Music at the cinema takes centre stage at Kings Place
As a follower of both cinema and classical music, I have always been particularly interested in soundtracks - in their own right, of course, but more importantly in terms of the emotional contribution they make to the film. Orchestral film music occupies a strange space. While not wholly classical, it relies on talented professional musicians to be most effective, and thus tends to lie outside the radar of blockbuster publicists and populist film journalism. So although it continues to play a vital aspect in the film’s ability to convey “heart”, acknowledgement of its role in a production is generally pushed far down the list - after actors, director, producer, script, special effects and design.
Last week, however, I was privileged to witness a cinema screening in which music took centre stage. Bird’s Eye View, an organisation devoted to the celebration of women filmmakers, presented a series of four “cross-arts performances” at London’s Kings Place under the banner “Sounds & Silents”. The cycle united specially commissioned live scores written and performed by female musicians with silent films of the 1920s starring “iconic leading ladies”. On Thursday I attended The Temptress, Fred Niblo’s 1926 classic starring Greta Garbo, with music played by cellist Natalie Clein and pianist John Lenehan.
In an impressive display of largely improvisational performance, Clein and Lenehan provided the soundtrack for the film’s two-hour running time with only a few hand-written notes for guidance. And the results could not have been more successful. The power of sensitively chosen music and image - and grainy black-and-white image at that - was extraordinary. The story was a straightforward one, unclouded by reams of dialogue, yet the complexity of the performances, especially facial nuances, combined with varied and perceptive music meant the result was far from simplistic. Indeed this pared down idea of cinema, without the sometimes intrusive surround-sound effects that populate today’s average multiplex showing, allowed the audience to really contemplate the images, which in their jerky sense of a time past had a poignancy all of their own.
Perhaps most interesting was the feeling of double performance - from both the actors on screen and the live musicians on stage beneath it. This was a cinema showing which encouraged audience interaction. When the viewers laughed, Clein responded with playful effects, so the music mirrored not only the fixed mood of the film, but the fluid reactions of its audience. In this sense the viewers became part of the performance, an idea that must have heightened the sense of excitement for audiences in the early 20th century, when live musical accompaniment in the cinema was standard.
The only shame was a less than full auditorium. In an age where the empty high-fashion theatrics of Sex And The City 2 are supposedly the ultimate in female empowerment, the more subtle appeal of Garbo’s part victim / part villain temptress could hardly compete. Nevertheless it was gratifying to be reminded of the still very great part music plays in the cinema today. Even if its creators are often denied the recognition they deserve.