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Jazz Sounds that Bring a New Life to Silent Films

Blog
Jazz Sounds that Bring a New Life to Silent Films

09.12.2019

A wonderful selection of new music by jazz musicians for celebrated silent films.

Text: Cem Kayıran
Translated: Yetkin Nural

On the occasion of the 6th International Istanbul Silent Cinema Days, which took place on 5th and 9th December 2019, we are continuing our exploration into areas where music and silent films come together. In recent years, we often see various projects where jazz musicians give silent films a new life with music, and these projects always promise a special experience.

Making music for a film is probably one of the major challenges that musicians and composers would like to take on. Filtering a production process through another aesthetic and discipline, going after different sound palettes or supporting an atmosphere through music is a refreshing experience in itself. In this list, we will talk about projects that are totally different from any other film music work. We will talk about new music composed by well known jazz musicians for silent films. These include both live performances in movie theatres as well as recorded projects that are sold as albums.

Dave Douglas – Keystone

One of the most prolific musicians in the USA free jazz scene, trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Keystone (2005) album is made to accompany Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s silent films. Released by Greenleaf label, the CD/DVD double feature include songs as well as a video collage of the 1916 film Fatty and Mabel, which was specially made for album’s second song, “Just Another Murder”. Composed and produced solely by Dave Douglas, the album is the 25th LP of the musician’s discography.

Alloy Orchestra – Man With The Movie Camera (Live at Third Man Records)

Founded in Massachusetts in 1991, Alloy Orchestra is known for wonderful soundtracks made for silent films from the classic period, where they use found objects, percussions and key instruments. After releasing their debut album, New Music for Silent Films in 1994, Alloy Orchestra went silent for a while in mid 90’s due to the death of founding member Caleb Sampson. After Roger Miller, who we know from the band Mission of Burma, joined the team, Alloy Orchestra found its final formation and they have been performing cine-concerts all around the world since. The album that made itself to our list was performed and recorded live at Jack White’s famous label Third Man Records’ studio. Released only on vinyl, the album features music by Alloy Orchestra for the 1929 Soviet Union film, Man With The Movie Camera.

Marc Ribot – Silent Movies

Multi-faceted musician Marc Ribot’s 2010 album Silent Movies includes 13 solo guitar compositions made for classical silent film examples, as well as some unreleased and/or imaginary films. Some of the tracks also feature Keefus Ciacia’s sound design. The compositions in Silent Movies are so filled with emotion that even without a visual companion, it is possible to feel the cinematic narrations. The second track from the album, “Delancey Waltz”, is composed for John Malkovich’s unreleased short film with the same name. In an interview with NPR about Silent Movies and the album’s production process, Ribot explains that making music for films brings totally different apprehensions, which is “fun” in a creative way.

Wynton Marsalis – Louis

Now, we come to a special project that stands apart from the others on this list. Directed by Dan Pritzker, who is also a musician, 2010 silent film Louis is inspired by the legendary musician Louis Armstrong’s childhood years. The 90 minutes film tells the story of child Louis Armstrong and how he got his first cornet, accompanied by Wynton Marsalis’ original music. Arranging his composition in full synch with the film’s scenes, Marsalis performed at various special theatres during the film’s premiere tour. With its sepia tones, the film was made as a tribute to the classical period, and the soundtrack also includes new arrangements of compositions from names like Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton.

DJ Spooky & Kronos Quartet – Rebirth of a Nation

Referred as one of the most important films of American cinema history, Birth of a Nation, has also been the topic of controversy and discussions because of the accusation that it normalized racism. DJ Spooky, known for his experimental hip hop work, brought a new life to the film with an extraordinary project in 2004. Renamed Rebirth of a Nation, the project took various formats, bringing DJ Spooky’s mixing skills together with the silent film aesthetic. The project expanded in time as well, growing bigger with Kronos Quartet’s inclusion for cine-concerts at festivals around the world, and was finally released on CD/DVD format in 2017.

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