Blog posting by Karly Placek, Documentary Studies and Production '15, FLEFF Social Media Manager, Monroe, Wisconsin
FLEFF is here! After months of anticipation, the festival is now fully mobilized and taking Ithaca by storm. I'm looking forward to attending many events this week, including the critical silent film October
with live music by the Cloud Chamber Orchestra
. In order get the scoop on how one goes about scoring music to a silent film, I sought out the ideas and opinions of professionals in the field. I was recently privileged to chat with musical composer Robby Aceto
, who is also a member of the Cloud Chamber Orchestra
trio and a returning FLEFF contributor. Aceto's insight allows me to appreciate and better understand the daunting process of scoring music with film. Now I'm even more excited to witness the artistic collaboration that will take place this Sunday!
Karly Placek: What challenges have you faced while preparing to play with October ?
Robby Aceto: To say preparing a live improvised score for October presented some challenges would pretty much be a massive understatement. Here you have an incredibly complicated film by the brilliant director and film theoretician Sergei Eisenstein who incidentally, is credited with inventing the art of film montage and influencing such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and virtually every other filmmaker to come after him; his film is telling the story of one of the most significant and complicated series of events in world history, large events written very large, and anyone who has ever seen this film has seen it presented with a score by the legendary modernist composer Dmitri Shostakovitch. Okay, are we seeing any challenges here?!
I studied this film in college and have seen it many times over the years, so when the prospect of improvising a score for it at FLEFF was floated out to the group, I was initially very excited. But then I was also very daunted. I mean, how does one go about replacing (with an improvising trio!... and in a live setting!) a score by Shostakovitch? (rhetorical question). At first I spent a lot of time trying to track down the written score to see if any of its elements might lend themselves to interpretation by our group. I figured, if such an experiment was successful, it would be the first time Cloud Chamber Orchestra performed using any pre-conceived or written elements. But as soon as I began looking at the score on its own, simply as score and unattached to the film, my first thought was "Oh good grief, it's a total MONSTER!". I must admit I became more than a little paralyzed with fear and wanted to crawl into a hole. Then something interesting happened; I discovered that the score by Shostakovitch was written in 1966; it is known to us now as his tone poem "October". The film October was made in 1927. Anyone alive who has seen October has seen it synchronized with music that was written for it nearly forty years after it was released. I did some further digging and came to the realization that virtually no one knows exactly what kind of musical presentation accompanied the film during its first theatrical performances. There was a light at the end of the tunnel after all! It sort of ligitimized in my mind the notion of us improvising a score in a way that might be relevant today.
KP: What kind of mood is the Cloud Chamber Orchestra trying to convey with this film? Any ideas on what to expect/anticipate?
RA: I have to say first that, by any measure October is a stunning film; it's technically groundbreaking, brilliantly conceived, and a world-famous landmark of film history. It tells the incredibly complicated story of the 1917 revolution which toppled the Kerensky government and brought about the Soviet State. Anyone interested in gaining a real understanding of these events needs to do a LOT of reading, studying it from many angles. People are still to this day trying to sort it all out... as I said, an incredibly complex moment in history, and a lot of blood was spilled. And as a film, it's also extremely complicated and, well... bloody. [The film's original title is Ten Days That Shook the World, which was taken from the book about the October Revolution by American socialist writer John Reed, who was himself an eyewitness to these earth shaking events.] Eisenstein is known as the "Father of Montage" and montage, which was at the time a highly original cutting technique, is used extensively throughout the narrative. The result on film is visually arresting and in places sometimes quite upsetting. It is impossible to watch this film and not be deeply affected by the story it is telling, and the way in which it is told. Our early run-throughs with picture were loud, aggressive, and quite violent, obviously in reaction to the images. With subsequent run throughs we changed our approach somewhat and decided to make an effort to instead underscore the emotional realities lying beneath the images, as opposed to the visceral images themselves. I think it's an approach that is going to work really well on a number of levels, and I hope, brings something new. My personal goal is to attempt to produce the musical equivalent of a dream-state, using tonal dissolves and small thematic cells. I realized the images are so powerful, and they spoke for themselves so thoroughly that the role of the music in my mind becomes less about commentary, and should more function as sort of hand-holding for the audience.
KP: Any other thoughts/ideas/insight regarding the process of playing live?
RA: Well, as with all performances by Cloud Chamber Orchestra, we don't really know what is going to happen until it actually happens. As members, we always try to challenge ourselves, and each other, by bringing unlooked-for elements into what we play... sort of grist for the mill, if you will. Some excellent ideas which have been tried out in rehearsal may not work in the theater, or for that matter, ever even appear during the actual performance. So like always, for me it's going to be about initiating musical ideas thoughtfully, listening intently and trying to respond in a respectful and effective way to the other musicians. I really feel fortunate to be working with Peter and Chris, they are both such fabulous musicians and great lieteners. I guess we'll see what happens on Sunday! Thanks for the interest.
Much thanks to Robby Aceto for his time and perspectives! Make sure to check out October
music by the Cloud Chamber Orchestra on Sunday, April 7 at 7 p.m. at Cinemapolis
Robby Aceto is an internationally recognised musician and composer for film and multimedia. He has been a returning contributor/collaborator at FLEFF since 2008 as a member of the improvising trio Cloud Chamber Orchestra