Movie Soundtracks as Performance

My first experience of seeing a movie with live musicians playing the soundtrack was a monumental occasion. In 1981, Carmine Coppolla wrote an original score for the 1927 Abel Gance silent film classic Napoleon, at the behest of his son, Francis Ford Coppolla, who was releasing a reconstructed version of the film. The film played Radio City Music Hall for three weeks and then went on tour. I saw the performance at a very large venue in Detroit (Cobo Hall?) It was a breathtaking extravaganza. The film itself was ground breaking cinema introducing camera techniques that are still in use today, and a presentational technique that is NOT still in use – Three Screen Triptych Polyvision. The three screens set in triptych formation on the stage displayed a panoramic image or 2-3 different images that commented on each other. I guess it was the IMax of it’s day. I remember being thrilled and transported with the mammoth interplay of sounds and visuals. Overwhelming!

Many years later, I am at The Pinhook in Durham NC appreciating Wendy Spitzer’s soundtrack for “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: THE PET”, a surreal B&W animated film based on a comic strip series entitled Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay. There is a live action version that came up when I googled the title, but it is this animated version that Wendy composed the soundtrack for (I had to mute the soundtrack that accompanies this clip. It did not work for me.)

Wendy and Billy Sugarfix performed the soundtrack and I remember the frisky fun of mallet percussion, slide whistles, and feeling delighted with the entire experience. It was just really fucking charming!!

I heard a live soundtrack for Nosferatu, the silent film that comes around every Halloween. And I enjoyed the D-Town Brass’ soundtrack for Georges Mieles’ silent film, The Impossible Voyage at Motorco. Oh, oh, oh, and a soundtrack comparison/contrast event we went to at the Carrboro Arts Center several years ago. Jim McQuaid, a local filmmaker, had six different composers score the same short film by another filmmaker. That was incredibly enlightening. Some of the scores made no comment on the action and were just musical accompaniment almost like Muzak or montage music. Others followed themes for each character, or a different feeling for each scene. There was one standout score that told a story through music, sound and silence that wove into the filmic narrative. It was the only one that did that, and I felt the film was elevated by the score. The audience favorite was a more romantic underscore that was suggested by the film narrative, but which felt more reductive than elevating. Although these soundtracks were not played live, this experience shared the “extra attentiveness” to the filmscore that live performance brings as well.

I plan to score a film someday and really enjoy exploring how music and film intersect and interact. The live soundtracks I have encountered so far have been for silent films with no spoken dialogue or environmental sound effects. Today I was reading an interesting article on mixing sound for “Cineconcerts”. These are special screenings of contemporary films with a live orchestra playing the original music score from the soundtrack. This article was on a recent Cineconcert screening of Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Godfather with Nino Rota’s beautiful score. Unlike Napoleon, which Carmine Coppolla aptly described as “wall-to-wall music”, The Godfather is a film with dialogue AND a memorable environmental soundtrack. In this situation the live orchestra must be able to swell into a scene and duck under the dialogue, so the conductor works closely with the sound engineer who is mixing the dialogue and sound effects. Here are some examples of the challenges facing the sound engineer and orchestra conductor in this unique situation:

As in any soundtrack mix, the dialog track had received appropriate reverb and other spatial effects to properly place it within the environment of each scene in the film. “But if you add that reverb to the acoustics of a concert hall, your dialog’s going to be floating up in the rafters someplace,” Hoffis explains. “That’s the big challenge for our CineConcert projects, to get the dialog under control—taking something that was meant for an acoustically designed movie theater and putting it in a super-live concert hall.” To bring the tracks back to a more raw form, Hoffis collaborated with friend and dialog editor Robert Langley, using iZotope RX4 Pro to remove just enough reverb from the tracks to make them distinct in the acoustically live environment. He then applied bandwidth compression to spots where unwanted sounds appeared on the production track, in order to reduce their visibility within the dialog. “There are scenes in the dialog tracks when you can hear actors adjusting their clothing or moving props louder than you can hear them talk,” Hoffis says. “So I try to go in with bandwidth compression and pull down those specific frequencies a little bit.”

