Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Playing the Story versus the Details

This week, Clarence Sinn continues his campaign to get musicians to play to the story rather than the details. His basic principle is this:
don’t pay too much attention to the details and accessories of a picture unless they have an important bearing on the scene or the story. Rather, try to grasp the impression the picture is intended to convey and give that all the assistance you can.
For the musician, this means figuring out what not to play as much as what to play. Sinn's analysis of The Dixie Mother is exemplary in this respect. He notes how it is best to ignore, more or less, the scenes showing the reunion of the father, son and daughter-in-law so that the music can focus on the continuing concern of the mother, who should be the actual focus of this part of the film. The scenes with the father, son and daughter-in-law are in this respect incidental to the larger point of the story, which is centered on the mother. Playing to the mother's point of view, then, is a way for the music to reinforce this structure of the story.

This is the last music column for 1910.

I have noticed a tendency among some pianists to play to the details of a picture rather than to the story itself. While I do not wish to pose as a fault finder to those who are conscientiously endeavoring to fit their pictures correctly, I must again point out the importance of carrying out the general impression which the story is intended to convey. Our photoplays are often composed of short and rapidly changing scenes and at first glance an alert mind will frequently note the most conspicuous object and give it an unmerited prominence. He thus throws his picture out of balance and destroys an impression he might otherwise have retained. I am speaking particularly of those stories which are on the sympathetic order. The music is an important factor in these, and can help or mar the picture according to whether it is applied correctly or incorrectly. To make my meaning clear, I will cite as an illustration a recent release “A Dixie Mother.” In the first part of the story (which is laid in the time of the Civil War) one of her sons is killed. The father vows eternal hatred to the North. After the war is over the other son marries a Northern girl and is thereby cut off from his parents. These incidents develop toward the one point, viz.: the Spartan mother’s pride has kept her silent, though her heart is hungry for her boy. Later she receives a letter saying her son and his wife are waiting at a nearby station, asks for a reconciliation, and that a carriage should be sent for them. The father refuses, but finally, unknown to her, he relents and drives away. The next scenes alternate quickly, showing and despairing and half crazed “Dixie mother” and the carriage on its way; its arrival, the meeting between the father and son, the return trip and the arrival at home. This journey is shown in a number of scenes, and after each one the mother is shown. The whole picture is full of pathetic Southern tunes, and when it comes to the latter part of it your audience should be keyed to that pitch where the tears come easily. From now on keep them there. Run a plaintive from the letter scene until she comes into the room where the cradle stands. Change to the theme you played in the first part when her dead boy was brought in (“Massa’s in the Cold Ground” will answer) as her memory has gone back to those days, and hold this theme to the finish even though the intervening scenes are of a different character. The meeting between father, son and daughter-in-law may not look pathetic, nor the drive forth and back, but you are not playing to them; they are only details whose sole value lies in their relationship to the central idea. You are playing to the “Dixie mother” and all the interest about her must be sustained; a stop or a change in the music would break the tension, which is something you have been trying to hold throughout the latter half of the picture. At the “tag” or finish of the picture you may change your music or simply swell to forte without change as you see fit. It is immaterial.

“The Lesson,” though not so deeply emotional, is worked along similar lines. You open the picture with something of a quasi-plaintive character (“Apple Blossoms” will do) which will play until the son’s return home. Pause until he enters room of his father. Pathetic until the sister finds him in barroom. Agitato for the struggle, then pathetic till the finish of picture.

The points I am trying to bring out are these: don’t pay too much attention to the details and accessories of a picture unless they have an important bearing on the scene or the story. Rather, try to grasp the impression the picture is intended to convey and give that all the assistance you can. I saw a picture last week wherein one scene opened showing an empty chair in the foreground. Though the most conspicuous object in the scene, this chair had not more to do with the story than the clock on the wall, yet because it was so plainly visible the musician switched to the “Vacant Chair.” Had this chair been placed there to suggest a dead or absent one, and had the action carried out this suggestion the music would have been correct. As it was, it was absurd. Another instance I heard when the judgment was at fault—this time it was playing to the costumes of the characters instead of the action of the play. The story introduced a couple of Spaniards in a prominent way and their presence was always a signal for a Spanish waltz or habanero, with tambourine and castanets. In the lighter scenes this was all right enough, but in some of the dramatic scenes it was wholly out of place. One does not usually associate dance music with either a fight or a death bed—though had the characters in question heard this particular music they might have fought and died in earnest. A priest was hearing the confession of a dying woman, and because of her Spanish dress the castanets clicked all through the solemn scene. These instances are bona fide. There is no need to mention where I heard them as such things are of too frequent occurrence. It is only another instance of observing unimportant details and overlooking the essential points; errors which occur oftenest among those who are sincerely trying to work up their pictures correctly and really believe they are succeeding.

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I am in receipt of a letter from C. J. Alden, Orpheum Theater, Bizbee, Ariz. Brother Alden believes in the superiority of the orchestra in working up pictures and speaks of his own experience. I am sorry I cannot quote the letter as it is a lengthy one as well as interesting. However, he makes two points which I will hand out to the constituency. I quote his words: “It must be remembered that there can be but one leader in the pit and he must be the pianist.” And again: “I was instrumental in placing the orchestra in the Royal Theater, also the Orpheum, in this city. The orchestra was tried as an experiment in both places, and now neither manager would be without one. Good work, Brother Alden. As to your first assertion (as herein quoted) it all depends. W. E. King, manager of the Orpheum Theater orchestra, Chicago, has two violinists (Messrs. Kipkowsky and Teller) each of whom “dopes out” the picture on his own shift, and their work looks pretty good to me. At that I believe your method would work out best in most cases. I would like to hear from some of the rest of my readers and learn what they think of it.

Clarence Sinn, “Music for the Picture,” Moving Picture World 31 December 1910, 1531.