That Robogeek, damn.... he gets the best interviews..... How does he do it? Well the mindful automaton doesn't take "NO" for an answer. He literally does not hear the word. He just continues talking, jabbering and pounding on your door till you let him talk to you. And.... well I have to go answer my door... he's knocking again....
ROBOGEEK INTERVIEWS GILLIAN ANDERSON. REALLY!
It's just shy of noon on Thursday, and I'm strolling down Congress Ave. -- the heart of our fair city of Austin. It's a beautiful day. As I approach the beloved Paramount Theatre, I spy the esteemed Tony Johnson, who's worked there longer than anyone. He's out front, dutifully replacing a burnt-out lightbulb. I hadn't seen him in awhile, so I stop to chat and catch up for a bit. I'm tempted to ask him if his daughter still has any Thin Mints Girl Scout Cookies I can buy, but decide to supress the impulse. Then, lo and behold, there comes Denise Cavness -- one of the Goddesses of the Paramount Bar. Another treat! But I need to get inside, so I bid them farewell.
See, I'm there for something special -- the opportunity to catch part of a rehearsal for Friday night's concert screening of the 1927 classic film "Wings." A brand new 35mm print of the film (the first to win the Best Picture Oscar) is being accompanied by a live orchestral performance of the original score, recently restored by renowned conductor and musicologist Gillian Anderson.
I hear the sound of the score the moment I open the door to the theatre, which I follow through the lobby and into the house. It's dimly lit, save for the glow from the orchestra pit. In the center, her back turned to me, Anderson is wielding her magic wand with assured aplomb.
This is only her second rehearsal with this thirteen-piece orchestra, comprised of adept Austin musicians, but you wouldn't know it. Already, they're sounding like a well-oiled machine -- attended to with soft-spoken precision by Anderson. She is perfectly at ease and in her element, and for about an hour I observe in fascination as she coaxes trumpet, trombone, saxophone, violin, cello, bass, flute, piccolo, clarinet, percussion, timpani, piano and electric organ into coalescence -- with each other, and with the score. They are fine-tuning passage after passage, getting the details down just right. Friday morning they will have their third and final rehearsal -- a full technical run-through, in which the musicians will accompany the film for the first time -- and then perform Friday night at 8.
It will only be Ms. Anderson's sixth time conducting the "Wings" score in a concert screening, but observing her you'd think she's done it all her life. She knows it inside and out, and exudes a palpable emotional connection to the film and its music. It's infectious.
After the rehearsal wraps, I introduce myself and we head up the street to a coffee shop to chat. She'll be giving a lecture that afternoon at the University of Texas School of Music, but unfortunately I won't be able to attend. But our conversation proves to be more than adequate consolation.
Ms. Anderson's work with classic early film scores is nothing short of heroic. She has participated in the restoration and reconstruction of the original orchestral scores for twenty-four silent films, and conducts concert performances of them in live accompaniment to screenings around the world. Such performances have been hailed as "triumphant" and "extraordinary" by The Washington Post and The New York Times, respectively. In December, she "re-premiered" the original score of the 1923 classic "The Ten Commandments" for the grand re-opening of Hollywood's legendary Egyptian Theater, for the American Cinemateque.
Anderson is an interesting combination of musician, historian and detective. In the instance of Joseph Stephen Zamecnik's "Wings" score, all that survived was the piano conductor score with notations. From that Anderson was able to reconstruct orchestrations for the 68 compositions used by the composer, as well as some of his published orchestrations. These steps led her to reconstructing the entire score.
Over hot chocolate and baked goods, we talked. Here are some highlights of that conversation, which went something like this...
GILLIAN ANDERSON: First of all you shouldn't call them silent films. They were never silent; they were always accompanied by music.
ROBOGEEK: Point taken... You've got quite a gig, restoring classic early film scores and performing them. How much of each do you get to do each year?
GA: Well, it varies a lot. On average, I perform eight to ten different film scores a year, and usually work on one or two restorations per year.
RG: Of the two dozen films you've worked on, do you have a favorite? Or favorites?
GA: I can't pick one favorite, I have several. "Wings" is definitely one, also "The Circus" [the 1928 Chaplin classic], "Ben-Hur" [1926, which she presented at the Paramount last year], "The Passion of Joan of Arc" [the 1928 French classic], "Orphans of the Storm" [the 1925 D. W. Griffith classic starring Lillian Gish], "The Thief of Bagdad" [the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks classic]... I love them all, or I wouldn't be doing them.
RG: Of the film's you haven't tackled yet, which are you most looking forward to?
GA: "Napoleon." [the monumental 1927 French silent film]
RG: Tell me about Zamecnik's score to "Wings."
GA: It's tough. It's a 248 page score for a 139 minute film -- basically three hours worth of music packed into two. It's very, very fast. It's very challenging to perform.
RG: In the rehearsal, I heard some familiar passages. Film scores of this period frequently "borrowed" music, am I right?
GA: Yes. In fact, it was quite rare in this period for scores to be completely original. "Wings," for instance, is probably half-composed, half-compiled.
RG: How did that come about?
GA: Originally, the common approach was to improvise accompaniment for films. This was before recording, so all movie music had to be performed live. Films would be sent to a theater, and they would be accompanied by a pianist, organist, small band or ensemble, depending on what the theater had. Then films started having scores to go along with them. But there were a lot of films that needed a lot of music. As opposed to the films of today, these required music at every moment. Compiling scores was simply practical, because of time. To compose a fully original score was a luxury.