During the actual performance, computer software helps the conductor and sound engineer stay in synch::

For synching, Hoffis and conductor/CineConcerts producer Justin Freer work with video director Ed Kalnins, using Figure 53’s Streamers and QLab live show control software, placing streamers and other indicators as directed by Freer for key points in the score—much as one might have used Auricle in the past during a score recording. “Every conductor is different and uses different color markers in different ways,” Hoffis explains. For example, when an orchestra is playing at a wedding party outside Don Corleone’s mansion, the camera follows characters inside to continue a conversation that is taking place in his study. “If you’re outside, in the perspective of being near the orchestra, Justin will play the orchestra louder. And then he’ll use a streamer to tell him he’s about to go inside, and he will mute the orchestra to match what would be heard if you were inside the study. So, rather than me mixing that, he controls the dynamics of the orchestra. That way, the audience is hearing the scored music the very same way that they would hear that cue if they were watching the film in a theater.” Vocal soloists, such as a singer at the party, come on the tracks provided by the studio, and are sent (as is all of Hoffis’s mix) to a powered monitor situated to Freer’s right onstage. “Justin has that cue in his monitor, as reference. He then conducts the orchestra in time with the singer. There’s no click track,” the engineer explains. With only a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal period, there’s not a lot of time for Hoffis to nail down the mix to the liking of everyone in the audience—both the filmgoers and the symphony-goers. “It’s a challenge. It’s mixing on the fly,” he says. “It’s a live performance, so you can never have total control of the orchestra. Occasionally the orchestra will overpower the movie, and occasionally the movie will overpower the orchestra. But hopefully we provide something both segments of our audience can really enjoy. It’s quite unique.”

While I do not know all of the programs they reference, such as Auricle and Figure 53’s Streamers, it is easy to get the idea of how these programs are used thanks to this well-written article by Matt Hurwitz in Mix Magazine. You can read the entire article here:
This sounds like such an interesting process, I would love to have been there. The Godfather is one of my all-time favorite films. To hear it with a live orchestra playing the soundtrack would be amazing.

K. Sridhar @ The Barn at Vahalla June 14, 2015

Every June for the last many years, K. Sridhar hosts a concert at The Barn at Vahalla. K. Sridhar plays ragas on the sarod with accompanying tablas played by Krishna Ram Dass. Ragas are a Hindustani musical form derived from temple chanting. The fascinating thing about this is that, according to K. Sridhar’s description, the chanting provided the sonic soup out of which the ragas emerged. In a short Q&A after the concert, he said that the ragas came from the monks chanting microtones in the temple. These microtones then elicited a melody that was captured by a composer in the form of a raga. It almost makes me cry to write that sentence. What a beautiful transduction/transcription/ transubstantiation!

In my mind, ragas are the musical equivalent of spiritual enlightenment. Ragas are mysterious because they are rigid forms that are 95% improvised in performance.  Ragas often begin in a seemingly formless fashion (frequently I can’t tell when the musicians finish tuning and when the raga starts, which I think is intentional. Audience is given as soon as the instruments speak, not on some cue of “beginning”). From the more spacious opening  phrases, the raga builds and accelerates into dense polyrhythms and polyharmonics. Ragas are made up of phrases in various lengths of odd and even numbered beats which shift and change over time. Like enlightenment, playing ragas is presented as a mystery couched in rigorous study and shrouded in an air of unattainable mastery. And when the musicians play, they appear to be immersed in joy. I imagine them making many creative “mistakes” and feeling happy because their teachers are not here to correct them, and we, the audience, surrender to their “mastery” having little clue as to whether they are playing correctly or not; a beautiful cosmic joke that we all “get” on some level.

The annual K. Sridhar concert has eluded me until today.  Heading out along Highway 54 West of Carrboro, I found a beautiful compound of sturdy wooden buildings, one of which is The Barn. A group of 60-70 people sat in this lovely ark of a room that smelled faintly of varnish/laquer and sheltered us from the heat of the day.  A woman tells us that the opening of the first raga is made up of softer tones created by sliding up and down the strings, so the AC will be shut off for that period of time, but as soon as that section is done,she reassures us, the AC will be flipped back on. Then the musicians enter and mount the stage to play.

K. Sridhar was born into an important musical family and was trained to play for hours a day from a very young age. He joined Ravi Shankar’s Orchestra as the youngest member at age twelve, and has toured all over the world. But he does not seem all that impressed with his own pedigree. He just gives himself to the playing. He has an intimacy with the sarod that transcends any teaching. He even spoke of having escaped from the competitive righteousness that “schools” engender: “that is not how you do it,” “it must be done like this…,” Preferences and biases spoken and upheld as fact. Now he is a “master” and free to play as he pleases. A freedom available to us all.


