Making Silents Sound Good: Rodney Sauer on scoring Abram Room's Bed and Sofa

By Dan Lybarger
Posted 12/31/04 18:52:30

Audiences in 1927 weren’t quite as shocked by the Soviet silent classic Bed and Sofa the way they were by Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Superbowl. But after catching the film on the new DVD from Image Entertainment, one wonders why they weren’t.

Make no mistake. There was controversy (it didn’t play in the United Kingdom until years after its initial theatrical release). The film, which has the Russian titles of Treya Meschanskaya (Third Meschanskaya Street) and Lyubov vtroyom (Three in Love), has a sexual forwardness that hasn’t diminished with age.

It also broke new ground in its depiction of gender roles and had the nerve to question the social order of the Communist state. It even features a frank scene in an abortion clinic. Nearly 1.3 million Soviets saw the film in its initial release, and its influence has been international. In 1996, the American composer Polly Pen and lyricist Laurence Klavan recorded an opera version of the story that’s still being performed.

In Bed and Sofa, director Abram Room chronicles how the Moscow housing shortage in 1926 leads a married couple (Nikolai Batalov and Liudmilla Semyonova) to agree to let an old Red Army buddy (Vladimir Fogel) move into their apartment with them.
When the husband leaves town, the wife and the friend quickly fall in love, and soon the husband and the lover find themselves trading places. Now the former outsider is sleeping in the bed with the wife, and the husband is exiled to the sofa.

The movie's technique was also innovative. Cinematographer Grigori Giber had worked on Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin, and his camera roves through Moscow as if he were giving viewers a tour of the city. He also manages to make the whole community reflect the mood in the apartment.

The new two-disc DVD edition of Bed and Sofa features both English and Russian intertitles and a side-splittingly funny 1925 short titled Chess Fever, which also stars Fogel. Viewers should also check out the helpful commentary by Julian Graffy, the author of Bed and Sofa: The Film Companion.

The film also features a new score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra ( Mont Alto's music has helped give current audiences a chance to experience silent movies the way an audience might have in the 20s.

Since 1989, keyboardist Rodney Sauer, violinist Susan Hall, cellist Kevin Johnson and clarinetist Brian Collins have helped bring silent movies back to life. In addition to live performances in locations as diverse as Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, the Telluride Film Festival and the Buster Keaton Festival in Iola, Kansas, their scores can be heard on the DVD editions of Raoul Walsh's The Thief of Bagdad, Ernst Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle and Fritz Lang's Destiny.

Sauer and Hall compiled the score for Bed and Sofa and gave it an appropriately Russian feel. Contacted by phone from his home in Boulder, Colorado, Sauer recalls discovering Bed and Sofa and introducing it to new audiences.

Dan Lybarger: How did you first get into the business of scoring silent movies?

Rodney Sauer: I guess I could trace it back to a ballroom dance class I took in college. I kept doing ballroom dance, but I was disappointed by the music played for ballroom dancing, which tended to be incredible schlock. And I thought, "There's got to be more tasteful dance music." So I put together an ensemble, the Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra, to play historically accurate but lively dance music, the sort that I wanted to hear.

We were always looking for new pieces. We were particularly interested in the pre-jazz era in the 20s and the teens. And someone told us about a collection at the University of Colorado that had a lot of dance music in it.

So we went up to the American Music Research Center, and introduced ourselves to the librarians. The collection had belonged to a silent film orchestra leader. Despite knowing a lot about music and taking a lot of music courses, the idea of a silent film orchestra was something I had never encountered. I didn't know that there were orchestras for silent films. I didn't know how they put film scores together.

And it turns out, very few people do know. We found tangos and one-steps for our dances in that collection, but they were among things like "Three Themes from Beau Geste" and "Allegro Vigoroso for Sword Fights and Duels" and so on. We worked with this collection for about two years getting waltzes and dance music out of it before we really thought, "We could really do a movie. There's all this music in here, and a lot of it's quite good."

