Category: Columns

Crowdsourcing Rehearsals

This is a two-part article about rehearsing a traditional large ensemble: orchestra, band, or choral ensemble. Many of the ideas put forward won’t be necessarily new, which is a good thing. It means that many conductors are experimenting with, even perfecting, a more inclusive, student-driven approach to large ensembles. But having traveled around this country and a few others visiting music programs, I’m still struck by the overwhelming adherence to the top-down, dictatorial method of running a rehearsal.

I’m convinced that the majority of conductors believe that simply because a student is in his/her ensemble playing an instrument, or singing, they are “engaged.” More and more, I’m convinced that this just isn’t the case. We stand on a box, with a stick, telling them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. And yet, I keep hearing from the music advocacy folks that what we do in the music classroom is somehow “different” or “better” than what happens in other classrooms. Well, of course it is—as far as I know, there aren’t any snare drums and saxophones in a chemistry classroom—but we really don’t teach any differently. And lest anyone think that I’ve got this completely figured out, let me assure you, I don’t. In 2013 I published an article in the Music Educators Journal on this topic and I still don’t pretend to have it all figured out. More on that later.

There aren’t any snare drums and saxophones in a chemistry classroom.

Broadly defined, the student I am teaching today in many ways is the same kind of student I taught at the beginning of my career—smart, engaged, overachieving, hard-working, dependable, dedicated, curious, kind…all that good stuff. But, in other ways, the student I’m teaching today is different. It’s mostly because of an addiction to technology but also trends in parenting and schooling—and societal changes, too. So I think it’s important to assess how we teach every once in a while. Trends come and go, I realize (who knew that leg warmers and high-waisted jeans would make a comeback), and there is a LOT of validity in teaching students to sit, listen, and be quiet. But there is also validity in more student engagement, more student involvement in learning and process, and more student ownership and responsibility.

Imagine, if you will, a gentleman plucked up from his late-19th-century life with a time machine plunked down in Times Square New York City in 2018. Absolutely everything would blow his mind—the cars, the lights (NEON!), the noise, the dress, the store offerings, the height and density of the buildings…everything. He would be completely lost. Until, of course, he walked into a classroom. Except for those white boards and maybe a projector/screen, nothing much has changed in that department. Now imagine a trombone player from the Sousa band plucked up with that same time machine and plunked down in your rehearsal room. With the exception of wondering what all that extra percussion equipment was doing in the room, he would know exactly where he was and where to sit. Now, I’m not saying this is all bad. But, it’s something to think about.

A gentleman plucked up from the late-19th-century to 2018 would be completely lost…until he walked into a classroom.

A decade ago, Randall Everett Allsup and Cathy Benedict penned an important wake-up call for band teachers called, “The Problems of Band” (Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16, no. 2, Fall 2008). If you haven’t read it, give it a go. It’s a no-holds barred exposé of the “band tradition” that even names names. Ouch. Here’s one of my favorite quotations from that article:

The problems of the American wind band…stem from an inheritance that is overwhelmed by tradition…predominantly teacher-centered, teacher transmitted, and content/repertoire driven…we are deluding ourselves if we think our students are actually taking on the responsibility of independent musicianship or becoming more musical.

Let’s think a moment about WHY we rehearse, especially in a school setting. I would think that what immediately comes to mind is something like this: to prepare a performance; to improve and perfect. But let’s go deeper. Rehearsing is something we conductors spend a tremendous amount of time doing, not to mention forcing our students to do it, too. What do we really want our students to learn in rehearsal other than the repertoire? Here are some ideas:

We rehearse to make mistakes because we know that we learn more deeply from failure than success.
We rehearse to facilitate LISTENING.
We rehearse to learn everyone else’s part in the whole.
We rehearse to learn how to lead. And how to follow.
We rehearse to build a musical community. To build trust.
We rehearse to develop musical independence.
We rehearse to co-create an environment of safety and the freedom to take risks.
You see where I’m going here? I think what we should be doing in rehearsals is more than getting the music right.

In a subsequent article, I’ll talk about some basics of good rehearsal technique, keeping in mind everything we’re talking about here. And then, we’ll move beyond the basics to get a bit more innovative and even more student-centered.

The Collaborative Studio: A Look into the Process of Producing Non-Classical Music

My first venture into producing was with a Texas punk rock band whose main songwriter is one of my closest friends. The relationship we had was the perfect foundation for me to explore and sculpt my voice as a producer. I had done much work as a songwriter and a composer, but producing required me to give up creative control to respect someone else’s artistry. Not every project can be with your best friends, but it is important to create some sort of relationship with the artists you work with. Let them know that you are as invested as they are in their work.

When I sign on to a non-classical project as the producer, it is important for me to know how involved the artist wants me to be. Each project requires a different process based on what the artist is comfortable with or what they are hoping to achieve. Often I’ll try to be as involved in the pre-production process as I am in the studio. What this means is that before a band or artist enters the studio to record I am collaborating with them, helping them to mold the material that they have into the best possible version of itself. My background as a songwriter makes me an effective collaborator early on in the process, and these qualities are further augmented by the knowledge and skills I gained through my formal education as a musician.

My college education provided me with practical skills to complement the songwriting craft that I had developed prior to music school. Being able to analyze and understand form and theory helps to eliminate a lot of the time-consuming trial and error I underwent as a young musician. Although the school I attended only ever applied critical thinking toward works in the classical canon, I kept an eager interest in applying this knowledge to the non-classical styles that I loved. During undergrad I was still working toward becoming a better songwriter, so I used the analysis techniques I had learned in school to analyze my favorite records in order to better understand what made them so special to me. Analyzing non-classical music gave me another set of tools that I would be able to use as a producer when needing to fortify or expand a song that didn’t quite feel complete yet.

Studying composition taught me how to reconceptualize material that isn’t working in its current context. This technique has been invaluable to me as a producer.

In addition to the general music curriculum, my composition studies also provided me with a unique perspective on music and its materials. As a teenager, I had discarded countless songs because of mental roadblocks and I hadn’t developed ways to get past this. Studying composition taught me how to reconceptualize material that isn’t working in its current context. This technique has been invaluable to me as a producer. Not only has it saved songs from being discarded entirely, but it has taken perfectly “okay” songs to another level without sacrificing the artist’s intent. The material being reframed is still unique to the artist, and nothing gets changed without the consent of its creator. None of what I do as a producer revolves around me and my creative ability. Rather, I am using that ability to enhance what an artist has provided me to work with. The ability to perceive the material in new contexts is merely a way of seeing the true potential of what an artist has created.

Maybe my favorite aspect of being a producer is how similar it is to being a good teacher, whether it be in composition, violin, etc. The goal of being a producer or a teacher isn’t to create carbon copies of yourself or your tastes. Instead, you work harder to help artists or your students achieve (or sometimes to develop) their visions. It’s a more involved and difficult process than it would be to just change everything until you’re satisfied, but the end result is a product that is a true representation of someone other than yourself. It is a work that, as a producer, you helped to develop in order to fulfill another person’s vision, and that is a unique type of satisfaction.

Once I am in the studio with a band or an artist, things start to move quickly and it becomes necessary to focus both on the minor musical details as well as the broader picture of what the project is intended to be. Organizational skills, time management, and the ability to provide constructive feedback all come into play in a studio session. Not only am I monitoring the recording process, but I am also making decisions regarding where the most time will be spent, understanding how each part will sonically fit into the whole, and coaching performers when it is needed. It’s important to remember that each of these tasks involves a conversation—whether it be with your artists or your engineer—and the more you communicate, the more efficient your process will become.