The sarod is a fretless instrument, slightly smaller than a sitar, with 25 strings in several layers, and a deep resonance. This resonance is created, in part, by a set of strings whose sole purpose is to sympathetically vibrate as the main melodic and harmonic strings are struck. The small group of pegs on the top side of the instrument are used to tune this set of strings to the microtones of the raga being played. The overall resonant harmonic spectrum of the sound of a sarod is lower than a sitar.

As K. Sridhar played the glissandi notes in the beginning of the first raga, the tones softly throbbed the air. As the raga increased in complexity, adding the tablas, the tones began to swirl in the room. And always, for a brief period when the sound was at its fullest and whirling like a dervish, those chanting voices of the temple monks joined in to bring the raga to completion. That was the most amazing aural experience. I asked if K. Sridhar vocalized, and the answer was no, it is the instrument itself and harmonics in the room that create that sound.

I love that K. Sridhar promotes what he does as a Deep Listening concert. The wash of tones and the rhythmic interplay vibrate deeply into the body. Surrendering to it just opens everything up. I felt refreshed and reenergized as I drove through the gravel dust toward the main road heading toward home.

Experiments in Nested Soundscapes No.1

The abundance of summer has brought forth many wonderful creative connections and reconnections. In addition to the regular cohorts (Susanne Romey, Eleanor Mills and Jim Kellough), other sweet friends have been coming over to jam with soundscapes. We set up in the Sun{Ra} Room, and usually I record what we do. This week I had a special treat when Emily Smith came for dinner and to work her cello magic on the soundscapes.

Emily and I have spent many hours rehearsing over the past four years as members of The Full Shanti, a local kirtan band. Most of our kirtan arrangements were improvised, so we have spent hours improvising together as well. I culled an excerpt from the forty minutes or so we played to share with you. You will hear three different pieces, the first two are soundscapes. The last one is an orchestral ukulele chord progression that I intend to build a soundscape around. I love playing this theme soooo much. I really feel it in my heart. It is definitely inspired by my love for the theme from Downton Abbey and the soundtrack from the movie, The Piano.

Emily’s cello playing is like a big, warm hug, plus she loves to try extended techniques on the instrument AND add in percussive elements.  The two soundscapes we played were developed for Moving Meditations and an evening dance class I accompanied this past Sunday at the ADF (American Dance Festival) Studios in Durham, NC. During the Moving Meditation, Jody Cassell lead the group through movement and meditation awarenesses as Shana Adams and I filled the space with sound. Here is an excerpt from that morning with Shana improvising over the same soundscape you heard above in a larger room with people moving quietly about.

As you can hear, the soundscape has a different quality in each of these two space collaborations.

I am feeling excited about studying and molding the acoustics in the Sun{Ra} Room as a means of understanding room acoustics, mic placement, etc. I started analyzing it last year, but got pulled in other directions.

I do believe I have circled back around as Nested Soundscapes becomes one area of focus for my creative work.

The Tower of Babble

My decade of birth (1950s) places me squarely in the first generation to have a steady, daily diet of other people’s stories. Take a moment to think about this idea. Human beings have always had a fascination with other people’s stories as witnessed by the tribal oral tradition and the presence of ritual and theatre in most every culture. Telling stories has been the way we preserve our knowledge, pass down traditions, reach out to and teach each other. And with today’s technology, the stories are told with light, sound, imagery, music, and words, all of which are created and ride on the fastest vibrations/oscillational cycles that we know. In the meantime, we sit – still, focused and absorbing and reflecting all of this vibration. Perhaps that is the deeper meaning embedded in Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted idea – “The medium is the message.” On a quantum level, vibration is the medium of everything. Everything we experience is, in essence, coming to us in packets of oscillating waves. These thoughts have me wondering about the impact of giving so much time and attention to the daily deluge of mediated stories. Just as we are waking up to the toxins in what we eat, are we waking up to the toxic vibrations in the stories we focus our attention upon? What types of stories do you focus your attention upon?

I was raised with television. My grandfather was an avid photographer and I have boxes of slides he took of his two oldest grandchildren, me and my brother, Brad. An innordinate number of slides are labeled “Judy and Brad watching TV”. Television was the distraction I could count on when my world went topsy-turvy, as worlds sometimes do. Our family was a pop culture family and our television was on all day, everyday. So I learned a lot about the world, people and relationships from television…

and movies!! As an adolescent, I loved movies! What a special treat it was to make a plan to go see a “moving picture story” with a friend. Or better still, gather the family together in the car and go to the drive-in! What was it about the drive-in? Drive-ins may have been my first taste of the surreal. Outside at night in a field of cars, in my pajamas, swinging on a playground set under a gigantic glowing screen teaming with big-heads having what seemed to be lives, their voices clamoring around me through hundreds of tinny speakers. They laughed, they fought, they acted in interesting and dramatic ways. Underneath it all, a little girl sits on a swing and wonders about having a life of her own.

