Wednesday, Nov 2, 2011:Prehistoric Tracks

Long before CDs, movie music was performed by a live, or a mechanical, piano player. This schematic from 1909 shows how.

‘Prehistoric Tracks’: Movie Music Before CDs

“Not many original film scores are being produced in the Czech Republic these days. Directors usually come with the CD of their favorite tunes,” points out Jan Dušek.

This year the young composer was commissioned by the Berg orchestra to dress the-101-year-old short film by D W Griffith, A Child of the Ghetto, in a new mantel. The short film serves up a little melodrama of a young Jewish girl, unjustly accused of a crime, who escapes from the evil city to find happiness in the idyllic countryside. In 2009 Mr Dušek also composed the film score for the film Hungry Hearts.

He’s one of the composers who have participated in the Cinegogue project, the collaboration between the Jewish Museum of Prague and the Berg Orchestra. Through Cinegogue, silent film treasures are scored with new music and brought back to life, thus making them accessible to the modern viewer.

In his lecture on creating film music, given at the American Center October 17, Mr Dušek made it clear that the creative process involves a great deal of film viewing and analytical skills on the part of the composer. With black-and-white, silent film, the work is complicated by the early, imperfect quality of the film – and also by the inability to check with the director.

Jan Dušek

Consequently, the composer has to make a lot of creative decisions and interpretations alone.

“For a film score it’s essential to define the crucial moments and themes of the film,” Mr Dušek explains. In this case he focused on the contrast between the struggle of immigrants and the somehow relaxed, American style.

These two opposites are then expressed in music. “The key moment of the film is the death of the mother, which triggers all the ensuing events, so I chose the solo flute to represent the mother. For the orphaned girl I use the glockenspiel as a theme.”

Mr Dušek's reconstruction includes motifs appropriate for police, as typified by the classic Hollywood Keystone Cops

On the other hand the jolly American police force automatically brought to mind the notion of slapstick comedy, so he uses a honky-tonk piano in the composition. Other moments call for contemporary classical music to express tension and confusion.

Simply, every action and feeling on the screen has to fit the music.

Of course the century-long divide between the film and Mr Dušek’s composition shouldn’t be felt. “When composing, I tried to take into account the time when the film is set, which was America in 1909. As a rule you should always think about the time setting when making film music.”

You can’t really escape from today’s feelings and notions which inform the creative process, he says, “but there should be no clash between the two separate worlds of music and film.” Mr Dušek’s elaborate orchestral music would certainly come as a surprise to the American audience in the 1910s, which was used to the simple accompaniment of an in-house pianist who was given a cue sheet, telling him what type of music to play.

You’ll have the opportunity to hear more of Mr Dušek’s work. He’s set to compose another film score, this one again for the next Cinegogue. – oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

About Jan Dušek
Jan Dušek is a composer, pianist, and film music buff, currently pursing PhD studies at the Academy of Performing Arts. He is the winner of many prizes, among them the Generace Composition Competition (2007), and winner of the audience vote for the best composition, Chalomot Jehudi’im, in the Nuberg 2008 competition.

Photo Credits: Top: Section illustration of a player piano, 1909; middle: The Berg Orchestra; bottom: Keystone Cops, Mack Sennett Studios, 1914

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