When monitoring the recording process, there are two primary goals in mind. Capturing a technically proficient take and capturing the right performance. Music is an emotional force regardless of the genre you are working in, and it is important to portray that emotion in the performance. With indie artists or bands this is most evident in the vocals, which is why vocal tracking is one of the most involved processes. A singer may nail a passage technically, but if the performance doesn’t portray the right mood, it does nothing to serve the song. This is where a bit of coaching may be required, but just because a performer is being coached does not imply incompetence. It is simply the benefit of having an outside perspective weigh in on the effectiveness of a performance. Perhaps instrumental performers can relate to this type of coaching the most. Even though you may not always be coaching on the same instruments, a good coach understands how to articulate a mood or a character in the music so that any musician can understand. This ability to effectively talk about music is an invaluable skill that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The final processes that a producer is typically involved in are mixing and mastering. It is not uncommon for your recording engineer to also be your mix engineer, and having developed a strong communicative relationship will make mixing and mastering smooth and stress-free. In the mixing process, the engineer relies on clear and concise directions from both the producer and the performers. There’s no reason you can’t begin communicating with your engineer during the recording process about mix ideas. These ideas can range from topics such as balance between instruments, the use of special effects such as delay, or the overall timbral qualities of a song, e.g. dark, bright, warm, etc. Engineers who know where you intend to go sonically can begin to lay the groundwork before the recording process is finished, which makes mixing easier on everyone.

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the ways in which classical music production differs from what has been described in this post. Contemporary classical music has continually shown little interest in the boundaries of genres, the next installment will also dive into what this could mean for the future of classical music production and ways in which I believe contemporary classical music can take advantage of what non-classical music has already been doing.

It’s Not What We Do, It’s How We Do It: Evolving the Concert Experience

What I’d like to talk about today is what we do, what we believe in, and how we do what we do. Which, I believe, is rather suspect. At the end of this article, there will also be some practical ideas.  You probably shouldn’t try them all at once. And you probably won’t like some or all of them. But I think it’s time that we start thinking more about a pretty important stakeholder in what we do, our audience. I’ll talk about my experience in the collegiate and/or professional concert world, but I believe most of the ideas could work in a variety of settings.

It’s time that we start thinking more about a pretty important stakeholder in what we do, our audience.

An iceberg partially above water but mostly below.

Perhaps you’ve seen this meme on the internet. Where the tip of the iceberg is the performance and that vast complicated bit underneath the surface is the rehearsal process. It’s so true, isn’t it? And we’ve all heard that the journey is supposed to be more important than the destination. The process more robust, more post-modern, more life-changing than the product. Presumably this means that the more important lessons are learned along the way. That there is joy in each day’s progress (even, struggle). And the end result will be more fulfilling if we concentrate and are mindful of each step (both forward and backward) along the way.

And who am I to refute this notion? I don’t, in fact. But, let’s be honest, we are surrounded by messages that scream the opposite. We are destination-driven—goal-oriented. I’m a runner, but I don’t really train methodically and smart unless I’ve signed up for a race. Who doesn’t make to-do lists and take great pleasure in checking off the tasks when they are completed? Just about everything we do, especially as teachers/conductors, is driven by the end result.

In our case, that’s the concert, isn’t it? And if that concert is bad—poorly executed, boring, poorly organized, out of tune, rhythmically unstable, whatever—everyone feels bad: the musicians, (perhaps worse of all) you, the musicians’ family members, the community members, and, of course, the administrators. So in this article, I’d like to focus on that performance, that product, the destination, the stuff above the surface.

Just about everything we do is driven by the end result. In our case, that’s the concert, isn’t it?

Let me ask you a question: how many of you think about the audience when you program your concerts? It’s a serious question.

Now, in my case, most of the time, whether I’m guest conducting or at home, our audience is typically friends of the student musicians (or professional musicians), fellow faculty and educators (the student’s teachers), parents, donors, community members, and administrators. This includes the live and the virtual audience, as we’ve been live-streaming concerts at the University of Georgia Hodgson School of Music for the past three years.

With perhaps a few exceptions, I would guess that this is basically your audience as well. Yes?

OK, before we talk about our audience, let’s step back a moment and talk about the classical music concert experience.

When I googled “Classical Music Traditions” in preparation for this article, here are some of the titles that came up:

“What to wear to a Classical Music Concert”
“Concert Etiquette”
“The Concert Ritual: How to Enjoy a Live Concert of Classical Music”
From The Guardian, “Admit It, You’re As Bored As I Am”
“Saving Classical Music”
“The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” (Huffington Post)
“Is Classical Music Boring?” (According to the bloke at The Guardian, it is)
“Is Classical Music Dying?”
“How Diversity Can Help Save Classical Music”
“Can Classical Music Be Cool?”
“How Do We Fix Classical Music?” …that one from National Public Radio

And my personal favorite,
“Cracking the Secret Orchestral Codes” (NYT)

Isn’t that extraordinarily odd? I don’t think the average person needs to worry about etiquette, rules, what to wear, fixing the genre, saving the genre) when they attend any other kind of live music event. Nope, it’s pretty much just “classical music” concerts that are fraught with strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviors. Here’s something, when I google “who attends classical music concerts?” a whole bunch of stats come up, which I’ll share with you in a moment. When I google “who attends a popular music concert,” my whole feed is about the Obamas attending a Beyoncé concert.

It’s pretty much just “classical music” concerts that are fraught with strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviors.

If I may quote Richard Dare, a first-time classical music concertgoer who wrote the article I mentioned, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained”:

Although I loved the music I heard that evening, I was struck by my observations that concerts might not be easy to figure out for a first-timer. Had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a hip-hop concert—if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn’t contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like? But this was classical music. And there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself preoccupied by the imposing restriction of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony-faced non-expression of the audience around me [let me add that I bet he observed that on the stage as well], presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic. I don’t think classical music was intended to be listened to in that way.

Neither, dear reader, do I. Richard Dare calls it “ritual behavior”; I have a student who calls it “ritual compliance” and I believe it’s killing what we do, and what we actually believe in.

We all know that it didn’t always used to be this way. Think of the bawdiness at a Mozart premiere, the boo-ing at a concert featuring the not-so-well-liked Beethoven, the riot that broke out at the premiere of The Rite of Spring…women throwing their unmentionables at Franz Liszt during his piano recitals. I’m not advocating throwing our underwear at anyone by the way, but surely, we’ve moved way too far in the opposite direction.

Concert attendance at classical music events is down in the United States and Canada. We all know it has been in decline for some time. Experts and pundits blame lots of things for this: music teachers (my favorite), poor government funding for the arts, Spotify and Pandora, wind band repertoire (my second favorite), technology and decreasing attention spans, movie music, video games—and perhaps all of this is true and we can lay blame where blame is due. But don’t we need to think about evolving the concert experience?

In 1958, Milton Babbitt penned a deeply controversial but memorable article. (By the way: Can you name a composition by Milton Babbitt? How about some of his contemporaries, such as Igor Stravinsky, Percy Grainger, or Aaron Copland, all of whom who embraced folk song—so called “pop music”—in their music. And whose music has endeared itself into our hearts.)

Charles Rosen wisely said, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest living tradition.” Yes, we’ve been saying classical music is dying for at least 200 years. I’m not worried about the music itself. It’s too good to die. Bach, for example, seems to me to be indestructible. The institutions of classical music and music education though, are another matter. There is good reason to worry about them, especially those that have refused to evolve for the better part of a century.

Back to dear Milton. I make my graduate students read his infamous article and write a counter-response entitled, “I Care If You Listen.” Let me be clear, I do care. I care about my audience. I care who listens and I care about what they think. I care when they choose not to come. And when they do, I want them to have a great time.

I believe that the days of ritual compliance at classical music concerts should end. And end now. The kind of concerts that most of us present where, as an audience member, you are never spoken to, you are expected to read the boring program notes in the dark, the musicians on the stage look as bored as you are, and you are expected to behave in a certain way, etc., seem now so silly to me. And boring. And I’m a so-called educated musician!