Fast forward over fifty years later and I often think if my child self could have envisioned heaven, it would be NOW! The access to moving picture stories is astounding. The forms are myriad and we seem to be amazed and mesmorised by the sheer quantity of them. Think about all of the stories you encounter during one day of your life. The morning news shows, talk shows, tweets, Facebook posts, songs, reality shows, crime shows, lunchtime conversations, movies, documentaries, theatre, performance art, etc. While I have immensely enjoyed and employed the creative juice and opportunities this “world of the constant story” has to offer, it is becoming clear that too much Heaven can become a kind of Hell.

I often think that we live in the time of the Tower of Babel/Babble. For me, the Tower is a metaphor for all of our unique takes on “Truth” that are vorasciously asserted primarily through the many forms of media. Everybody gets to chime in for up to 140 characters or show up in an Instagram picture (worth a thousand words – seems like a better deal). Inside the Tower it is extremely loud and clamorous. When I spent a lot of time there, I felt confused, bemused, frequently powerless and angry, anxious, but always trying to put on a good face. There is a lot of drama in the Tower – that is the energy underneath the “babeling”. It is a crowded, edgy place always on the verge of or in the midst of outrage. Spending too much time there eventually will make a human being sick both emotionally and physically. Before that happens, though, it can be fun, funny, enlightening, compelling, educational and bigger than all of us. (Or so it seems.) Give it one piece of your attention and it takes you all in. And it is so much damn fun- we bond and build community around the next big thing, our honored legends, latest shows, favorite sports teams and political causes. There is actually quite a bit of love and connection there, too. I don’t want to throw it all away. What to do, what to do?

That is a good place to start – with some questions. Only recently have I appreciated the power of questions. As one who thoroughly enjoys “making meaning” out of my lived experiences, I have always been a fan of speculative conclusions. Discern and figure out what it is. This collapses the waveform and reduces potentialities. Now I am working with asking questions and waiting for the answers. This process takes patience and faith, both of which I have often lacked. What stories am I focusing my attention on? How do I feel when I focus on these stories? Do I ponder any aspect of the story after it has concluded? Does any aspect of the story stay with me as I move through my lived experience? How does remembering the story feel?

Pay close attention to reveries. While this is a bit like chasing one’s tail, because reveries overtake us in the moment, once I “wake up” from a reverie, I am left with a feeling. That is the moment to stop and focus on the breath and check in with my body. If the feeling is good, breath in and release with appreciation. If shoulders are tense, back or head aches, breathe in three full breaths. Use Emotional Freedom Technique and give voice to the feeling to encourage it to pass through and release. Sleep. Cry. We move so fast inside the Tower, we forget how to slow down and be with ourselves in healing.

Pay close attention ro the stories that you tell other people. This is the mirror of the premise that we love other people’s stories, and equally as vibrant. What is the first thing I would tell a stranger about myself? Why that? Why tell a stranger anything? Create space around the stories for questions like these: what picture am I painting of my world with this story? Who do I think I am?

And no matter who you may be, give the news media as little of your attention as you possibly can. The news and the people who shape the news stories are all in a big circus together. It is obvious when the most insightful news shows of our day are on Comedy Central, that the news has become a parody of itself. And in that parody, they jump up and down and fan the flames of ANY and ALL controversy. They discourage dialogue and make news when nothing is actually there. And many of us can not look away even when the stories are ridiculous or innane. This is the place to start- these are the easiest stories to shake loose. When I focus attention on a story in a mindless, surfing the web kind of way, before I click on it I ask, “Is this really important to me?” That usually stops me. Another good question: “Is this any of my business?” That one is full of baggage for most of us because there is much confusion about what is my business and what is NOT my business. It takes continuing reflection to discern this and most of us take as our business a whole lot more than we actually own. I have always thought the Serenity Prayer was about that very thing. I can easily change what is my business; it is a struggle, an uphill battle to change all that is NOT my business.

I am making a choice to disengage from the Tower as much as possible to maintain my health and well-being. I know not everyone is in a position to do that. Creating a good chunk of time with yourself in connection with something you love can provide reminders of a world where your body is healthy, your heart is full of love and your mind is still and open. That place is ALWAYS available to us, but can be obscured by the maelstorm around us when inside the Tower.

Awaken and heal-thy self! (as my friend Omar would say)