This year was the 5th annual Sound of Silent Film Festival put on by Access Contemporary Music (ACM). I can distinctly remember two other festivals - last year I had to wait for a break in the rain to ride home - so I must have been to more than half of the festivals. The first one I saw was great; the second was terrible; this year's, which I saw last weekend, was not so terrible.
The festival is organized by an organization endeavoring "to promote the music of living composers through performance, education and advocacy." And so, all of the music came from the pens and printers of living Chicago composers. The movies being silent, the conceit of the festival is that sound and image will become more equal partners, as opposed to typical film music which is rarely more than an accompaniment.
And yet, few of the scores at the festival emerged from the background to assert their equality with the films.
The program opened on a Chicago-centric note, with which I can't complain. First, archival footage from historic Chicago, and then, moving more locally, photographs of the Polish bars on Division blocks away from the Chopin Theater.
Then, the festival officially opened with Soup: A Trilogy, a comical look at marital strife through the eyes of imperfect soup: too hot, too cold, too salty.
In all 3 cases, the music was accompaniment, Gebrauchtsmusik: something essentially ragtime, typical for silent movies of old.
Then something less frivolous; then something darkly comedic about a clown swapping roles with a hitman.
Right before intermission came The Big Shave, a 1967 Martin Scorsese film about a man shaving his face off. Easily the most intense piece of the evening, the film had a score by Brian O'Hearn that contained subtle atonal elements mixing with Jazz accents. The film steadily increased in tension, but the music undercut that progression with an overload of moods and styles. On its own, though, it was some of the most memorable music on the program.
After the blood bath, a much needed intermission.
Then came Rencontre Unique, a "surreal encounter between Nikita Kruschev and Pope John XXII." I'm sure the film would have meant more if I knew my history better, but the music, by Matthew Pakulski, set an apt mood for the strange conversation as told by intertitles in French and subtitles in English.
Even more revolting than the throat-slitting gore in Scorsese's film was whatever came out of the woman's mouth in The Unearthening, a mock horror movie that flirted with the supernatural. Again, the music, by Jason Seed, was apt.
Then Dans l'Obscurité, which was aptly titled. I'm still in the dark about it.
The final film, Mermaid, was a 1960s Japanese animation with music by Amy Wurtz. Memorable and endearing, the music and film merged into one cohesive experience thanks to Wurtz's efforts. She really understood the mood of the film and managed to express it - a great note on which to end.
Every year I try to go back, forgetting the failures of years previous. I believe in what ACM is doing, and I believe in the concept of enmeshing music with film. Though I left disappointed, I took away a deeper awareness of how difficult it is to write music for film - especially when the director may not be present to give you clues as to the mood.
Some of the films were simply not worth watching. By picking films that appeal to a wider audience, they end up with a lot of mediocrity. And, in the end, it's not so much about the music. The films have such a clear arc to which the music must conform. And so, the crowd seems more like a film crowd than a music crowd, one which may or may not feel any compunction to see a "just music" concert by ACM in the future.
The dialogue continues to be one-directional: films being scored by music. To really bring music to the fore, they should take really good music - a known entity - and commission filmmakers to accompany the music. When the shoe is on the other foot, then we'll see if it kicks ass.