RG: How much has modern film scoring changed since the "Golden Age"?
GA: A lot, although I don't know if there was ever really a "Golden Age." There's always good stuff and bad stuff.
RG: What are some of the changes we've seen?
GA: Well, going back to what we were talking about, for instance, today's film composers are prejudiced against using pre-existing music. And they sculpt every moment of the score to the film. However, these early scores were sync'd in blocks of sound, setting the scenic structure of the film.
RG: Given that contemporary film scoring is different, how does that affect a modern audience viewing these early classic films?
GA: These early film scores don't do what people today expect -- they use pre-existing music, for instance. The problem with modern TV and film is that audiences understand and expect a certain language of musical accompaniment. Hence, to some people the early film scores can sound unsophisticated, when in fact they are very sophisticated.
RG: For example?
GA: There's a great example in "Wings." One of the most fascinating things about the score is that all the aerial sequences use Mendelssohn's overture music from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." At first, that seems like an odd choice. But it occurred to me that this was 1927. Airplanes were still new, and could have been thought of as almost magical objects, regarded with reverence. In that context, it makes perfect sense to use that music. It's an inspired choice.
RG: That's fascinating. And it begs my next question -- what do these early scores tell us about the period?
GA: I think they tell us a lot, and reflect '20s America. There are a lot of saxophone passages in this score, for instance. Very jazzy. A lot of the music is as American as apple pie, incorporating tunes like "Over There" and others. And there are also French popular songs from the World War I era, when the film is set.
RG: What else do you find interesting about the film itself, and its historical context?
GA: One of the most striking things is that it was supposed to be an anti-war film, but had the opposite effect. It actually boosted recruitment in the Army Air Corps.
RG: Back to the music... You've embarked on a crusade to save these early classic film scores. How much has already been lost?
GA: Almost no complete original scores survive from this early period. It's a tragedy.
RG: Why do you think the classical music world hasn't really recognized film scores as legitimate composition, and why haven't symphony orchestras more fully embraced this music into the repetoire?
GA: Over-categorization. They can't get past the fact it's film music.
RG: That's so silly. If Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky or Beethoven were alive today, they'd be composing music for films. It just makes sense.
GA: Exactly. Early film scores represent a viable continuation of the 19th century classical tradition. The symphony world is committing suicide by not recognizing that. A lot of classical institutions are in danger of going out of business, and this kind of programming could expand their audience.
RG: It would seem to be in the best interest of symphony orchestras to help preserve this part of our musical legacy.
GA: Yes. Because it's very hard to find musicians who can play these scores. The "Wings" score is not something you can't just put in front of a Broadway musical band and have them be able to play. If standard, early film repertory were included in symphony programs just once a year, it would sustain that heritage.
RG: How important is it that these films be experienced with live accompaniment of their original scores, and restoring the scores as well as the prints?
GA: Very. Early filmgoing was a theatrical event, not like the screenings today. The original scores are what was intended, and the directors and composers made their choices very carefully. The music is an integral part of these films, even if it isn't physically attached. Restoring just the image makes no sense. You don't save half a building and call it a restoration. Obviously, we can't exactly recreate the experience of what it was like to see these films originally, because that experience varied. But if you're going to go to the trouble, this is part of our cultural heritage, and we can at least arrive at a close approximation -- although it's always our best guess.
RB: Are there any audio or video recordings of your work available?
GA: Yes. The performance of the reconstructed "Nosferatu" (1921) I did with the Brandenberg Philharmonic is available on BMG Classics, and the "Carmen" (1915) I did with the London Philharmonic is available on video and CD from Video Artists Classics (VAI). That's it, at the moment.
RG: I hope there's more to come. Anyway, I have to ask -- are the "X-Files" fans getting annoying?
GA: Yes. In fact, in just the past month or so I've been interviewed about that. A couple of years ago a fan magazine listed my phone number as hers. I still get calls, and sometimes faxes in the middle of the night. I live in Washington, D.C., which is apparently where her character works, and some of the fans -- I don't want to insult them, but some of them seem to have a problem separating fantasy from reality.
RG: [At this very moment, I, Robogeek, couldn't help but be struck by the many levels of irony at work -- but decided not to go into them.] Well, I'm really looking forward to "Wings" Friday night.
GA: I am, too. I really am. Some of these old films, after seeing them a hundred and thirty times, can start to wear thin. But not this one. This one gets me every time. Just thinking about it, even...
And with that, Ms. Anderson's eyes got misty. And it was time for us to part company.
I can't possibly urge you strongly enough to attend this event tonight at, dear reader. It's a rare moviegoing treat, and will be an unforgettably magical experience. Plus, it's worthy of your support.
Tickets available, ranging from $15 to $22 -- and there's a $5 discount for students. You can order by phone at 469-SHOW (7469), or buy them in person at the Paramount Theatre Box Office (which opens at noon). Or, you can even buy tickets at Waterloo Records or any Austin Albertson's store.
(Oh, and by the way, the Paramount is also showing the restored director's cut of Wolfgang Peterson's "Das Boot" tomorrow/Saturday night at 7:30.)
- Robogeek! (email@example.com)
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