So we actually got our feet wet with a very strange little film by Vernon and Irene Castle, who were famous dancers in the teens. They made a movie called The Whirl of Life that's basically a home movie that has dancing in it. It's historically an important document because it shows the Castle’s dancing, but other than that it’s a low-budget, tongue-in-cheek melodrama.

We have a lot of the music the Castles used to dance to, so we used that for the dancing scenes. We used music by James Reese Europe, their favorite composer, wherever else it would fit. And we used some of the silent film music we’d found. We only showed that film once to a select group of dance enthusiasts. And they all seemed to enjoy it, so we decided get serious.

We rented an auditorium and got a print of the silent Beau Geste from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, and that went over very well. We just continued to add titles, and then David Shepard heard about us, and we worked with him to put out a few films on video. He had been using Robert Israel to do similar film scores before, and he remains one of the most prolific silent film musicians working today. But we've got a niche for ourselves doing this compiled score technique.

DL: What do you mean by a compiled score?

RS: The Compiled Score was a scoring technique that was devised out of necessity. In the original time frame (the teens and the 20s), when you had a film program changing once or twice a week and you needed two hours of orchestra music, it was simply not possible to write that much music for each film.

It was also considered a waste of money to rent scores that were written especially for a particular film, because you spend money renting the score, and then it runs for a week, and then it's gone.

So what orchestra leaders did instead was to build their own collection of reusable music, and then they would have music in their library for any scenes that were likely to come up. They didn't know, of course, that the silent film orchestra would die in 1929 (with the advent of sound films). They figured that this library was something that you would build over time and would last a whole lifetime.

The way the library worked was that the director would compile a score for a film by choosing pieces from the library. After the film’s run you would file the music back in your library so you could use it again. Since the music was already written and orchestrated in the library, this was a way you could put together a score for a two-hour-long movie in about a day.

And we've had experience doing this. We've actually had a couple of emergencies where we suddenly needed a film score for a feature film, and we've been able to put them together very rapidly.

We generally take a little more time because we want to give some thought to making the score work well. We did a score for Harold Lloyd's Never Weaken just a month ago when we were at the Durango Film Festival, and we put it together in an hour. And that's a 20-minute film. So it tells you how quickly this technique can work.

And the quality of the music is quite good. The composers weren't working to a deadline. They were writing music that was good music and publishing it. The music director chooses which pieces to use in which film.

DL: I heard a performer at a festival where you played later, and the score she used was full of pop tunes and Max Steiner nods, and it was really kitschy.

RS: Well, that’s a compiled score! But the taste lies in what music you select. And sometimes pop tunes are all you can find. It's actually not easy to find this music, and we're lucky to work with a number of archives and get the originals in our hands and make photocopies of them. This music hasn't been published since 1929.

So you have to find the actual copies that came out from 1913 through 1929, and they’re generally printed on bad paper and they’re very delicate. A lot of the copies were thrown out. They were taking up a lot of room, and no one ever thought there would be use for them again. And I think it's only because some individual musicians were rather proud of the collection they had put together and couldn't bear to throw them away that some of this music survives.

The publishing companies have mostly gone out of business. The companies that are still in business don't even have copies of the music. It was sold; it was last year's material; it was thrown out. No one has ever done a catalog of what pieces were composed and published and where they survive today.

It's something that should still be paid attention to. Are there pieces by the composer J.S. Zamecnik that have been lost? We simply don't know.

I often pick Zamecnik as an example of a silent film composer for several reasons. He was a good composer. His work was very influential. His career coincided with the silent film music era in that he wrote some of the first music that was ever written for silent film, and he wrote some of the last music that was published for silent film. And he worked into the early talkies. He has credibility.

He was one of the last students of Antonín Dvorák and picked up a lot of orchestrating techniques from him. He was born and raised in Cleveland and lived most of his life there until he moved to Los Angeles to be where the films really were happening. And I was able to find out a lot about him, so I was able to put a little biography out of what he went through.

Zamecnik is an interesting character, but he was only one of many composers who wrote very, very good music. And many of the film music composers were credible classical composers working in what they considered as a legitimate field of classical music.

