Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Piano, Improvisation, and the Orchestra

Sinn bases this column on a letter from a correspondent. He takes issue with the writer's contention that piano and drums is a preferable combination to the orchestra for picture work. In typical fashion, Sinn suggests that each combination has its particular advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to the manager (and musicians) to figure out what works best for the house in question (given the resources, audience, etc.).

Sinn ends the column with a list of musical suggestions for "The Lad from Ireland" (Kalem). This sort of cue sheet will become a recurring feature in the music columns over the years; indeed, many weeks the music column will consist of nothing but lists of such musical suggestions.

Manager Ernest Buchwald, Ballinger, Tex., writes : "Dear Sir—Your article, Music for the Pictures, in the Moving Picture World is very interesting and of great value to piano players as well as to managers and I wish to congratulate you on same and hope you will keep up the good work. For the past seven years I have made a special study of playing for moving pictures, and my experience is this: it is nearly impossible to use an orchestra for moving pictures, as I experimented in my own house, and the nearest and best results was with piano and traps. . . . Whenever it comes to the point where managers realize the value and necessity of good music, it will mean more money to all parties interested—musicians, managers and manufacturers. I have more than tripled the receipts of a moving picture theater with big opposition, one house playing vaudeville for the same price of admission, the other being an airdome with the best location in the town. How was it done? Just simply showing good pictures and playing the proper music for them."

Thanks, Brother Buchwald, for your kindly appreciation of my humble efforts. I have quoted your letter at some length because it backs up by actual experience what the World has always advocated, viz.: that good and appropriate music for the picture is of financial value to the house employing it. Why not? It means a better show, and, other things being equal, the best show gets the money. As to the relative value between the orchestra and piano, that is a matter of opinion. Yours is based on your own experience and you are certainly entitled to it; but my experience (in both lines) compels me to believe otherwise. I had intended taking up this matter of orchestra work in a later article, and shall probably do so anyway, but a few words now won't come amiss.

In the first place, there are more ways than one of fitting music to the picture. I presume you refer to "impromptu" playing, improvising—"making it up as you go along." It's a good method, too, providing you have a good pianist with a talent in that direction, but many of us are not so endowed. I have nothing but praise for the genius who can at sight improvise music to fit the picture, to an extent he (or she) is a composer, and I agree that it would be difficult (though not impossible) for an orchestra to work along these lines. Now, so far as I have observed, the impromptu pianist starts his picture with something non-commital—a waltz, possibly—and watches the picture until there is "something doing;" then he changes his music to suit the action—abruptly, if necessary. This is correct, of course. When the action changes, he changes with it; when the action subsides and the story runs quietly, the pianist drops back to his waltz or whatever it was, or plays something else of a similar neutral character, until the action again calls for a change. Correct again. That's all there is to the proper working up of a picture so far as the music goes. (The sound effects supply the balance.)

As an illustration, let us suppose his first change of music is to a pathetic number, and on the spur of the moment he improvises a beautiful theme. Well and good; I've often heard it done. But the best of impromptu players may repeat themselves occasionally. Why not? If the number is attractive and he happens to remember it, why shouldn't he apply it to a similar scene next week or next month? And if he shouldn't happen to feel in the humor to improvise a fitting number on the spur of the moment, but happened to think of a little theme that somebody else wrote, why not play it if appropriate? If a storm scene is shown he can improvise if he wants to, or he can play the storm from "William Tell," if he knows it. That is pretty good descriptive "storm music" and there are other numbers which will also answer the purpose—often better than you can improvise on the spur of the moment. Do you see what I am getting at? The best of improvisors may call occasionally on other works than their own, and the more credit to them for doing it. No good moving-picture pianist will despise a good library whether he carries it in his memory or keeps it on a convenient shelf. And if he doesn't improvise at all, he can depend altogether on such a library, and do good work, too. I have heard it done. The difference lies here: if he hasn't a sufficient story in his memory he must reinforce it from the shelf at the first opportunity—and that should be at the end of the first show. I know there are a few managers who insist on the piano being heard incessantly, through the intermission as well as through the pictures, but this is thoughtlessness on their part sometimes. Those who look on the music as a "ballyhoo" don't care to have their pictures worked up, anyway. Music in the intermission doesn't interest the average audience particularly, and some consideration should be given the tired fingers and brain, of the musician if he is to do good work. Pardon the digression. We will say that during the first show the pianist has decided on the most appropriate music in his stock for the subjects to hand—of course he must know his library, but a little practice cultivates a good memory—and selects the proper numbers during the intermission. He must keep it in such systematic order as to be able to find it readily. After that it is mostly a matter of turning over the leaves. I grant you he will not read difficult music at sight and keep both eyes on the pictures, but even with a passing knowledge of his music he can give sufficient attention to both and he don't need to repeat himself oftener than the average impromptu worker—and I say this with all due respect to the latter. Now you see what I am driving at.

There are more ways than one of fitting a picture musically and I have mentioned two. The latter is a practical way for an orchestra to work. Each has its advantages. Each has something which the other has not. The impromptu pianist progresses from one theme to another by means of modulating chords and connecting phrases, thus forming a pleasing continuity which is difficult for an orchestra to simulate, though again I assert this is not altogether impossible. On the other hand, the orchestra has the advantage of instrumental coloring which is so valuable in descriptive music and sound effects.

But after all, your final results depend entirely upon the musician. He must take a lively interest in the work (which is fascinating once you get an insight of it) and try, try, try. And this, as you know, applies to the piano player as well as the orchestra leader.

Another thing: Not all pictures call for a musical setting of constantly changing themes; this applies mostly to dramatic pictures, and often of these one or two long numbers will suffice through the entire picture, maybe broken with a melodramatic number or two. Here standard music is certainly as satisfactory as the most gifted improvisation, and the orchestra can interpret that as well as the pianist. Scenic pictures demand music suggesting the countries represented—plenty of that on the market. Many industrial as well as other pictures do not admit of special treatment and are usually filled by a concert number of some sort—all the way from a "rag" to an overture. A varied musical program helps the show when it does not detract from it, and I believe interesting musical numbers should be included where they do not hurt the picture. In this, again, a good orchestra is more satisfactory than a good pianist.

I append a suggestion for working up a recent release, "The Lad from Ireland" (Kalem). It includes all standard stuff which can be handled equally well by either orchestra or piano.

"Killarney" till he meets sweetheart, then—
"Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms" till subtitle ("Out of my heart forever") then—
"Come Back to Erin" till arrives in America, then— "Girl I Left Behind Me" till election scene, then— Lively music, soft, increase to loud till change, then—
"Kathleen" till change, then—
Waltz till he shows letter, then—
"Come Back to Erin" till train is seen, then—
"Killarney" till interior of cottage (eviction scene), then—
"Believe Me if All, etc." till he enters cottage, then—
"The Harp that Once Through Tara's Hall" softly, swell at finish.
(Or can play "Believe Me if All, etc." until flag' staff ap¬pears, then "Wearing of the Green" for finish.)

At another time I want to go into this matter in more detail.

Source: Clarence E. Sinn, “Music for the Picture,” Moving Picture World 17 December, 1405.

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