It Just Has a Sound

Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Photo courtesy of Tommy Lau

Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Interview by Roberto Landazuri

Rummaging through a collection of musical scores at the University of Colorado for his ballroom  dance band, Rodney Sauer came across some silent-era music cues donated by the widow of music director Al Layton. Leader at the time of the Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra, which specialized in ballroom dance music from the first three decades of the 20th century, Sauer was so intrigued that he transformed the group into Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Since 1989, the ensemble—currently made up of Brian Collins (clarinet), Dawn Kramer (trumpet), Rodney Sauer (piano, score compiler), David Short (cello), and Britt Swenson (violin)—has  performed live and recorded for video for many silent films. Silent Film Festival goers will  recognize the five-piece orchestra’s deft feel for the music of the era and a full sound that can often feel like many more.

Small Orchestra, Big Sound
Everyone in the group is an excellent sight reader; that’s absolutely critical for what we do together. The important thing is to get people who read well, who cope well, and who also play the music beautifully, because it’s a small group. What I like about it is that it sounds a lot bigger. That has a lot to do with the silent-era orchestrations, which we almost exclusively use. It just has a sound; the piano kind of bulks up the ensemble, and we’ve got the strings for the romantic bits, we’ve got the trumpets for the exciting bits. The clarinet often behaves as a second violin,
but other times adds a bit of exoticism, like when we did The Thief of Bagdad—our clarinetist got a real workout.

When I do a live score I usually leave some gaps where I can improvise on piano so everyone else can get a chance to take a breather and get ready for the next piece. But we don’t improvise as a group. Solo pianists and organists often improvise, but it’s very rare for ensembles. There were some small ensembles—often piano, violin, and drums—who improvised and played songs they learned from the radio, never using written music. That kind of familiarity develops from playing together every day.

Digging through the Archives
Theater programs changed every week, so you had to come up with two or three hours of music every single week in addition to playing six to eight hours a day. There wasn’t a lot of time left over to write music, so you’d just pull things from the library and use them, and then you’d put them back in the library and use them again later. That’s what we’re reviving. The performance style that survived is largely theater organ and piano—the larger orchestras pretty much vanished. It’s hard to find the music; it’s been out of print since at least 1928. You have to be able to track it down in the archives. Occasionally we get lucky, and original collections have fallen into our hands on three occasions. I photocopy them then donate them to an archive, which will take care of the original paper better than I can.

Gribiche: Scoring the Bastille
One collection of music came from a theater in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and included a lot of early operetta excerpts—the equivalent of a modern Broadway musical. Back then these were light operas or operettas, and all the pieces would be published in a medley. In Gribiche, there’s a whole sequence that takes place during Bastille Day celebrations. There’s a band playing and people are dancing and colored lights are all hung up. I was looking for music that sounded like pop music from this era. We chose “The Rainbow Girl,” actually from a bit earlier, but it has a modern 1920s feel. It was a little ahead of its time. It was no longer under copyright, so I could freely use it. There was one little snippet in there that was so pretty and it seemed to capture the feel of the movie.

The Patsy: The Doorbell Challenge
For Roscoe Arbuckle’s Leap Year, I found a doorbell that sounded like a 1918 doorbell. Now that we’ve got it, we tend to use it when we have the chance. In The Patsy, the hero of the film keeps trying to fix the Harringtons’ doorbell, so sometimes it’s working and sometimes it isn’t. I think that we’re going to take that challenge. We want to make sure that the doorbell rings when it’s working and doesn’t ring when it’s not working.

It can be a slippery slope; by the time you try to Foley every dog barking and every car driving by, it can get kind of noisy on the soundtrack. That’s not really what people go to silent films for.

The Patsy also has a number of scenes that take place at a fancy dinner at a yacht club. We’re going to be using some dance music to bring it up into the Jazz Age. A lot of the specifically silent film music sounds a little bit timeless. It’s based on 19th century classical music to a great extent; they did get rather adventurous sometimes with the harmonies.

Safety Last!: A Charming Episode
Safety Last! won’t be as difficult as the others, partly because it’s not particularly long and partly because it’s a story that has a lot of comedy sequences strung together—there’s not a lot of hardcore emotion that gets into it. So, we’re going to be playing much of it like ‘he’s climbing a building’ or ‘he’s goofing around a department store.’ But for the love story, I wanted to have a fairly recognizable piece.

Eugene Ormandy, a Hungarian-born conductor who was well known in the 1940s and 1950s got his start playing the Capitol Theatre with [another Hungarian] Ernö Rapée. When he got to  America, he was supposed to have a job but the tour promoters were a bunch of flakey crooks and apparently ran off and just left him on the docks. So he went and tried to find anybody who could speak Hungarian. Rapée told him he could play at his theater, and he worked his way up. Well, it turns out he composed a little piece—the only one I’ve ever come across by Ormandy—it’s called “Charming Episode.” With a name like that you know he wrote it for the silent films. We’ll also use a lot of misteriosos, the sort of tense, jumpy music you use when people are sneaking

One of the advantages to doing Safety Last! at the Castro is that we are going to get a huge assist from the audience. They’re going to be laughing at all the jokes and all the gags, so we don’t have to try to stay in synch with those. We can just play along and the comedy will pace itself.