DL: With some of the American made silents you've scored, there were some studio-created musical cue sheets for you to follow. You list the cues in your DVD of The Thief of Bagdad. Was it different for the Russian-made Bed and Sofa?

RS: We rarely use the cue sheets. The few times we've used cue sheets, we’ve usually been disappointed. The first one we tried to use was for the lovely film Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks. And it turns out that if you use the cue sheet, you wind up with an atrocious score. It is almost offensive in its treatment of some of the characters.

There's a black actor, Blue Washington, who plays one of the hoboes and for a film of that era he has a very respectable role. He is probably the only character in the film who doesn't threaten someone or shoot them. He's taking care of someone who's sick. So he's a very sympathetic character.

And what does the cue sheet do at a critical dramatic moment, but give him but a little cakewalk when he's going to find food for this dying man. The cue-sheet compiler was trying to make the scene funny. Let's watch the black guy go steal a chicken! I found it very offensive, and it totally spoiled the dark, almost film-noir mood that the film had created to that point.

The other thing is that the opening of the film is very subtle, but the music (specified in the cue sheet) is way over the top. And so we tried this cue sheet as an experiment, and we ended up dropping almost everything from the cue sheet and making our own score. I don't even think back then the cue sheet would have been considered a good score.

Other cue sheets are more successful. We found a lot of good material in The Thief of Bagdad cue sheet, although I'd say probably only about a third of the cue sheet ended up in the film and some of it not where it was intended to be. This was partly because we couldn’t find some of the pieces. Other times it was because we really don't want to use Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" because everybody's going to be thinking, "Kill Da Wabbit! Kill Da Wabbit!" when (Fairbanks) is fighting the dragon. We used different music wherever we felt like it.

With Bed and Sofa we were completely on our own. We didn't have any direction other than the film itself.

DL: Is most of the music you used for Bed and Sofa Russian?

RS: I was approaching it with Russian music in mind, which just makes sense. It's a Russian film.

Part of the problem with using mostly Russian music is that a lot of the Russian music I could get my hands on was either depressing or highly romantic. And the film has a lot passages that are rather sunny without being overly romantic.

A lot of composers assume that if a movie has a serious theme, you should give it serious music throughout. I find that's almost always a mistake. You need to find the light parts of the film, and you need to treat them lightly. Otherwise, the entire thing becomes this sort of lugubrious wallow in depression, and your audience could go away from the movie not being able to feel very good about it. Whereas if you are able to take the light parts and bring them up and take the serious parts and bring them down, then that gives you a contrast that guides the listeners, and helps them know that the film is not all the same. The script follows a curve, and music should too.

So that was an intention I had. Most of the light music in the movie is not Russian (laughs). It is in fact, French or American. We found plenty of Russian music, but some of it didn't work. We used some Tchaikovsky -- not Tchaikovsky that most people would recognize because it's not Swan Lake; it's not The Nutcracker; it's not his symphonies.

He wrote a series of pieces called The Seasons, which are not very well known, and we picked a piece out of that suite. We've got a nice little melody by Rachmaninoff in there. A lot of the music for the film comes from one suite from this guy named J. Nicodé, about whom I've been able to find almost nothing. I think he was a French composer, and he wrote this three-part work called "Suite from the South." I actually came across "Suite from the South" when I was scoring (Buster Keaton's Civil War comedy) The General, thinking that it would be southern tunes from America. But it turned out to be a descriptive work about Provence in southern France.

What's nice about the Suite is that it has three movements, and each movement has two different musical themes in it. So that gave us six pieces that we could choose from. We use one for the train moving scenes. We use one for the little idyllic scenes of waking up in the apartment and going about the day, and there are some of those that are very sweet. As the score goes along it becomes a bit of a love theme. It's a beautiful little melody in 6/8 time.

We use a third part of that suite for the card-reading scene, which is a very surreal bit where (Vladimir Fogel) is reading the woman’s future in the cards, but he's definitely influencing the meaning of the cards as they come up. I was playing it from her point of view with what you might call a supernatural aspect to what's going on, so I wanted music that's a little odd.

