Sound and Silence

Last night I watched The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, not Lloyd Webber), which unaccountably I had previously never seen. The Tyne Theatre was a character in this drama - sitting in the posh seats you can really enjoy the baroque, blue swags, plaster fruit and veg everywhere, the extreme wallpaper, the sickening height of the ceiling and the beautifully lettered names of composers adorning the balconies. Reminding you it was - is - also an Opera House. The film was a restored print with ghostly green or purple/blue tinges, and some of the scenes were almost undecipherable. In fact there was so much colour in the Black-and-White it took a while to register than in the masked ball sequence it had suddenly gone into colour...a garish, red-heavy technicolour. But it was excellent, atmospheric, and in the "famous" unmasking scene, truly scary. Meaningful looks, heaving bosoms and general (by modern talkie standards) overacting notwithstanding.

Excellent, very much because of the live score provided by Brendan Murphy and the Mediators, using piano, electric keyboards and synths, glass harmonica and random percussion. Normally, I hate electronic music, but the subtle shifts from piano to organ to disturbing electronics were perfect, and provided a great counterbalance to the melodramatic elements of the visuals. I started out expecting - hoping - this would be a percussion version of the Buster Keaton-esque rinkydink live piano, huge and fast and mirroring the film. Instead it was subtle, beautiful, minimal in places and crazy - but never baroque - in others. It balanced the film and helped to reinterpret it for a contemporary audience. And a live soundtrack, with all the emotion and sense of presence and spontaneity...as though the band were expressing their response to the film as it occurred to them (which of course wasn't how it worked)...
An inspired idea by whoever programmed it into the Whitley Bay Film Festival.
And it made me think why it is that I hate the comedy soundtracks of animations - the mwah-mwah noises , the plinkety plink of feet winding up to run, the strange violin wa-ee-a telling you someone's jaw has just dropped in amazement. You don't need them. It's overstating. It's bolted on. And formulaic - a code - the opposite of live, spontaneous and expressive. If animations - like silent films - need to make their statements boldly and clearly, then that can be counterbalanced by a soundtrack which tells the story in a more abstract and lyrical way. As an animator I work with just the images; although there may be a script if there is dialogue; but the story, the emotion, the atmosphere has to come across without any sound...or how can I complete it? The sound IS an add-on, and yet it has to be as communicative, as creative, as crafted as the animation (or the silent movie) itself. And somehow it has to give an impression of an integrated, holistic end product...of an interplay between the two elements even though one is created after and in response to the other...a collaboration. I wish I could produce my own scores for the animation. Mostly, I wish I could afford to commission Brendan to do it.

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