Not so calm on the Western Front: the orchestra brings the sound back to the silent film festival
Since the early 1990s, the five-member Mount Alto Motion Picture Orchestra has been laying the musical groundwork for silent films in Colorado and across the country.
âI came across a large collection of silent film music at the University of Colorado that had just been given over there, and I started going through it and realized that there was all this repertoire of music that had been used in silent film orchestras, âsaid Rodney Sauer, founder of the Louisville-based orchestra. “It had been pretty much ignored since 1929.”
Ignored – much like the silent movies themselves. The genre was quickly abandoned with the advent of “talkies”. But among moviegoers, they are still praised today at various festivals.
Rodney was originally a biochemist with a secondary passion for music. But once he found the untapped niche of performing and recording music for silent films, there was no turning back.
âIt was something I had never heard of,â he said. âAnd it kind of became our own little playground where we discovered these pieces that had been written and performed decades ago and probably not much since. And also, I really learned to appreciate silent cinema. It was quite a mature art form in the late 1920s. And the idea of ââmaking movies with live music in the theater, it really adds a special twist. This makes it an event.
This month the orchestra performs at a special screening of “All Quiet on the Western Front” as part of the Chautauqua silent film series. The film was shot in 1930, at a time when talking movies were already very popular in the United States, but had yet to break into other countries. To compensate, the studio produced two versions: one silencer and one with sound. But screenings of the silent version only began recently in the United States after a copy was found and restored by the Library of Congress.
For the Mont Alto orchestra, the film was an opportunity to dive into another bag of tricks: sound effects.
“Despite its title, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, it’s not silent until the very end,” joked Nancy Sauer, Rodney’s wife and partner in what they jokingly call “l ‘family business”.
Included in their kit are a kick drum for big blasts, a wooden peg system for walking, dried beans and rice falling onto a metal paint tray to crumble up debris and an electric typewriter to mimic noise. Gunshots.
âWhen you throw a hit repeatedly, it does a great job (making the sound of a machine gun),â Nancy said. “Then you have to be careful to get it back, obviously, so you don’t get ‘ding’ in the middle of a tense scene.”
In preparation for the screening, she spends hours watching and reviewing clips from the film to make sure she hits just the right time.
âThe human brain will forgive that the sound is slightly set back,â Nancy said. âBecause of course we are used to (the idea that) the sound comes after the visual. But you have to prepare for it. So if you’re only a fraction of a second late, that’s okay. (But you) can never be aheadâ¦ Our brains don’t agree to hear the sound before the visual.
If the orchestra and the team do their job well, Rodney Sauer says the audience won’t really notice them.
âOur job is not to draw attention to ourselves during the movie,â Rodney said. âWe want people to focus on this and feel the emotion. And what we do is we use the music that we chose for each scene to emphasize and strengthen the scene, to make it more emotional, to make it sometimes is to make it funny. Sometimes it’s to make an ironic comment. But most of the time, we take the film at face value.
Recently, the whole orchestra gathered for the first time in over a year to rehearse in front of a television screen that replayed the film on repeat.
It’s definitely a different way of rehearsing, says David Short. The independent cellist joined the orchestra 14 years ago.
âIt’s a very different experience from the (traditional) concert, where it feels like there’s a wall at the end of the stage,â said Short. âHere we were sitting very close to the audience because we are also watching the film. And there is a kind of bigger connection between the musicians and the audienceâ¦ The reactions of the audience are very visceral because they are in the moment.
In short, the music also had a very familiar feel.
âI had seen silent films growing up,â he said. âI actually have a deaf brother. And the great thing about silent movies is that … the soundtrack helps the movie and changes the way the movie feels, but you don’t need it. So I would watch it, listen to the soundtrack. My brother would just watch the movie and we could actually share watching the movies together. “
Many of these films were comedies, shown at high speed with cheesy music to match. In short, it was a joy to play the music the way he thought it should be played.
âThe music we play here is music that I won’t play anywhere else,â he said. âIt’s good because there’s this feeling of chamber music where it’s just the five of us making music together. But at the same time it’s really cool playing a whole collection of music that just isn’t played anymore which is a shame because some of it is really really good and it’s nice that we can actually bring that back and keep the directory on. “
This is a sentiment shared by Rodney Sauer.
âYou have a performance going on,â he said. âIt’s a living spectacle. It will never be the same, exactly twice. And so you experience it as a kind of rebirth of a lost, but sometimes quite beautiful, art form. “
The one who, if he succeeds, will never be silent again.
the Chautauqua Auditorium silent film series begins July 7 with a screening of Harold Lloyd’s comedy “Safety Last”.