That's where the some of the music came from. I did intentionally pick a lot of Russian music. Russian composers are often great for silent film scores.

The General, thinking that it would be southern tunes from America. But it turned out to be a descriptive work about Provence in southern France.

What's nice about the Suite is that it has three movements, and each movement has two different musical themes in it. So that gave us six pieces that we could choose from. We use one for the train moving scenes. We use one for the little idyllic scenes of waking up in the apartment and going about the day, and there are some of those that are very sweet. As the score goes along it becomes a bit of a love theme. It's a beautiful little melody in 6/8 time.

We use a third part of that suite for the card-reading scene, which is a very surreal bit where (Vladimir Fogel) is reading the woman’s future in the cards, but he's definitely influencing the meaning of the cards as they come up. I was playing it from her point of view with what you might call a supernatural aspect to what's going on, so I wanted music that's a little odd.

That's where the some of the music came from. I did intentionally pick a lot of Russian music. Russian composers are often great for silent film scores.

DL: Why are the Russian composers good for silent films.

RS: They really have a way of working a lot of emotion into the music, and that adds depth to the scene. Although a lot of it's very catchy, too. It's not necessarily deep, but it has that feel of importance and romance.

A lot of times what you're trying to do with a silent film is to help prop up the passion and emotionalism that the actors are conveying. Without the words, there isn't as much of a context as there might be in a well-written “talkie” love scene. The depth of the emotion comes from the music.

And if you pick a piece like Tchaikovsky's "Nocturne," that helps reinforce that these two people are in love. Yes, they are staring at each other across a table, but the music contains the feeling that might be lacking from what's being explicitly shown on the screen.

There are a number of silent films that have rather weak love stories, and that's where the music has to step in and say, "This is serious" if you're going to take the movie seriously. So we picked music that we think helps underscore that.

If you see a comedy, for example, that is scored purely with jazz music, you often miss the heart of the love story. So you need a mix of different kinds of music to bring out the strengths of the film.

If you look at the cue sheets, you'll find that they were using Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff in one section, and then they've got a modern hit like a Charleston (dance song) playing at a party scene. If you think about it, using the Rolling Stones in a current movie is old hat when you think about how new the Charleston was in the 1920s. It would be like putting some high-tech looped techno-trance music in the same film in which you're using Wagner for other scenes.

Even though the sound we give to these movies has a very 1920s feel, when this music was written back in those days, it was cutting edge music, some of it. Probably our jazziest score to date is the late D. W. Griffith film, The Battle of the Sexes, where there are a number of scenes that take place in a nightclub. And Phyllis Haver’s character, she's the one you tend to root for even though she's the bad girl, is very much a flapper age blonde. So we gave her tangos, fox trots and Charleston pieces that would have been contemporary for the day. While the stay-at-home wife, whom Griffith is sympathetic to, gets more sympathetic, classical sounding music.

DL: I noticed in the scenes with Vladimir Fogel at the printing presses that your music syncs up almost perfectly with the way the presses were working in the film.

RS: We tweaked the music a little bit to make that happen. The piece we used there was "Scene de Ballet" by a French composer named Tscherepnine. He is a composer who is still part of the classical repertoire, and you do occasionally come across pieces by him. Anna Pavlova did a ballet to some of his music at one point in the 20s. So he was well known back then.

What's nice about it for us is that it's a piece that starts slow and gets fast, and it slowly gears up to that speed. So for the scene where the printing press starts partway through the scene, we start at the slow part, and get it to hit the fast part as the press turns on.

I think we did it in two takes in the studio. The first take we were off by a bar, and we thought, we could do that better. We'll do that again, and we'll do it a little faster in the beginning, and we got it to line right up. That was very much intentional, not the entire piece lining up with everything that's going on, but the fact that it speeds up the same time that the press turns on, was something we wanted be sure that we hit.

