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.

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