So, what I promised: here are some things that we have experimented with at the University of Georgia, and before that, at Cornell University. Some of these things you might not be able to do in your particular circumstances, but I hope as I go through these, you’ll let your creative juices flow and think about ways that you might incorporate some of these ideas (and add more of your own) in your unique setting.

No. 1 (and its No. 1 because anyone can decide to do this, anywhere, and any time)

Dump the no-applause rule.

Dump the no-applause rule. Invite your audience to clap whenever they feel like it. There is nothing more ridiculous and repressive than experiencing a huge cadence, inspiring and loud, at the end of the first movement of a concerto or symphony and all you hear is paper rustling and coughing. And we wonder why people don’t enjoy classical concerts? Or why the musicians on stage might not be having as good a time as they could be? Live music is supposed to be invigorating. And there’s a give and take with that audience and player energy that’s so important. Why not give this a try? The Hodgson Wind Ensemble has been doing this for about two years now and WE LOVE IT.

Now, there are ways to introduce this that will be successful and ways that won’t. But you can start with playing a march, or a polka, or any other kind of energetic, motor music, and turn around and clap to the beat. You can also, which is what we did, plant a bunch of clappers, to get the ball rolling and the rules changed.

No. 2

Embrace technology.

Embrace technology. We have tweet seats at the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts. They’re at the back of hall (so the lights on the phone don’t disturb the folks who don’t want to tweet), and listeners are invited to tweet to #HWE any time they want during the concert. I know some of you don’t like this. Can’t we find places in our lives where we put the screen down and just be in the moment? I get it. I do. But, I went to an orchestra concert when I first arrived at UGA. Down my row, during the slow second movement, a man started flipping through the program to see what was coming up later in the semester. An older woman across the aisle was so deep asleep, she was drooling on her sweater. You can’t tell me those folks were more engaged without their phones than the folks who tweeted things like this, during the concert:

“Love the clarinet soli! Hard to believe this was written in 1961. So good.”

“I’m down for ‘diet serialism’ but I’m a big boy who can handle full calorie Schoenberg.”

“When the bass drum hits are slightly too soft for your liking.” (Followed by a meme of disappointment)

“Breath. Taking. Completely beautiful and mesmerizing concert setting.”

“Erik has set the tone with that boss level performance. There will be applause after each movement now!”

“How fun! Y’all having fun up there stage-sitters?” (More on this later)


No. 3

Talk to your listeners. There is an entire generation of people who don’t know HOW to listen to music. And, if you are like me and play a lot of new music, guide the audience through it. Share with them why you love the music and want to play it for them.  You might have to examine what makes it quality music—something we don’t explore enough or define. We’re really good at criticizing bad music, but we’re not very good at defining quality. Take a crack at it.

If it’s complex music, play excerpts for them before the actual performance.

If it’s complex music, play excerpts for them before the actual performance. Then they have ‘ah-ha’ moments of recognition when they hear it again.

One of my great moments at UGA was when we performed Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques. I invited a music history professor to speak about the work. We played excerpts and we played bird song over the sound system. We showed the video of Messiaen and his wife at the piano. In the parking lot after the concert, an audience member behind the wheel of an F-150 pick-up truck slowed, rolled down the window, and said, “Dr. Turner! That bird piece was my favorite!”

No. 4

Any time you can have musicians sitting in the hall, go for it.

Experiment with intimacy and breaking down imaginary walls. “Stage-sitters” are just that. Put out some extra chairs and invite audience members to come on stage and sit in their favorite section while you perform the last number. This is a HUGE hit at UGA. A very touching moment happened once when our bass player’s five-year-old son came and sat on his daddy’s bass stool. Any time you can have musicians sitting in the hall, go for it. That requires memorization—not a bad skill for our students to practice.

Rote Hund Muzik (the contemporary chamber ensemble at UGA) transformed the band hall into a lounge for Steve Reich’s Double Sextet. We set up the ensemble in the center, put a few chairs around the audience but invited people to get up and walk around; grab a drink, get a closer look. Big hit.

No. 5

Take risks. At UGA, there is a tradition at football games to “Light Up Sanford.” At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the fans take out their phones and put their lights on and hold them in the air while the marching band plays “The Krypton Fanfare” (from the 1978 Superman movie). Really loud.

We did this at a concert. During a piece called Beacons by Peter Van Zandt Lane, we invited the audience to take out their phones and do the same. We had stand lights, and the hall went completely dark. It was gorgeous. And fun. And pretty. And moving.

No. 6

When you have to put program notes in 120 point bold on the screen, you think twice about what you write.

Experiment with projection and visual aids. At Cornell the stage had a huge screen that could come down because the concert hall was also a lecture hall. Instead of printed program notes, we projected them on the screen. And let me tell you, when you have to put program notes in 120 point bold on the screen, you think twice about what you write. They have to be pithy and interesting. Don’t get me started on bad program notes. Anyway, as the piece progressed, the program notes came on the screen.

We can’t do that at UGA (no screen) so we experimented with listening guides.

But we also rent a projector and screen sometimes. We display images, video, Skyped composers, all sorts of things.

No. 7

Flash mobs. In some USA schools there is a disconnect between the marching band and the concert bands. At some of the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts, we invite the marching band to perform in some capacity or another, usually a flash mob outside after the concert. There is also a very popular program of training service dogs at UGA. We had them all come on stage when we performed “The Whistler and His Dog.” I believe we tend to live in a vacuum. We become insulated in our silos of thinking and being. Reach out. Is there an organization or group or individual that you could invite to participate in your concerts in some way?

No. 8

In a world gone mad, why not make statements with music!

Don’t shy away from making a statement. Recently I had an interaction with a student who said, “I don’t want my dissertation to be a political statement.” Why not? In a world gone mad, why not make statements with music! Why not provoke? Why not challenge? Why not engage in difficult discussions? HWE has addressed climate change, racial injustice, gun violence, mental illness—the list goes on. These concerts have been hugely impactful and successful and students have shared that they need to process some of these things. Why not through music?

These are just some ideas. I hope that they get you thinking creatively about what you can do in your own environment.

We all know what happens to a species that does not adapt to changing environments: they simply go extinct.

The Collaborative Studio: Roles and Expectations

For many classical/new music projects, the recording process is seen as a conclusion—the culmination of hours of rehearsal and preparation. Instead, your time in the studio can be utilized as another collaborative opportunity to further refine a project and prepare the work for a life both within and beyond a performance. On multiple occasions I have entered a studio feeling fully prepared to record the tracks as I had written and known them for months, only to be enlightened to new possibilities and ideas from a producer or engineer. The recording studio is its own creative space that provides a new perspective not only from the process of recording, but also from the team involved in that process. Taking advantage of this unique environment can be liberating and has the potential to elevate a project to another level that may have been previously unknown.

My background as a musician began like it does for many other people: playing in bands with friends. I was a guitarist in a variety of different rock, metal, and hardcore bands as a teenager, and was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to record three albums with one of those bands. It was then that I had my first experience working with an experienced producer. Over the course of those three albums, I absorbed as much knowledge as I could about the studio experience—everything from workflow, expectations on both the performing and producing end, studio techniques, and any secrets of the trade that I could remember. These experiences stuck with me because I enjoyed the process of working in a studio, although at the time I couldn’t imagine that I would do anything other than write and perform the music. Eventually, in college, I began composing concert music, which provided me not only with a new skill set, but a fresh perspective on music entirely. The communal aspect of music-making disappeared as I continued to compose, but I was suddenly involved in all determinant aspects of how a piece would sound and be performed. These varying experiences would eventually coalesce to inform my role as a producer, a new step in my development as a musician.

