I present a feature film, sometimes inviting students to participate. We hope that more care is given to film scoring as a result, since the needle-drop approach that is rampant in much of what’s posted on Youtube only serves to cheapen the concept of music wedded to film. But I completely agree that every viewing of a film is different. Of course one could take this a step further, now that we have the tools to re-edit films ourselves. Why stop at new music? Why not the audience cut of METROPOLIS or SUNRISE? Only partly kidding, folks! Have a great day.

    PS For those of you in NYC, join us for the world premiere of Bruce Posner’s fantastic MANHATTA restoration with my orchestral score on May 23/24 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge, in the eponymous park on the Brooklyn side. 8:30pm. Hope to see you there!

  6. As Dennis says, the silent film composer/musician world is a friendly one, and this does promise something for everyone. I’m delighted to hear that you will be making some of your live recordings available – do let me know when and I’ll certainly post something on them. Also good to hear about the training of young musicians in the art – the opportunities are huge, but a little discipline is necessary as well.

    I’ve been pondering the implications of this re-editing malarkey, as you have. If we add new sounds, we can equally re-edit the films as well. Why on earth not? The originals won’t be harmed. Let’s have some silent film mashups.

  7. I’m a bit of a purist, so the re-editing thing has me completely horrified! Whole different ballgame there. For example, “Keaton’s cuts here are a bit choppy. Let’s just tighten up the splice points a bit.” Or “Griffith let that one hang up a bit long and the match on action isn’t smooth. I suspect he didn’t intend to do that.” Subtle things like that could be done to DVD releases unbeknownst to viewers, muddying the history of the progression of cinema, with all its faults. (Re-editing as a tool in private classrooms to teach filmmaking, film history, or film appreciation, maybe. Blatant mashups okay maybe.)

  8. Well, yes, improving Griffith’s editing (much as I have wanted to from time to time) isn’t quite what’s wanted. So I guess I was mostly championing mashups and the like, but the underlying point is that to keep this stuff alive we have to keep challenging it, fitting it in with modern sensibilities, and so, yes, tinkering with it. That way we discover what we value in it. Always protect and value the original, of course; but keep on re-imagining the films at th same time.

    But what good silent film mash-ups are out there? I’ve seen little as yet. Perhaps the best is the BBC’s trailer for a season of programmes on Edwardian history from last year, which used Mitchell and Kenyon footage. I wrote a post on it about a year ago. Here it is:

  9. This is certainly a fine idea – so far the only similar example I was aware of was movie fans providing their alternate audio commentaries as downloadable mp3 files – the practical difficulty that I would have is that if my DVD player is playing the silent movie, where do put the CD with the music? I have only one DVD player, no dedicated CD player, no ipod, my PC is not on the same floor as my telly, speakers etc etc…

  10. I didn’t know about alternate audio commentaries. Can’t help over your practical difficulties. Maybe time to get that iPod. I’ve downloaded one of the mp3s, but I don’t have the matching film, so I’ve cued it with some other silents. Curiously, it fits them rather well (actually, this is not so curious, as it’s a recognised phenomenon how the brain will make best efforts to match music to image – you just pick up on different aspects of the film depending on the cues offered by the music. Try it.)

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