Friday, July 13, 2018

Frankenstein, 1910: The Story of a New Film Score

In October of 2017, I had an opportunity to screen three silent films to which I composed new orchestral scores, at the excellent music venue, The Vault, in Berlin, New Jersey. No, I could not afford to hire the Philadelphia Orchestra, or any orchestra, for that matter. But I had recently discovered that, during my stodgy and deliberate evasion of computer recording over the years, I had missed a revolution in home production and, in particular, instrument "sampling." Put simply, "sampling" meant that I could use pre-recorded orchestral instrument sounds, which allowed me to play, through use of a controlling piano-type keyboard, literally every instrument in the orchestra, each with its varied articulations, as a real sound -- not synthesized. (There is still dent on my forehead where I slapped it, lamenting having missed out on this in my Scrooge-like evasion of changing times. Alas.)

[It might also be worth mentioning that this discovery is a big reason for my spottiness on the blog up till now. I was hooked.]

Having finally stepped aboard the new-fangled steamship of computer recording, I found myself able to compose, orchestrate, mix and master orchestral music, which (and I say this with no irony at all) was nothing less than a dream-come-true, as it allowed me to finally hear my music "played by an orchestra." I still am not the least blasé about this. It's a miracle to me.

With these tools at my fingertips, I decided to seek out short silent films (which are both public domain and just plain cool) and write new scores to them. (I will present the first one here and do separate posts for each of the remaining.) The three films were Edison's Frankenstein, 1910; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Lucius J. Henderson and A Trip to the Moon, 1902, directed by the great Georges Mellier. The spooky/quirky titles were chosen because the target date for the screening was Halloween of 2018.  I created this trailer for the event, complete with appropriate original "trailer" music:

People with discerning ears will be able to see that the quality of the samples and production improves from film to film, with the highest quality being the last-made: the trailer you just watched. While I had been composing since the age of about ten, the sample biz was new to me, so I was (and still am) acquiring skills and better-quality samples along the way. This first score, Frankenstein, was done entirely with the stock samples I had in my computer program and they are good, but far from great.

Enough of the technical. This process was a blast. I grew to love each of these early silent films as I worked: about two weeks of composition for each.

Amusingly, Thomas Edison thought to call his adaptation (the first ever on film) of Mary Shelley's book "a liberal adaptation." Boy, was it ever. In it, our young friend, Victor Frankenstein, literally stirs up his Creature in a cauldron in the seclusion of his requisite skull-and-beaker-cluttered garret laboratory. (We can let Edison have this one. Shelley was pretty non-specific as to the means Victor used in order to breathe life into the Creature -- though, Galvani was, I think, mentioned; hence, the interpretation of the electrical force we have come to know.)

So, the Creature is simmered to perfection -- accompanied by a dramatic bit of music in 5/4 time, complete with some fun "mickey-mousing" to the chemical puffs and poofs -- and, emerging from his copper womb, with a spooky reach of his long-fingered claws -- scares the cheese out of Victor, who flees to his bedroom. Again this is the basic idea of the book; Victor really does hide in bed when he sees the ugly thing he has made.

Victor is more a neglectful parent than anything. Had he nurtured his intelligent creation, things might have turned out differently. But the film -- perhaps to "dumb things down" for this new thing called the "film audience" -- attributes the Creature's behavior to Victor's evil parts having been, somehow, poured into him. Maybe being created and abandoned and without anyone to love was not enough reason for the Creature to have behaved badly... but there it is.

But the loneliness of the Creature is not avoided completely. In fact, one of my favorite moments of acting in the film is by the Creature, played by Charles Ogle, who, without sound or words, manages with very clear motions of his arms, to bellow "WHAT ABOUT ME?" after he sees Frankenstein's sweet love with his lovely fiancé. (Look for it -- it's heartwarming.)

Things go downhill from there, as you might guess.

I'll let you experience the rest in all its beautiful theatrical newness. I find some of the early special effects wonderful, just as I find it wonderful that the film makers of this time saw, immediately, that this new celluloid thing could yield much different magics than those of a play.

I took pretty traditional approach to the score; all acoustic instruments. I also use consistent themes -- leitmotifs -- here, down to a literal reversal of Frankenstein's theme for the Creature, inspired by the often-puzzling mirror-work that the director, Searle, does throughout the film.

Please enjoy it. This film -- and the others -- became very dear to me as I worked. I hope you love them as much as I do.

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