The definition of a producer can vary from person to person and for each project, but there is a certain foundational mission that you can expect to be a constant. Producers help artists achieve their vision for their work. They guide the way and keep artists on track and productive while also offering outside opinions—sometimes even providing creative input. While all producers have their own strengths and tendencies that define their production style, a critical attribute of their job is the ability to decenter themselves and put artists first in their decision making.

Andrew Rodriguez in the studio

This decentralization of personal artistry can be difficult, but it has personally transformed my creative process into a much more collaborative effort. When I first began playing music, it was a way to spend time with friends and share something together. Becoming a composer changed all of that, as the creation process became solitary. The primary aspect of producing that drew me in was the ability to collaborate again, yet this time in a supporting role rather than as the central creator. Working as a producer taught me to trust in the people I was collaborating with. This practice bled over into my compositional process and has given me a new sense of comfort in communicating and workshopping ideas with my performers. Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

In a modern studio session there are three primary roles: the performer, the engineer(s), and the producer. In a best-case scenario, these roles are fulfilled by different people. It has become the norm, however, for one person to embody two of these roles. Often you will find that an engineer will also serve as a producer. This is a stereotypical assumption by the general public, but in the modern age it is not entirely out of line. I can recall my first experience in a professional recording studio and being confused about who the producer was because I was unaware that having a separate engineer was an option. In some cases, performers may even opt to produce the project they are performing in.

One reason, outside of financial limitations, that the producer for a project may also serve as the engineer or even a performer is that an effective producer often has a wealth of experience as an engineer and/or a performer. These varying experiences and skill sets contribute to the producer’s impact in the studio. Having been involved in projects where I wielded dual roles (engineer/producer or performer/producer) I can say that it is not easy. Although there are overlapping skills, producing requires the ability to move between perspectives continuously. Performers and engineers have crucial jobs to execute that rely on focus and detail-oriented technical skills. A producer, on the other hand, is constantly switching between focusing on these details and recognizing how the pieces fit into the larger picture of the project. A trusting relationship with a producer can alleviate the pressure of having to focus on all aspects of the process.

Throughout the remainder of this series I will offer up some suggestions on how to be an effective producer and collaborator in the studio for those who may be new to the studio process. I will also be detailing the ways in which my formal music training has informed my production style for non-classical music, as well as how my non-classical background has informed my production of classical music. Working in a studio environment has been one of the most beneficial experiences in my musical development, and I want to encourage musicians to take full advantage of the possibilities of a truly collaborative studio environment.

New Music for Old Film

When integrated sound came to the cinema, many theaters fired their musicians and stopped showing silent films. A few hung on and offered the occasional silent film with live accompaniment as a concession to audiences or as a novelty. When home video became a reality via first VHS and later DVD, studios hired silent film accompanists such as Rosa Rio and Gaylord Carter to record new soundtracks for silent pictures. And there was a revival of interest in silent film in the 1970s and ’80s that resulted in the establishment of multiple silent film festivals around the world—and with those festivals came a range of approaches in accompanying old movies.

Some accompanists, as I’ve written about earlier in this series, have tried to recreate the accompaniments that audiences would have heard in the 1910s and 1920s. Others, however, reject the concept of using pre-existing music, either from the silent period or elsewhere historically. These musicians argue that today’s audiences have heard so much of this pre-existing music already that common musical gestures and tropes have become saturated with meaning that can interfere with first-time viewers’ experiences seeing silent film. So they compose all-new scores or improvise new scores for each film.

Organist and pianist Ben Model, who serves as the resident film accompanist for the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art, writes, “Avoid playing recognizable music if you can help it. [….] The thing to remember is that your audience may already have their own associations with a familiar piece, whether it’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ or ‘Handel’s Messiah’ [sic] and your use of that piece will trigger their association regardless of what yours is.” Model improvises most of his performances, although he has developed certain motifs and themes that he uses for specific films. When he’s fully satisfied with a score, he may (or may not) commit it to paper for others to use or record it with the film for distribution on DVD. While the texture and rhythms of the music may be redolent of the 1910s, it’s all original.

Ben Model’s score for the 1918 film Hey There

Composer and performer Andrew Simpson takes a similar approach to scoring silent films. In his new scores for old movies, Simpson—who also composes for the concert hall—works in an early-20th century idiom, using piano, clarinet, cello, and other instruments common to motion picture houses. He too avoids pre-existing music except for cases in which it’s particularly suitable to use a familiar piece or melody.

Andrew Simpson’s accompaniment for the 1924 Harry Langdon comedy Picking Peaches

Accompanists today are also not limited to piano- or organ-only scores, nor must they have an ensemble at their disposal. Leslie McMichael has composed multiple scores for silent film using the harp. McMichael makes a convincing case for using the harp as opposed to other instruments for a number of films, including Peter Pan from 1924: “What could be more fitting for Tinker Bell than a silvery glissando as she flies about the Darling nursery looking for Peter Pan’s shadow?”

Leslie McMichael’s score for Peter Pan (1924)

McMichael has also incorporated toy instruments, such as the toy piano and toy horns, into her scores for movies featuring children, like the Baby Peggy series of films.

Leslie McMichael’s score for Captain January, a 1924 Baby Peggy film

Drawing on Celtic and other traditional musics and their forms and gestures, McMichael has developed a wide following among silent film fans and offers a very different option for audiences used to organ or chamber ensembles accompanying film.

Other accompanists today prefer to create scores even more distant from the sounds of the past. The Alloy Orchestra describes itself as “a three-man musical ensemble, writing and performing live accompaniment to classic silent films. Working with an outrageous assemblage of peculiar objects, they thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources.” Their scores are for percussion and keyboards, including piano, synthesizer, and accordion, with the occasional clarinet. Much of their percussion battery consists of found objects—what the Orchestra calls “the rack of junk.”

The Orchestra creates evocative and original scores that, while playing off of silent film-era musical conventions such as exoticism and gendered motifs, are new and thoughtful and always interesting. The Alloy Orchestra has, like other present-day accompanists, committed many of its scores to DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Alloy Orchestra accompanies a scene from Son of the Sheik (1926)

The Alloy Orchestra’s score for the 1927 film The Unknown

Thanks to technology that gives even non-performers the ability to create and synchronize music with a silent film, there are countless new scores for silent movies online. A quick search on new music for silent films on YouTube results in dozens of hits, including scores created with Sibelius software, scores made with electronic instruments, and student projects.

The Motorist (1906) with new music by Jean Hasse composed for MIDI

Remo De Vico’s electronic score for a short film by Segundo de Chomón

The continuing popularity of silent film showings with live music means that there is plenty of room for experimentation in composing new scores for old pictures—at least those in the public domain, which includes all films released in the United States before 1923—and the increased availability and ease of use of video and audio technology, as well as the availability of recordings for free use through Creative Commons—like those at SFSMA means that audiences can experience individual silent films with multiple soundtracks as fits the occasion or mood.

Additional resources

Catalog of Copyright Entries: Cumulative Series. Motion Pictures 1912–1939. 1951. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Available in full here.

Creative Commons. 2018. “Legal Music for Videos.”

Hurst, Walter E. 1989. Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain, 1894-1939 (vol. 1). Hollywood, CA: 7 Arts Press.

Walls, Howard Lamarr. 1953. Motion Pictures 1894–1912 Identified from the Records of the United States Copyright Office. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.

Music Can be a Counterbalance to Hard Times

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.  On 9/11 after the attacks, I walked among the droves of people in the middle of avenues normally packed with cars and got safely home. I thought of my day. I’d been on my way to a 9:30 a.m. workshop at the Foundation Center.  It was sunny and pleasant. When I got to the corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street, everyone had stopped and was looking downtown trying to figure out what was happening.  We really didn’t know yet.  The rest is history.

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.

Like most of us, I was glued to the TV that night.  It was hard to watch, hard not to. I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t fathom it. I knew we were in for big changes, that the 21st century had just begun.  I went to the piano. Playing slow chords along with the news I felt my original connection to music, comfort, and wisdom, a balm for the soul.  There was something reassuring in that.

