How to Score a 1929 Russian Silent Film? Listen Carefully

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Scoring silent cinemamight seem like a straightforward matter. After all, musicians can take their lead from the big screen-the clowning comedy of Charlie Chaplin, say, or the gutsy thrill-seeking of Douglas Fairbanks.

But what to do with film like the 1929 documentary "Man with a Movie Camera"? In it, director Dziga Vertov substitutes such staples as plotline and characters for a potpourri of abstract effects.Enter Alloy Orchestra, whose members scored Vertov's masterpiece in 1995. Hear the orchestra's musical accompaniment when the group performs at a screening of a restored version of the film Sept. 14 at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

"We're happy to write melodies that go with characters, and we're happy to follow the plot and interpret it," says Ken Winokur, director of the three-member, Cambridge, Massachusetts, orchestra, "but this one really gave us an enormous amount of flexibility." Here's how they pulled it

In Sync with Vertov

A composer himself, Vertov wrote so-called "noise music," in which unexpected objects are marshaled in music-making. Such an approach was up the orchestra's alley. "We'd always worked with found objects and unusual musical instruments, homemade instruments," Winokur says. Novel instrumentation for this film includes horseshoes, plumbing pipes and a saucepan.

Passing Notes

Vertov's notes on musical accompaniment for the film provided guideposts for the orchestra. "They described what he was looking for in the soundtrack," Winokur says. "(He) didn't, like, write out music, but he described the attitude and the style that he was looking for." The notes were sometimes opaque, as in one directive that requested the sound of water falling into an abyss-suggesting, to Winokur, "a slightly mysterious, dry yet watery feeling."

Challenge Accepted

When scoring other silent films, the orchestra tries not to outdo the image, but that was not a concern with "Man with a Movie Camera." "It is such an overwhelming film that we're just hanging on for dear life," Winokur says. In one scene, a theater looks to buckle-thanks to a split screen-and Vertov's musical request was blunt: "His note at that point is that he wanted the loudest sound in the history of the world," Winokur says. "So we do our very best to provide that for him."