Another thing you’ll notice in that film is in the scene where the train is moving and then comes to a stop. If you watch closely, you'll notice the music slows down at the same time the train does, which is actually a trickier thing to do because you've already been playing for two minutes. And if you're going at the wrong speed, you're not going to hit the spot where the train slows down. The printing press actually happens very early in the piece so it's not that hard to get right.

DL: How long did it take you to come up with the score for Bed and Sofa?

RS: There are really three stages: First, you get the film, and watch it, and think about the kinds of music you need. Then you find the music for each scene. Then you create the parts, mark them up, and rehearse and record. There are usually a couple of things that jump right out at you as music requirements.

And one example from Bed and Sofa is that there's a scene at the beginning where Vladimir Fogel is coming into Moscow on the train. And there's a scene at the end where one of the characters is leaving Moscow on a train. The symmetry is very obvious. The train represents leaving your old life and starting anew.

So, it was important to me that we not only have the same music in both places, but that the music is a piece that is memorable enough that when it comes back at the ending, the viewer says to him or herself, "Oh, O.K. Here's that music again." Think about this character leaving in the same mindset as the person who's arriving at the beginning. I don't know if you made that connection listening to the score, but that was my intention.

The piece had to be appropriate for a train journey, and it had to have that optimism, too. I didn't want this film to have a downer ending, although it could be interpreted to have that if you wanted to. Another musician might have given it a more moody ending, and that could have been appropriate. It's just not the way I saw this film.

The other thing I noticed in this movie was that there are several scenes where the woman (Liuda) is surprised by different people while she's sitting at home. I wanted that music to be the same because I thought there was a parallel being drawn there that her life is being jostled when people arrive from out of town. So that was another “memorable” piece I needed to look for.

There's a scene in what they call the "private clinic" at the end that is rather creepy. She's being forced into getting an abortion by these two men, and she's not sure she wants to do this. So I wanted a piece there that would have some sadness in it but not a lot of action. She’s just sitting watching what's going on in the clinic, waiting for her turn. So that was a piece I knew I wanted to be careful with, and I found one that I really love.

Sometimes you spend a few days going to original archives looking for music you might not have already. In this case, we went thinking "Let's see how many Russian composers we can find in this collection, and bring their music home and play it all and see if there's a home in this film for it."

That's how we ended up with the melody by Rachmaninoff. We (knew) it was really going to work well toward the end of the film.

We took about two days fitting each piece into a scene and cutting it and rearranging it if necessary to fit the scene. Some pieces get rearranged more than others, and when we were trying to get music to speed up when the printing press starts is one example of that.

Once we've gotten our pieces chosen we go to the copy machines with all the parts we need. Unlike the old time orchestras, we’re not going to file our music away when we’re done -- we’re going to keep these scores around. So we make extra copies of all the parts, and we put them in order, we hand them out to the musicians with the cue sheet. And then we give the other people a couple of days and go through and mark (the parts). The cue sheet will say, “Start at bar 37. Play for 16 bars and skip four. And play to the end.” So they get all their parts marked up with pencil.

We then get together to rehearse. We usually do two or three rehearsals that I’d say are four or five hours long where we run the film and we run the piece. We sometimes make changes to the cue sheets at that point. It turns out perhaps that the orchestra likes playing the piece slower or faster than I do, and I like to go at whatever seems natural to the orchestra. So that may means we need to add in some music, or sometimes we take some bars out. And when we feel we’ve got that relatively solid, we go into the studio, and we take one or two days to record the whole thing. And then I spend an afternoon mixing it down, sometimes doing some digital edits.

And then we’re done. We mail it off to the production company, and then they put it together with the video.

DL: You weren’t a silent film specialist when you started on this path.

RS: I was aware of silent film, but no, I certainly didn’t know much about the music. But I do have a memory for tunes, which is very useful in this business. I can say, “I know what I want. We used it seven years ago in a Buster Keaton film. And it went like this.” I’ll got to my cue sheets and look up its title. But I like to think I have a good ear for what kinds of pieces go well with which kinds of scenes. And so far, I’ve rarely had people say that they thought the music didn’t fit the film or support the film. That’s maybe where there’s some talent involved that not everybody has.