In 2012, the night that Hurricane Sandy approached. I listened to the changing weather predictions and felt like a sitting duck. Once I realized I’d be alright, I took to worrying about others. During this vigil, I went to the piano again; TV news was on low and was slow to change, but alerts would be known.

Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to our doorsteps; friends and loved ones were uprooted.  The storm approached at night, and I improvised the beginning of what turned into a solo piano piece called While We Were Sleeping. The music’s overall shape is a crescendo-diminuendo, though random acts of chaos surge and dissipate, the storm gathers and subsides. In the beginning, the notation is classically specified. As the piece progresses it becomes more of a graphic score, at times alternating between these two modes. Particularly in the more graphic, improvisatory sections, I hope to elicit an intuitive “heat of the moment” response from the performer.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.  After the loss of my father, I wanted to find expression for what I felt; it seemed there were no words for it.  The vocal expression of an infant conveys its meaning, the timbre of the voice before words. Thinking about this was the impetus for And So It Begins for tenor, sax, and string quintet.

If this were a story, loss and regeneration would be the themes. Imagining grief as a processional, the incarnate dissolves into the ethereal, a heart-beat pizzicato becomes a time-ticking drum beat.  The final movement brings regeneration through a series of dances.

I allowed my process to be more intuitive than ever, taking the first idea that came to me and developing it.  Sensing my way, low tones stir in the tenor sax, seeking to rise, strings join in.  Allowing chance to play a role, while listening to the MIDI playback, a bird sang a tone that harmonized so well, I wrote it in. Sometimes even a typo turned out to be a usable gift—while transposing a passage to use it as a sequence, I accidentally made it a step higher than intended and I liked it! A descending third dropped into the saxophone part, and I realized it was the whistling motif familiar from childhood when he’d call us from play.

A photo of a tea bag containing the words "Listen and you will develop intuition"

Before I knew what the words meant, I remember being aware of the rise and fall, the varying intensities, and patterns of sound of the human voice, and knowing that these sounds carried a meaning that I was intensely curious to understand. Later, in my teens, I similarly listened to the muffled voices of my parents and grandparents behind closed doors.  I couldn’t understand a word, but their tone was foreboding.

An old spinet was in my room. I closed the door, went to the piano and tried out something new for me at age sixteen.  I took out manuscript paper and lined it up in four parts for a string quartet.  Life went on, but these phrases haunted me through college and into my adult life. In 1988, I fleshed out that initial sketch into a movement, but returned again in 2015 to bring the music to full expression as a four-movement work. My initial sketch became the second movement of my first string quartet. That slow second movement is the heart of this work. Its theme reappears in varied guises in the journey of the piece. I found metaphoric connections for the music in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. The titles of the movements are inspired by the light and dark shadings of his poetic imagery. As in the body of Lorca’s work, motifs recur, reinterpreted in echoing variation throughout the four movements.

Composing is usually a long-term project for me, but sometimes I struggle with returning to a piece if it seems at odds with the climate around me. I’d started a flute and piano piece in early 2016. A fantasy seemed apropos, a wedding gift from flutist Carl Gutowski to his niece. But after the election, it became hard to conjure this feeling, this expression of love, so in opposition to the political/social climate of the time.  How could I rally myself to it? Why was it important?  Journaling helped me find an answer.

After the election it became hard to conjure love, but strong bonds of love deserve celebration.

Strong bonds of love deserve celebration. Hope and optimism in the face of many unknowns can carry us through the struggles, both personally and culturally. It’s important to continue our lives as we mean to live them, celebrating our American freedoms, becoming more aware of how precious they are and how worthy of our energies it is to protect them.   We need to stoke the fires of love and hope within—raising our energy, hopefully not just to preach to the choir, but to find some common ground.

The sky on a bright day.

So I composed a series of variations for flute and piano that fall out of synch at times but are always linked to one another in harmonious partnership. The piece is in a loose rondo form to convey the enduring nature of a bond through the ever-returning theme of love. As with the individuals whose marriage inspired this piece, flute and piano are equal partners. Their relationship flows between discussion, duet, argument, and canonic imitation, each voice having the chance to be leader and follower.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance, to dream the impossible dream and find a new way, not to be locked into the present trajectory or momentum, to know that something else is possible, even though we have to traipse through the unknown to get there.  We don’t always know the way, but we keep trying until we find it.  It’s the role of the arts to inspire persistence.  With creativity there’s always hope.  Art speaks truth to power. We need art more than ever now.  These are some of the things I’ve learned through my life in music.

Setting the Scene with Sound: (Re)Scoring Silent Film

We all know that the soundtrack changes the way we experience a movie. One of my favorite examples of this comes from a meme that appeared about ten years ago in which participants recut classic films into new trailers in different genres. West Side Story, a tragic musical (original trailer), became a horrific zombie movie (revised trailer), and The Shining (original trailer) was turned into a feel-good family film (revised trailer). When it comes to silent film, accompanists have infinite choices. Even in the early days of cinema, accompanists could improvise, select pieces from their own libraries, follow suggestions from cue sheets, or use the scores that came with some big-budget pictures, or any combination of these. Today, some accompanists try to recreate the sound of early cinema in their own performances, while others revel in using music that has been created since then.

Buster Keaton’s 1927 comedy The General is a popular choice for showings with live accompaniment, and it has also been released in multiple versions on DVD. Set during the Civil War, the film is essentially one long chase, culminating with the famous scene of a train plunging through a burning bridge into a river.

The film is based on a real incident in which Union spies made a daring attempt to steal a Confederate train engine called the “General” from Big Shanty, Georgia, just north of Marietta. The General’s engineer and a small corps of Confederate soldiers commandeered another engine, the “Texas,” and sped off in pursuit. After an action-packed event known as the Great Locomotive Chase, the Union soldiers were stopped and the General was returned to the South. In adapting the story for film, Keaton stated, “While this picture will be designed primarily for laughs, it is my aim to make it historically correct and equally acceptable in the North and the South. It will not be a burlesque, but a comedy spectacle of certain thrilling episodes in the struggle between the States.”[1] Keaton’s intention was apolitical, claiming at the time that “you make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” And so Keaton plays the hero, a Confederate engineer who stops the Union soldiers and returns the engine to the South.

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in The General

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in The General

Because the Civil War was still highly visible in everyday life and culture well into the 1910s and 20s, many accompanists at the time relied on nostalgia for wartime songs. James C. Bradford published a cue sheet for the film that included “Alabamy Bound,” “Dixie Queen,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Maryland, My Maryland,” “Dixie,” and “Old Folks at Home.” He also suggested burlesque versions of the “Light Cavalry” Overture and “My Own United States;” other recommendations include the 19th-century works “An American Battle Scene” by Theodore Moses Tobani, which was an 1898 musical portrait of the battle at Antietam and dedicated to the Union Army; and “Memories of the War” by L. P. Laurendeau.

Numerous pieces from Bradford’s list are problematic today, but perhaps none more so than “Dixie.” “Dixie,” of course, was created for blackface minstrelsy in the 1850s. It is important to understand what it represented to people in the 1920s who might have heard it in conjunction with The General, as their reaction was likely to be quite different from what many of us think today when we hear the song. “Dixie” itself began as satire, making fun of a former slave who longs to return to the plantation, and both Northern and Southern soldiers and performers claimed the right to use it, usually with different lyrics, during the War. It became the de facto anthem of the Confederacy and remained closely associated with the “Old South.” Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie used the song in their 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and it appears to have been regarded as an uncomplicated signifier of the South in general during the ’20s and ’30s. In 1934, The Etude (one of the most popular and influential music magazines of the time) dismissed all connections between the song and white nationalism. Clearly this changed between that time and today, in part because of white Southerners’ revival of the song as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the performance of “Dixie” in any situation is extremely complex, involving issues of race and class. And so while it has become a traditional exercise in nostalgia for both the time periods of the film’s action and its cinematic release to use “Dixie” in accompanying The General, each modern use must be carefully read to determine intent and meaning: whether its inclusion is meant to represent contemporary accompanying practices; if it is representing the Confederacy, and how; or whether it appears as part of a valorization attempt on the part of a performer to present the film as political rhetoric for the Confederacy.

