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Orchestra 2001: Sounds of Cinema

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The audience members took their seats for Orchestra 2001’s Sounds of Cinema concert at 8pm on April 1. The event paired silent films with live narration and music, including two new film scores written by Swarthmore faculty and students, played by members of the Swarthmore College Orchestra and Orchestra 2001.

When asked last May to curate another project between Orchestra 2001 and Swarthmore’s Music and Dance Department, Professor of Music and conductor of the event, Andrew Hauze,  wanted to explore a different art form. Hauze’s inspiration for the event came from his interest in film, as well as Orchestra 2001’s work with modern music. The films he eventually selected were Night Mail (1936), the score written by Benjamin Britten, and The City (1939), with the score composed by Aaron Copland.

“For me, I had always been interested in the music of Benjamin Britten and, particularly, Aaron Copland. [Copland’s] work to further the film’s look at the future of the city struck me because he was explicitly supporting a particular social message. My approach to this concert was through my skewed perspective of placing the music first, while some people when watching these films, would focus more or equally on the narration and visuals. Effective propaganda can persuade even if you don’t want to believe it, and I found the music sweeping me along with its message,” said Hauze.

As part of the selected pieces, Hauze worked with Kenneth Bransdorf  ’19, who served as the narrator. Bransdorf, who had previously acted as the narrator in Hauze’s work with Orchestra 2001 on Igor Stravinsky’s  L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), was selected because Hauze believed his acting and voice provided an old circa 1939 sound. Bransdorf worked with Hauze on matching the narration to the film’s original sound, as well as mapping out the times he needed to narrate, and when to allow the orchestra to play. With Night Mail, the primary focus for Bransdorf was reading in rhythm, as the narration needed to be poetic, rhythmic, and an accompaniment to the piece.

“The most difficult parts of the rehearsal was getting the rhythm for Night Mail down because there are parts, especially in the middle, that is fast and didn’t provide much room to breathe. It was a tricky part for me up until the end, but Professor Hauze helped a lot,” said Bransdorf,  reflecting back on the process.

In addition to the two selected pieces, Hauze also obtained the help of Aditya Nirvaan Ranganathan ’17 and Daniel Underhill Professor of Music and Chair Thomas Whitman to write new scores for silent films. Hauze selected Ranganathan after asking Jane Lang Professor of Music Gerald Levinson for a senior who has studied under him who he believed would be ready to write a piece for the event. Ranganathan wound up choosing The Neo-Impressionist Painter (1910), while Whitman decided on Lotte Reiniger’s Cinderella (1922). Whitman decided on Reiniger’s piece, because the style reminded him of the shadow plays he studied in Indonesia back in the 1980s. Despite being asked to do only a five-minute piece, Whitman was so motivated by his interest in the film he scored the 15-minute film.

“When you’re writing for a film the pacing is very specific. You can’t edit the film because it’s done and if you are trying to coordinate your film with specific events. When you are working specifically with a dancer, librettist, or on your own the music evolves and changes, but with a film score, you just have to fill up a certain amount of time. The structure is already there; you’re just trying to add another dimension to the director’s vision,” said Whitman

When scoring the film, due to time constraints as well as the film’s resemblance to the Balinese shadow plays he studied, Whitman wrote a significant portion of the score be in the style of Balinese shadow play music Angkat-Angkatan. This style is a short repeated melody used to indicate a change in scene, movement by characters, or dialogue. With the opening song, he wrote in tune to the name “Cinderella.” He also included “bird music,” to indicate the role of the birds in the film. Whitman collaborated with Hauze throughout the process and finished the piece by the end of winter break.

“I had never been to a concert where it was entirely film music accompanied by a live orchestra, and I was speechless. There are these hit points where the conductor needs to get the music to match the action, and the screen and Andrew nailed them,” said Whitman

“My students worked so hard on the program, it was tough music and a lot of it, they had to learn it relatively quickly while preparing for the full Orchestra performance in April. Throughout the process, Orchestra 2001 were constant professionals, playing very beautifully and collaborated very nicely with the students,” said Hauze

The collaboration between Swarthmore College Orchestra and Orchestra 2001 proved to be successful, and sadly this was also the last performance by Orchestra 2001 as Swarthmore’s Official Ensemble in Residence. The college will proceed next semester with a New Artist in Residence model that will bring guest artists to campus for extensive collaborations with our community, as well as offer students and faculty in the Dance Department the opportunity to collaborate with musicians from a variety of world music traditions.  

“The ensemble has enriched the cultural life of our campus, of the region, and indeed the world, with its unique programming. Under the leadership of its new music director,  Jayce Ogren, the ensemble is a locus of creativity and vibrant energy.  While I have some sense of personal sadness as we move on, I know Orchestra 2001 will continue to enjoy great success in the future,” said Whitman in a statement that evening.

 

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