Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in <i>The Phantom of the Opera</i>
Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in The Phantom of the Opera
Three weeks ago I attended a truly memorable event here in Boston. It all happened in a regular movie theater, albeit one taken over by an orchestra of about 20 musicians. The 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera was on the menu. Except this time it featured music from beginning to end. A brand new score had been completed a few weeks before the show, composed of one hundred percent original music – a non-negligible task given the movie lasts 93 minutes. I had heard about this event and was curious to see what it would be like, although I must confess my expectations were not set high. What could be so extraordinary about this? Surely not that much. How beautifully wrong I was: this would turn out to be one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. Watching the movie while listening to live music was a tremendous experience in and of itself, but what really touched me was the phenomenal score. And I was clearly not alone; at the end, the whole crowd gave a standing ovation.

I did some research to learn how all of this was possible. What I found was even more fascinating than the show itself. Unsurprisingly, an incredible amount of work and time goes to making this event possible. What thrilled me was learning that the music is composed as part of a specific course at Berklee College of Music. The course has the captivating anachronistic name of Writing for Silent Film. Yes, I am serious. People out there are still devoting time and passion to writing music for dusty, forgotten movies. Who are these improbable mavericks defying the age of Netflix?

Enter the Coolidge Corner Theater, one of New England's most beloved cultural landmarks. Founded in 1933, it is truly a relic. From the moment you are inside you feel like you have gone back in time. The Theater commissions music for a different silent movie every semester. The onus of producing all 93 minutes of it – in ten weeks – is on only six students.

A score for a new movie is commissioned every semester by the Coolidge Corner Theater. The class is directed by Sheldon Mirowitz, an award winning film composer and an overwhelmingly passionate professor that radiates excitement in every word he speaks. The students' minds come together to function as a single unit of music making, working for one common goal. The objective is to write a score that would have excited the director of the film to the point of convincing him that the movie is better with the music than without.

Ten weeks sounds like a long time. It is not. It is an intense creative marathon. The deadline is set from the beginning. And it arrives so soon. Once the score is ready, it is rehearsed by an orchestra made up of around 10-20 musicians (the size dependent on the each score). The conductor uses a laptop where he sees the movie while he conducts. He follows "punches and streamers", which are essential for the score to be in time with the image. Punches are vertical lines that go across the screen with the tempo of the music, and streamers are dots that flash when an important change is happening. This way he makes sure that the music is synchronized with the picture at all times, and the tempo is right for the images that are being shown.

Berklee College of Music Ensemble Building
Berklee College of Music Ensemble Building

The result is simply mesmerising. Before your eyes – and ears – merge a score that sounds very contemporary and a classic movie, and the result is that the film itself somehow becomes modern. Such is the power of music. If there was ever a question of what is more powerful, the image or the music, here is the answer.

Unfortunately there are not many people who are writing these kind of scores. Besides the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, the wonderful Alloy Orchestra and the acclaimed conductor Carl Davis who regularly schedules these "movie concerts" in several cities across Europe, there are only a handful of small groups that play music for silents. And they mostly play non-original, compiled scores.

It is highly unlikely that I would have ever watched The Phantom of the Opera. Most of the people from my generation – all hail the late eighties! – will probably never see it, as they will think it is out of date and distant from how movies should be today. But while I was sitting in the cinema, I laughed and cried and followed the drama just as well as I would have with a movie released in today's day and age.

Writing this has provoked additional thoughts in my mind. I find asking myself, why only focus on silent films? Wouldn't it be great to watch a, say, Steven Spielberg movie in a theater with a live orchestra playing John William's music? Can you imagine experiencing The Godfather with an orchestra right in front of you? After all, the soundtrack repertoire is becoming increasingly popular for classical orchestras, and there are already many ensembles that focus solely on playing film scores. Why not have dedicated events where the movie was playing alongside these performances? From what I saw at the theater in Coolidge Corner, I for one believe it would be a huge success.

 

Fernando Furones is a composer from Madrid. He is currently studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he is in his second semester majoring in Film Scoring. He also has a degree in Business Management from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.