Today, if you watch The General at home on DVD or Blu-Ray, you can select from one of six scores included on recent commercial releases. Each of these modern accompaniments (by Carl Davis; Robert Israel (two scores: one for piano and strings and one for full orchestra); Lee Erwin; Joe Hisaishi; and the Mont Alto Moving Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer) seeks to replicate one of the many manners in which the film might have been accompanied in the cinema at the time of its release. Davis’s accompaniment is scored for full orchestra, while Hisaishi’s uses a smaller ensemble. Lee Erwin’s score is played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, the “king of cinema organs.” Mont Alto recreates a typical small theater orchestra of piano, violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, and percussion. Screenings with live musicians can rent a newly created score by Timothy Brock for accompaniment, or hire an improvising accompanist like Ben Model of MOMA and the Library of Congress to perform.

These newer accompaniments for The General vary in their approaches to scoring the film. Composer and performer Mark Orton has gone so far to recreate a historic Civil War sound as to find, restore, and use portable, folding reed organs known as field organs as part of his orchestration, which also includes popular 19th-century instruments like the zither and its cousin the marxophone, autoharp, and harmonicas of various sizes and ranges. Although modern audiences may not be able to name these instruments, they may well associate the instruments’ sounds with music of another era and/or the South.

A field organ example:

A marxophone example:

Carl Davis’s score uses a full, modern orchestra, and is primarily composed of pre-existing 19th-century orchestral works for the concert hall, but retains traditional performance practices such as including period tunes; he gives the film’s genre as parody a nod by also incorporating minor-key version of “Dixie.” Robert Israel’s score is likely similar to what audiences would have heard at large motion picture palaces in 1927. Composed for a medium-sized orchestra with piano, Israel’s score establishes several generic themes at the beginning of the film, including a love theme, a theme for the Union villains, bugle calls, and music for hurrying and chasing. Israel frequently incorporates “Dixie,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as major themes. Israel mimics Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to signify some frantic physical movements and quotes Rossini’s overture to Semiramide as part of the battle sequence at the end of the movie. Although the Dukas work wouldn’t take on its iconic association with Mickey Mouse until 1940, it was often included in collections of pre-existing music for film accompaniment for suspense or “creepy” situations; Rossini was also a popular choice for exciting music for races, battles, and other high-movement scenes. Here’s an excerpt from Israel’s score from the beginning of the engine chase.

For smaller picture houses, a small ensemble may have supplied the entire accompaniment, or it could have been accompanied by an organ, like Lee Erwin’s score, or piano, such as William Perry’s improvised piano score.

Erwin’s and Israel’s scores obviously make use of pre-existing pieces. One group that seeks to eliminate the metamusical meanings older pieces can carry is Chicago’s Quasar Wut-wut. Quasar Wut-wut scored The General in 2014 and departs entirely from the previous approaches.

There are numerous other soundtracks for the film, including mash-ups of James Bond themes and other pieces written for other films; numerous piano or organ-only accompaniments; and several for small ensembles, such as an earlier Israel score and a score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Each score offers a slightly different take on the action in the clips shown here. Israel’s provides a sense of anticipation and anxiety as the engine pulls away, followed by traditional markers for drama (continuous eighths in the left hand and a melodramatic, minor-key melody), while Erwin’s mimics the sound of a train horn and a minor-key theme that deepens into the sound of more serious trouble as Keaton’s character realizes he’s alone. Perry’s score offers the same non-stop playing and agitated rhythms, but is far more light-hearted and matches the action of the soldiers and Keaton’s character, providing musical mimesis for the scene. And Quasar Wut-wut gives us a score in which the heavy percussion and basic chords of the first part of the scene give way to an ironic commentary with a lighter set of instruments as the engine pulls away, suggesting the obliviousness of Keaton’s character and the humor of the moment.

With an enormous range of extant pieces to choose from, accompanists both in the past and now have great opportunities to frame and reframe silent films in various ways, suiting them to particular audiences, settings, or their own tastes.

[1] “Details of United Artists’ Productions: The General,” Motion Picture News (May 29, 1926), 2573.

Music and a Sense of Place

Have you ever been arrested by sound—music, a bird call or even a siren?  You might even notice, in an Ivesian sort of way, the polymetric pulse of a city or the rhythm of footsteps on the stairs (and their canon with your own). These rhythms say something about the life that created them. How different they’d be in Bali.

A sense of place can be the impetus for a piece, motion can be the catalyst.  Beethoven often took long walks, I imagine both to clear his head and to stir his thoughts.  When I walk down the streets of New York City, I’ll sometimes find myself humming a bass line vamp that accompanies my pace and mood. It’s unconscious at first.  The soundscape around me fits on this grid, often in syncopated counterpoint.  The movement suggests music by its weight, duration, tempo, direction and rhythmic patterns. Everything is part of the music.

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen”

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen” and earlier this year I wrote a piece for electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit and a pre-recorded audio track titled Citi-zen.

The recording that accompanies the piece is my vocal improv with the New York City night, vamping and riffing into my phone’s recording app as I walk down Broadway at a tempo of about 100 to the quarter note, responding to the sounds I hear around me. In the course of my walk, a bus whooshes by, a dog yaps, sirens wail, there’s theater talk, a trumpet plays across the street.  Live instruments play along in a game of hide and seek/cover and reveal. The recording is unedited; I wanted it to express a natural occurrence, the polymetric counterpoint of life.

The recording gave me the form of the piece.  I wanted to do a five-minute piece, and so I stopped recording when the time was up. But I felt it needed something more, so I started recording again for another minute. Near the end of that coda a woman shouts, “It’s a full moon!”  That was the ending I needed!  It happened to have been October 4, the Harvest Moon, 10-4, the old ham radio code for “got it!”  I welcome the random occurrence, the synchronicity, improvising with life, making the best of what’s come before as best I can.

My current work in progress is The Universe of Grand Central for any solo instrument and a two-minute cellphone video with improvised commentary, filmed during “off-peak” hours in Grand Central Station.  A solo instrumentalist plays along with the video. We begin with a view of the ceiling, the cosmos in all its astrological glory.  Following the arching windows, the viewer descends into the hall and its inhabitants, and follows them in their crossings through the Grand Hall, their individuality more pronounced in this quiet hour, after the herds have already passed.

The ceiling of Grand Central Terminal

Sometimes a place can affect the music more indirectly.  I lived for a time in the mountains of Northern California.  The wide open spaces and majestic beauty filled me with a sense of reverence. The “emptiness” of the wilderness provoked a fullness, the stillness roused my inner life.  As I wrote, I looked to the mountains. Did the music ring true?  Sympathetic vibrations between saxophone and piano evoke this resonance.

Sometimes a place can affect music more indirectly and the desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst.

The desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst. The Beauty Way for soprano, tenor, and bass viols (2009) is inspired by my residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.  In Taos, 8000 feet above sea level, closer to the heavens, I observed the mercurial play of light and shadow and experienced a sense of wonder that I never wanted to forget. Time slowed down. I was off the clock; there was only morning, afternoon, and night.  I was in the Timeless Zone.

I was fascinated by the place. It’s a cultural crossroads of Native American, Mexican, and Spanish influences, and then in the 20th century, the artists colonized it.

