The Curator and the Composer: Creating a New Song for Two Humans

Special Article 2011

Behind the film’s artistry, technical innovations, and outsize budget, Sunrise is ultimately the story of two people. A woman from the city takes her summer holiday in a quaint lakeside village, has an affair with a married man, and convinces him to get rid of his wife. When the man is unable to carry out the plan, the real story—of the married couple’s attempt at reconciliation—begins. It is this intimate nature of Sunrise that curator Paolo Cherchi Usai had in mind when he asked composer Giovanni Spinelli to write new music for the film.

Cherchi Usai, current director of the Haghefilm Foundation in Amsterdam and cofounder and codirector of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, says the festival is constantly fielding proposals by musicians who want to play for silents. “Even very talented musicians often don’t seem to come to terms with the score as a tool for a dialogue between the film and the music. It has to follow the film, moment after moment. It has to be that.” Pordenone tends to favor traditional musical presentations over experimental ones, as new music often falls short. “But the original score,” Cherchi Usai says, “is not always the best score.”

Recognizing the challenges, especially for a film as well known and beloved as Sunrise, he invited his friend Giovanni Spinelli, who has composed scores for several independent features and documentaries, to embark on an experiment. Can a score for silent film reach beyond melodic, classical traditions and still respect the film as a piece of art? Can new music for an old film work? For Pordenone’s 2006 festival, Spinelli composed and conducted a score written for piano and a string ensemble to accompany D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919). “A talkie has much more sound than a score,” says Spinelli. “It has dialogue, sound effects, ambient sounds. A silent film requires wall-to-wall music. To perform live for a film is the most grueling thing I can imagine for a musician.” When Cherchi Usai suggested a Sunrise score for solo electric guitar, Spinelli had reservations. An electric guitar, he says, doesn’t have the versatility of the piano or strings, which can communicate the broader array of emotions required of a silent score. “With a guitar,” says Spinelli, “you basically only make music with one hand. If no one’s done it, it’s for a good reason.”  

Both the curator and the composer agreed, however, that a performer alone on stage, facing
the movie screen, playing to the film was consistent with the lyrical atmosphere of Sunrise. “It’s about only two human beings,” says Cherchi Usai. “You are alone talking to the movie. The audience is watching you talking to the film.” Putting his initial reservations aside, Spinelli accepted the challenge and, for a year and a half, composed while Cherchi Usai critiqued. Early on, Cherchi Usai felt that some of the music did not capture the multiple nuances that a single sequence of film can convey. For the marsh scene, Spinelli attempted a riff with a “sexy, heavy accent.” “This is moonlight, seductive, the threat [of the Woman from the City] only has to be suggested. The film is already all chiaroscuro,” he says. “There’s no need to go that way.”

Cherchi Usai realized the experiment was working when he heard Spinelli’s music for the scene in which the Wife serves dinner to her husband. At the same time, the husband is thinking about meeting his lover. “It has to be plaintive but there’s also this seduction going on,” he says. “That was the icebreaker—when [the music] made me feel like Janet Gaynor, what it feels like to be that woman. He made me cry.”

Spinelli built a catalog of minimalist sounds and themes, about ten and a half hours worth, which he will draw on to perform a largely improvised score. When the Man is torn between the passion for the Woman from the City and his sense of duty toward his wife, Spinelli says he “developed a very vaporous, thick wall of sound, which attempts to mimic the Man’s heaviness of heart.” He describes the Woman in the City’s theme as a “wobbly, bubbly yet sinister sound.” While his influences for the score are primarily post-punk, he plans on lacing it with some blues, possibly a little reggae and bossa nova, for what he calls “comic relief amid the intense drama.” To augment the capacity of the guitar, Spinelli will keep within reach a cello bow, an electric razor, a pivot driver, milk frother, and slide. He will also make ample use of live looping with a series of pedals. “I’ll be playing with my feet as much as with my hands,” he says.

Audiences respond well to traditional music for silents. It appeals to a sense of nostalgia about the silent era and enforces the perception that this is how these film were meant to be seen. It feels more authentic. Authenticity, says Cherchi Usai, has its value, but does the original music make Sunrise better? “Let’s be generous and call it charming,” he says of the Movietone score, which features a sprinkling of sound effects.

The film premiered in 1927 with two scores: one live (possibly pastiche) score written and conducted by Carli Elinor; and the sound-on-film score—sometimes credited to Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, sometimes to Hugo Riesenfeld—commissioned to launch Fox’s Movietone technology. The Movietone score survives today and is considered the film’s authentic accompaniment. Back then, it dazzled as a technological feat, but it also raised some objections. In a 1929 issue of Music Quarterly, Harry Alan Potamkin wrote: “Observe how the players, the settings, and the occurrences enter into the unit flow of the film. The Movietone effects are insulting to the purity of this rhythm, just as occasionally the orchestra has deceived us into believing a rhythm occurred before our eyes when it really was apprehended by our ears.”

Part of the impetus to write new music is to attract new audiences to silent film—the ever-present conundrum of getting younger generations interested in 100-year-old films. “The type of music in the Movietone score can make it seem antiquated,” says Spinelli. “This film is groundbreaking. New music can help it transcend any period.” The curator agrees with the composer. “What a truly good score does for a silent film,” says Cherchi Usai, “is bring the film closer to us while letting it speak for itself.”