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Silent film, music event promises to be pleasing

By Miko Sloper Daily Planet correspondent
Saturday August 04, 2001

When local composer Phil Freihofner first saw the classic silent film “Der Golem” (Germany, 1920), it struck him that this film needed an appropriate musical soundtrack. 

He had been arranging music for a double-reed quartet for several years and decided to apply what he had learned to this project.  

The result will be presented Sunday at the Fine Arts Cinema, when a quartet of two oboes, English horn and bassoon will play Freihofner’s evocative score while the movie is screened.  

This performance is in the tradition of the time of the movie’s release, when cinema theaters were the biggest employers of musicians.  

Nowadays we tend to believe that silent films were generally accompanied by a solo keyboard player, but this is actually a result of financial pressures during the declining years of silent films, rather than aesthetics. 

Recently the Clubfoot Orchestra and other bands have been exploring the possibilities of composing and performing scores for silent films. Freihofner’s work further develops this concept in a different orchestration. 

The Golem was a clay man brought to life by sorcery. It was created to protect the Jewish community of Prague against attacks by Christians.  

Of course there are problems with controlling and decommissioning the monster. The film also introduces a love story and court intrigue to add drama.  

Freihofner calls up some of the moods of Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” klezmer tunes, Chopin mazurkas and even Wagnerian melodrama, all the while utilizing original material and skillful manipulation of the limited resources of a quartet of woodwinds.  

He conceived of the film as occurring in three worlds: the Jewish ghetto, the ruling Court, and the world of Magic. So the various scenes and moods are addressed differently in each world, while maintaining a sense of organic wholeness by invoking motivic links between the worlds. 

Fans of virtuoso technique should know that the lead oboe parts will be performed by Mark Weiger from the famous double reed quartet “Wizards.” Some sections require serious chops, but mostly the music does not call attention to itself in a way which might distract the audience away from the action on the screen. 

Also worthy of attention are the occasional moments of silence in the score. The composer understands the value of a pause for the audience to hear the eery reaction of the film catching its breath. 

Although many in the audience will consider this event a music concert with a film providing context for the composition being played, others will be amazed by the stunning visual spectacle, and may even allow the music to become incidental commentary on this unique film.  

Clearly many aspects of this film influenced “Frankenstein” and other monster films. The sinister curves of the interior sets and the stylized costumes offer plenty of eye candy to divert the attention away from the music. 

Yet those audience members will derive the most pleasure who manage to integrate the two into a kind of “Gesamtkunstwerk”, an integrated work of art, which Wagner was always striving to produce.  

This soundtrack can clearly stand by itself as a piece of music, but it is so clearly intended to augment a specific flow of imagery, action and emotions.  

Freihofner intends to be a trailblazer in the way he distributes the score.  

Whoever rents the film will have the option of also renting the score to be played live by four musicians, so other audiences might have a chance to experience this enhanced and improved film. 

This presentation might be just the beginning.  

If this instigates a happy trend of restoring appropriate live music to silent films, Sunday’s performance will be an important premiere.