Debra Kaye in the desert

There, for the first time, I had the opportunity to walk on one of the few places in the United States that is still nominally acknowledged as “Native” land, and which is also completely off the electric grid.  With beauty all around me, a Navajo blessing came to mind.  You may have heard it.

Now I Walk In Beauty

Now I walk in beauty
Beauty is before me
Beauty is behind me
Above and below me

Returning to New York City was culture shock at first. Walking through crowded Harlem streets, I could envelop myself in the aura of those summer walks by singing the Navajo tune.  I was soon discovered. Through the sirens and screeching cars, I heard a man singing a gospel version of “This Little Light of Mine.” We smiled at each other, each continuing our song.  Integrating these experiences (and these tunes) became the impetus for the piece.

I later found that the beauty way is described as a feeling of joy, bliss, and safety, a state of grace.  There are no battles with people, nature, or our own nature. It recognizes those times when we are in harmony with all that is.

The Native melody is very similar to the traditional English round, Hey Ho Nobody Home, and I wondered if these tunes had ever met and influenced each other.  It seemed interesting that the words of the two songs seem to be opposites and represent a positive and negative aspect.

The Beauty Way is in rondo form. It begins with the original Navajo tune in canon. The B section is a fantasy on the original material that leads to a darker aspect and the return of the Beauty theme in combination with Hey Ho Nobody Home.  Next, again, there is a development section, but this time it leads to a more positive aspect, culminating when the Beauty theme returns, this time in combination with This Little Light of Mine.  The goal of the piece is to establish the feeling of the beauty way, to fall out of harmony and to find the way back.

Taking a Cue: Accompanying Early Film

Starting in 1908, film industry publications frequently included regular columns by cinema conductors, composers, and arrangers such as Samuel Berg, Ernst Luz, and Clarence Sinn. These articles offered suggestions—sometimes called “musical plots”—to cinema musicians on selecting and performing music for silent motion pictures. By the 1920s, cue sheets published by movie studios and independent publishers had become ornate, including cue titles, musical incipits, length of cue, and other information. The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive currently has 65 cue sheets available for free download and will be adding another 40 later this year.

While some film and film music historians think that these cue sheets were followed closely and that accompanists frequently purchased the music recommended in them, archival materials tell a different story. Cue sheets were often modified, used merely as the basis for ideas, or even ignored. This means that although we have an idea of what some accompanists might have played for individual films, we can’t know exactly what they played for individual screenings.

Many cue sheets in Silent Film Sound and Music Archive’s holdings show notations where the performer swapped out a suggested piece with one they already knew or owned. Claire Hamack, an accompanist whose scores, photoplay albums, and cue sheets are now online at SFSMA, often made changes to cue sheets—including adding her own original music.

For the 1925 film Stella Dallas, she made notes on the cue sheet of pieces she wanted to use in place of those recommended.

Hamack’s cue sheet for Stella Dallas.

Hamack’s cue sheet for Stella Dallas.

She also changed cues for the film When Knighthood was in Flower, a 1922 movie. Hamack replaced suggested themes by William F. Peters and Massenet with Franz Schubert’s “Moment Musical,” Edwin Lemare’s “Meditation,” and other selections. She specifically wrote over the printed titles for cue 5, “While Mary dreamed,” changing it from “Serenade Romantique” by Gaston Borch to “Wakey Little Bird,” and changing the music for cue 11, “It is near to midnight,” from “Romance—German (The Conqueror)” to Grieg’s “Dawn” from Peer Gynt. The cue sheet for The Dangerous Age, a 1927 German film directed by Eugen Illés, is covered with Hamack’s notes, including notation for an alternate, possibly original, theme, and indications that suggestions were replaced with other works (“In the Gloaming” is preferred over Otto Langey’s “Dream Shadows” for cue 23). Other cue sheets, including that for My American Wife (directed by Sam Wood, 1922), also bear short passages of handwritten notation for original themes and motifs. Hamack’s audiences would have heard Hamack’s musical interpretation of the film rather than that of the studio compiler.

The cover of the cue sheet for My American Wife (1922)

The cover of the cue sheet for My American Wife (1922), showing Claire Hamack’s theme.

One great find for SFSMA was a cue sheet created by cinema organist Hazel Burnett for the 1920 film Humoresque. Burnett had an incredible musical career, beginning by playing for live theater and small cinemas in the Midwest and working her way up to being a featured organist at the famed Aztec Theater in San Antonio. (More on Burnett here.) After her death, Burnett’s granddaughter Josephine gave all of her music and other materials to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The Burnett Collection contains a wide variety of resources, including printed cue sheets and full scores, photoplay albums, sheet music, and hundreds of pieces clipped out of The Etude and Melody magazines, which Burnett used as cues. Much of Burnett’s music is marked with performance indicia that confirm that she used it in accompanying silent film.

Numerous pieces of sheet music in her collection are labeled with cue numbers and descriptive notes: Frederick Vanderpool’s “The Want of You” was used for the cue “maw asleep” in one unidentified movie, and Edvard Grieg’s popular “Ase’s Death” accompanied another unknown film’s cue 27: “Mary prostrated.” “No. 5 Molto Agitato” from Breil’s Original Collection of Dramatic Music for Motion Picture Plays is marked as “14 phone rings”, while “No. 6 Andante Misterioso” was used for “[Cue] 2[:] man enters.” Burnett wrote the titles of accompaniment-appropriate pieces on the covers of the photoplay albums that contained the pieces, often including the page number for quick access. She also interleaved pieces of sheet music and pieces cut from Melody and The Etude between pages of her photoplay albums to create original modular scores. For some, it’s impossible to know what film the cues went with, but others are much clearer.

Cues for an unidentified film or films

Cues for an unidentified film or films, Josephine Burnett Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas—Austin

Humoresque is a classic melodrama about a young Jewish violinist. Celebrated film music composer and director Hugo Riesenfeld composed an original score for Humoresque for the film’s premiere, and it was this score that was most likely performed by a cinema orchestra and organist both at its premiere and on the road tour that followed, although Riesenfeld made slight changes to the score depending on where it was being shown. While Burnett almost certainly had access to Riesenfeld’s cue sheet, she compiled a rather different score from her own personal library. She kept two pieces Riesenfeld recommended: Dvorák’s “Humoresque,” which she could hardly avoid, and Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Here’s how her first five cues compare with Riesenfeld’s:

cue sheet

Note: ‘D’ refers to a direction cue or action; ‘T’ refers to the text of an intertitle. Punctuation modernized for clarity.

You can see Burnett’s full cue sheet for the film here. The Ransom Center is currently in the process of setting up a screening of Humoresque with live accompaniment using Burnett’s cues.

Having Burnett’s and Hamack’s cue sheets offers a glimpse of how these tools were used, adapted, or jettisoned by cinema musicians, and also conveys to us how score compilers interpreted scenes and assigned music to them. Would you or I think of recommending “Hail America” by Drumm as a piece for a Tudor-era picture (When Knighthood was in Flower)? Probably not, but prolific cue sheet author James C. Bradford did, and that alone tells us about scoring for early film and how aesthetics and approaches have changed since then. You can explore all of the cue sheets in the Archive by clicking on “Cue Sheets” under “Categories.”

Toward a Music of the Spheres

My summer project: write a piece for solo violin influenced by Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. It’s August and I can finally turn my head to a collaboration with Polish violinist Kinga Augustyn for a concert in mid November. I’d sketched a few phrases after listening to her recording of the Telemann Sonatas—which, by the way, made me a new Telemann fan. And now, I turn my attention to the Bach Chaconne—how great!  But does this fit with my initial sketch? Or how does it fit? Where? What? When? Why?

I listen to the Chaconne over and over, both entranced and mystified by it.  Looking at the score, I want to know its secrets.  How does it make the effect it does?  What does this cyclic form mean in the hands of Bach, with his deep spiritual life?  What patterns can I find? How does each small thing relate to the whole? I sense a cumulative meaning as themes return, carrying different meaning over time. I find some overarching processes that echo through the macro and the micro.