Although I honestly think that scoring silent films by this technique is not that hard. And when you think about it, people in every town used to do this. This was their daily job. And it was kind of like being a jazz player. It’s amazing to watch a good jazz player, and you think you could never do that. But a lot of people do it. It can be done.

DL: One of the joys of your gig must be discovering films like Bed and Sofa. It’s got some really jaw dropping scenes.

RS: I had never seen the film before. I had heard about it because it has this reputation of being an interesting film. I knew that a musical had been made from it, and I thought that’s kind of an unusual thing. But I did not see it until I was sent the video to work from. By watching it, it was obvious this was a film I felt that we could score effectively. This was something that was right up our alley. It was a film that needed a classical sound. It would also work with an avant-garde score, I think. This film, more than some others could be done in that way. I didn’t do it that way because I just don’t do avant-garde scores that much. There’s a lot of normalness in this movie, too, very naturalistic acting. It’s a very realistic film. I didn’t want to force it into a modernistic score I guess.

One of the reviews I read said you could picture this film happening with college students today. And it’s true. There are a lot of movies like the big Greta Garbo films, where it’s set in a particular time and relies on a particular attitude about relationships and marriage and sex. But this one is so modern, it could still be done today.

DL: There’s still a bit of a jolt when she goes to the abortion clinic.

RS: Oh, yeah. And there’s a scene earlier that the third time I watched it and said, “Oh, my God, I think I know what’s going on here.” And I was almost tempted to throw in some sound effects.

When the husband is sent off to get biscuits and comes back, and he realizes that that he is relegated to the couch, he lies down and puts the pillow over his head. I realized that the pillow means he’s hearing noises, and if he’s hearing noises, that means the other two people are actually screwing in the bed. I thought we could put in some bedspring noises or something.

We didn’t go as far as that because we hadn’t put sound effect anywhere else in the score and it would have been a little distracting. But that’s not something you see in your average silent film with somebody coming into a room and realizing that his wife’s lying in bed at that moment with another man and having to put the pillow over his head to get to sleep.

DL: It’s a lot like the Eisenstein films of the era, but all of the montages seem to be in service of the characters, like those scenes set at the Bolshoi Theater, it seems to reflect the husband’s preening behavior.

RS: I tend to be bothered by movies that call attention to their technique in really egregious ways or even in scenes where they’re not really talking about the characters, they’re talking about the city. For instance, you get a title like “Moscow awakes” and you see lots of street sweepers and bridges and cars all this. It’s like saying “Hey, we’re going all over Moscow and taking little films of whatever catches our attention” and it makes you conscious of the camera and of the placement.

Because (in Bed and Sofa), it’s not doing that throughout the whole film, I found (the montages) worked just fine. It was a way of saying “the city is a theater, and our curtain is opening,” and after the montage we’re looking at a set. And in a minute, we’re going to forget we’re on a set and that there’s a camera. We’re going to be in a very well-filmed story. We’re going to use logical close-ups, and logical camera angles during the human part of the story. But every once in a while we’re going to drop out, especially if it’s a scene change, and we’re going to look at the scenery as artists would look at it rather than as a passive observers.

For those scenes I picked music that had some action. I picked music that was mostly very light as well. I love the airplane scene. I thought that was brilliant because a lot of people (in 1927) would not have seen what it’s like to look out of an airplane window. And the reaction of Liudmilla in that scene is perfect. She is nervous. She’s a little bit scared, but she is extremely excited, and she has a wonderful time. And I wanted the music to have a wonderful time, too. We used music by an English composer in that case. It’s supposed to be a village dance, but it had that excitement that you see in her face, yet it’s rather off kilter.

DL: With the advent of the Bono law, which has expanded the length of copyrights, how do you make sure that the music you incorporate into your scores is public domain?

RS: It’s actually not that hard to figure out. All of the music that is orchestrated was done for hire, which means the composer or the arranger was paid up front for the work, and the company maintained the copyright. But the way the law works in the U.S., is that after 37 years, you get a chance to renew it for the remaining 75-year period. Originally, it was shorter, and got gradually lengthened to 75 years. Then in the 1990s the length of the copyright for everything still under copyright was extended another 20 years by the Bono act.