I’m struck by Bach’s use of opposites, and how consistency is consistently broken.

I’m struck by Bach’s use of opposites, and how consistency is consistently broken. Pairs of opposites emerge throughout the Chaconne. In the macro, D minor becomes D major. The dotted rhythm of the opening goes through diminution and augmentation and leads eventually to the culminating “trumpet call” of the dotted eighth and sixteenth near the end of the piece.  In the micro, pairs of phrases end high then low, counterpoint above leads to counterpoint below, syncopated rhythms appear in palindrome (just like in jazz!), lingering embellishments become forward-moving scalar passages

I realize why the Chaconne seems to unfold organically.  It’s because it does!  As Bach breaks his established patterns with an anomaly, he develops the new element.  Sometimes the thing is a small change, a surprise—the repeated chord progression acquires variation as embellishments gnarl their way through the harmony. Sometimes it changes the trajectory, or leads to a culmination.

Not to be too literal, but I am often struck by the seeming metaphorical connection between musical process and effect, leading me to muse about the correspondence between physical science and our supposedly abstract art of music, which dances again around my fascination with the idea of the Music of the Spheres: What does it mean?  Different things in different ages, but is any one of these complete?  Does it relate to the new physics and its String Theory, which builds upon the fact that everything is vibration, and suggests that the universe is a vibrating symphony? Is this the unified theory that Einstein was searching for, a completely quantifiable universe, yet so vast and interrelated that it is still ultimately unknowable.

In my first sketches, I work with some of the elements I’ve noticed in Bach’s writing: pairs of phrases, with a sense of development by their end.  As I try to emulate Bach, I become more and more aware of his finesse at keeping this potentially static form going more than 60 times round the four-bar pattern! How did he do it? In many subtle and ingenious ways.

I track the phrasing.  In the opening, each pair of four-bar phrases begins identically, but the second one ends differently and as the new material is developed, it brings forward momentum to the unchanging aspects of the four-bar cycles.  The form becomes a many-layered experience that reflects back upon itself and also forward into uncharted territory.

About half way through the piece, he breaks this pattern. A group of three phrases leads out of the minor into major.  Knowing Bach’s “music for the glory of God” worldview, I can’t help but think of this as a reference to the trinity. This anomaly leads us to the new, now on a more macro level. There’s a sense of endless variation as Bach plays out this process, introducing a changing element amid the unchanging.

In the big picture, the rhythmic flow of the piece is formed by its mysterious opening. Bach skews the momentum. He begins on the second beat, but doesn’t end on the downbeat as expected to complete the 3/4 bar with a sense of finality.  Instead the piece ends on beat two, a little beyond the known, as though passing itself off into the ether and leaving an air of mystery. What now? Will it begin again? Perhaps, in inner hearing, it will—seemingly out of nowhere as it did initially, a tonic (home) chord on an upbeat moving to a dominant (away) chord on the downbeat, leading us forward through the life of the piece.

I notice how the music crests and falls in a series of culminating points.  It quickens until you think it can go no further, then pulls back into itself in stately half notes, and points yet again onward, round the cyclic form, the four-bar pattern of the chaconne, the cyclic form of life, glancing both forward and backward, returning to the same place, yet experiencing it differently. “And the circle, it goes round and round.”

Bach described himself as a musical scientist.  I can only think what that meant to him, living as he did in the late Baroque poised on the Enlightenment: a spiritual, metaphysical world transitioning to the rational perspective we generally assume today. I imagine his thinking carried the wisdom of his nature, looking both forward and backward to the traditions surrounding him.

We are still trying to heal the dichotomy brought about by our rational, enlightenment-style thinking.

We are still trying to heal the dichotomy brought about by our rational, enlightenment-style thinking.  Scientists have been hard at work trying to prove what mystics long intuited, and it seems to be coming together in our time. Maybe String Theory is right and this spiritual connection which we sense in music, is indeed a rational supposition.  Not either/or, but both/and, connecting science and the mysterious, unknowable creation and continuance of the universe.

So what was I to do with all this?  Fascination turned to fear, a daunting task ahead.  I’d been blown away by how Bach took this repetitive form and developed it so profoundly. I aspired toward such a depth.  Could I do it? And how?  The answer that came: Be yourself (a good answer to any question)! Write your piece; let him be an inspiration.  You don’t have to write a chaconne. Time to get rational, choose some elements and processes you learned from him.

Kinga Augustyn wearing a red dress to which a violin-shaped pin is affixed and holding a violin and bow in front of a shelf filled with violins.

Kinga Augustyn

From the time I’d first heard Kinga’s recording of the Telemann Sonatas, I’d wanted to do something that had the gestural, improvisatory feel of Baroque ornamentation but in a more jagged, 21st-century way.  Something that would show her sensitive musicianship and virtuosity, and her nuanced use of the bow that brings a vocal quality to her playing at times.

Be yourself (a good answer to any question)!

As in the Bach, I wanted the music to be a many-layered experience and to have a sense of organic growth, to be both cyclic and developing, to reflect on its themes like memory does, and to move into uncharted territory. Kinga’s understanding of historical styles would allow me a wide range of musical styles; I was happy for that.  And in a practical way, with deadline looming, I wanted to be able to integrate what I’d already written with these new ideas.  Necessity is the mother of invention, not a new thing!

I usually find my way into a piece by getting a sense of its emotional terrain or trajectory, but now I struck out on a different path and chose form to give me a sense of direction.  To integrate the Bach-like phrases with my initial sketches, I decided to intersperse them in a kind of modified rondo form with the goal of attaining a sense of development over the course of the piece.  Like Bach, I’d develop a new element in each new section.  To help get the sense of reflection and development, repetition might include variation. The piece would culminate at the end by quoting the beginning of the Bach Chaconne.

I’d keep in mind the underlying processes that I’d found most striking in the Bach, but I would write freely and intuitively by playing off of things I’d noticed in the Bach and then spin them in whatever ways suited me. I settled on a title, Turning In Time. The music opens with pairs of phrases, though not always of equal length.  This pattern is broken when the first Bach-like phrase enters, standing alone in its four bars.  I referenced Bach’s characteristic dotted rhythm in my own Bach-like phrases, and played with shifting the rhythmic emphasis, a technique I’d noticed in the Chaconne.  I used the idea of a characteristic rhythm, and chose a quintuplet, adding unity to the piece when it returns as a pass-through to another destination, as a declamation on the downbeat, and later developed it into its own section.

Opposites abound.  In the macro, the form I’d chosen gives a sense of opposites through its juxtapositions, where the Bach-like phrases are regular and mine, more jagged and inconsistent.  As in the Chaconne, major comes as a relief to the minor in these Bach-like sections as the piece draws to a close. Augmentation and diminution are used throughout to develop the motifs, sometimes unfolding in a minimalist line, other times when the motif returns. The use of high and low becomes a feature of the piece as phrases end high and then low, or are repeated at the octave.

I emulated Bach by accelerating into arpeggiando near the end of the piece, a contrapuntal line emerging in the upper register.  Changing meters abound, but the music is generally in 3/4, as is the Chaconne.  The meter is most clear in the Bach-like sections, where it remains consistent. To highlight the difference between the 21st century and the Baroque, Bach-like phrases are at a slightly slowed tempo. I think of Turning In Time as a conversation between the “then” and “now,” our time and his.

Now that I had a cyclic form, and ways to develop it, it got me thinking about time and cycles in life, and how the same things, events, etc., carry different meaning over time.  And again, of the Music of the Spheres as a correspondence between musical processes and life processes.

Debra Kaye's solo violin score covered with a variety of emojis.

Kinga Augustyn’s markup of Debra Kaye’s solo violin score.