So we’re now in this legal limbo where everything that was written in 1922 and earlier is in the public domain, whereas everything from 1923 and later is usually not in the public domain. Anything published by a legitimate publishing company would have had its paperwork done properly, so almost everything after 1922 is not in the public domain.

We have a cutoff where we can use anything from 1922 and earlier however we like. And everything after 1923 is off limits unless we want to license it, and the licensing for DVDs is something where you have to figure out who owns the copyright now, which may have changed hands three or four times it was printed. So you have to do a lot of detective work to know who to ask, who knows who bought the Robbins Catalog?

And then you’ll find out they’ll want about half of what you’re making (for the DVD) in order to use one piece. And if you’re using 60 pieces in a soundtrack, that’s not economically possible.

It’s unclear whether the post-1922 will ever be freed. The concept of public domain is guaranteed by the constitution, but congress can keep extending the duration, so it’s practically meaningless. Certainly everyone who ever worked on these pieces is dead now.

And the companies that own them usually don’t even care that much about the music. They don’t own copies of the music. They couldn’t tell you what it sounds like. They don’t even care what it sounds like. What they care about is if you’re going to use that title by that composer that you’re going to pay them their money.

There’s a lot of good music that can’t be used in recorded scores. You can use them in live scores because the licensing for a live show has set ways to do that, and the fees are quite reasonable. And it’s even quite reasonable to license them to record on CD.

It’s the synchronizing to a movie that’s overpriced because a lot of people made a lot of money by licensing pop songs to movies, so that’s how you make your living. It’s not a scale of economy that you can afford for a silent film video release.

DL: Producing scores does teach you a lot about how films work.

RS: When you’re scoring a film, you need to analyze the structure of the film and how is that reflected in the music, so you end up watching it a lot of times, and you end up understanding the film very well. There are films I’ve done live where I can identify quite easily that there’s a missing scene on a particular print, because I know what order our music goes in. There’s no better way to find a scene that’s missing from a print than to play a score that works with a different print. Suddenly, it’s “Hey, wait. I’m a minute off. Something’s lost.” Or, conversely, “where did this scene come from?” It helps to know how to improvise through the mystery sections.

I like being introduced to all of these different films. When we went to Ohio to play at the Lillian and Dorothy Gish Festival, we played a Dorothy Gish feature called Nell Gwyn, which I’d never heard of before. It’s actually quite a funny movie. We’ve seen a number of films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Sometimes a film just grabs my attention like Beggars of Life. Another thing we’re discovering is the music itself. A lot of the music that we’ve used has not been played since 1929. It’s like having your own genre.

This music is not Mozart, but just imagine if nobody knew Mozart, and you were the only group in the world researching and playing it. And that’s sort of how we feel, we’ve got all these composers that we know and love, but they are unknown to the rest of the world. They don’t show up in musical biographies. You won’t find them in the Grove Encyclopedia of Music, but they were very prolific composers, and their music was performed in the world more than anybody’s.

If you look where the musical performances were happening in the 1920s, the movie theaters were far and away the biggest performers of music. So, people like Gaston Borch and J.S. Zamecnik were being performed more than people like George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, who are now household words and have plenty of books and academic articles about them.

But the film composers were never given credit on the screen, and they were completely forgotten in 1929. Here’s a music that had a lot to do with the development of musical taste in America, and it has just been completely forgotten. We’re helping unearth it and get it performed. We’re helping (audiences) know about these people if they’re interested.

We always include a cue sheet on the DVD release so that if someone hears a piece that captures their attention, and they want to find out more about the composer or the piece, they at least have a handle to it that they can then try to find out more about it.

We’re there to serve the film. Most people come to see the movie, not to hear us. But there are more people who will come to listen to us no matter what movie we’re doing because they figure if we’re doing it, it’s going to be a good show. That’s very touching.
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