Chaplin Film Score - A Composer's Diary - Part 1

December 4, 2018, 10:49 PM · Here is the link to the film I'm referencing; I mute the music, of course.

This is the first part in a mini-series of posts I'm planning on doing journaling my experiences writing the score to a Charlie Chaplin film called "A Night in the Show" for solo piano. This will also be helpful for me to look back on journaling my process on this score as I begin to write my essay of it, so I thought I'd start documenting it here as a bit of a blog mini-series. If the piano nature of these posts doesn't bother you and you're curious to see a composer's mind, feel free to stick around.


There's been so much going on recently - my senior recital; we are reading my orchestra piece, Music for the Galactic Palace, on Thursday in rehearsal; my last Christmas at Augustana concert - that I haven't had any time to talk about my Senior Inquiry project: a piano film score on Charlie Chaplin's film, "A Night in the Show" (1915)! (Yes, yes, I know it isn't technically related to the violin...but who knows; I could totally see myself orchestrating this score someday. And won't you be curious to know about its piano roots then? Yeah, I thought so.)

Before we get into the actual music, let me explain the idea of what will happen with this piece once I'm finished writing it. In the spring, I hope to put on a performance of this piece, which, because it's just for solo piano, will not be difficult or stressful to rehearse in terms of finding other people and scheduling things - it's all me! We will project the film so the audience can watch it, and I will play the piano, following the film, just like they did back in the Silent Film era. (Or, just like I've seen John Williams conducting Star Wars or E.T. with the film, if this ends up being orchestrated one day - while working at the piano a bit this afternoon, I really did feel like John Williams from the videos I've seen of him and Spielberg, when he discusses the main theme of E.T.!) How I think the rest of the composing process will go is I will write slightly less music than is needed for the scene and allow for a bit of a pause either through a held note or a rest with a fermata to allow time for myself and the music to breathe before the next scene. I have to do all of this in one take for the performance, so I will take whatever rests I can get as I start to practice the piece... but we are a ways off from that for now!

I've spent the last few days studying and working on what I have dubbed "act III" of the film. I've broken it up to the first half being about 10 minutes before the show in the film actually begins, and there are four title cards that section off this show. Act III, the part of the film I've chosen to start with (besides some stray sketches back in October, for example theatre music inspired by Animal Crossing: City Folk's theatre music), has a card that says [17:28]: "Dot & Dash. They say they are clever. We shall see." This alone emphasized the comical nature of this scene to me. Whereas other shows are of course comedy, they have certain themes to them: a snake-charmer, a fire-eater, for example, and for those acts I will play with those already established ideas.

So Dot and Dash are opera singers... but they sing poorly. Well, technically, it's silent film, but judging by the audience's reaction and them throwing tomatoes (and the grand finale, a pie) in their faces seems to suggest they aren't very good. The piano is unfortunately not like the violin where I can warble in-between the actual pitches to imitate bad singing (which, of course, microtones are not at all a bad thing, but that's a discussion for another time). Instead, I put the melody in the left hand just a half step down from the melody in the right hand, and wrote the instruction 'obnoxiously', with accents at fortissimo. I figured this could be like a child trying to play the piano for the first time and make as much noise as possible, banging away at the keys.

This melody comes back again and again, and as the music turns into a chaotic 2/4 march of sorts when the audience realizes they are bad singers and start throwing tomatoes, it comes in correctly this time for a structural standpoint. It's fun to mess with the melody by adding trills to it and changing the key it is in. The left hand accompaniment would be similar to a ragtime with a bass note chord alternating really quickly, but I left out the bass note so it would be easier to play. That's something I have had to struggle with, especially for this fast music: trying to make it easy to play something I want to sound crazy. If I did orchestrate it, it would be fun to play with the ideas of a warbling singer sound and a more secure ragtime effect with this section.

There's a cadenza when Mr. Pest poises ready to throw his pie in the lone singer (probably Dash) still belting away [19:56]. For this I just took the melody and wrote it out in quarter notes and wrote "sloppy cadenza", so the idea for that will be I will just play it as out of time as I want, purposefully being un-musical. I think that will be a lot of fun and hopefully will allow the audience to laugh a bit at the music side of things too. That's one of the things that's been so fun about this project: I get to just write funny, comical music. After a giant epic work like "Muse of Fire", writing something so carefree is really refreshing - and different for me! The final few bars are inspired from the ending of the first movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, which ends when the curtain drops for the first time. (Before moving onto the next title card, I will give a substantial pause before the next card while the curtain rises for Dot and Dash's bow and another pie gets thrown at Dot this time - I think that will all just be silence, mainly because this will be a tough section to pull off and I'll need the break! Luckily the next scene will most likely have slow music.)

Speaking of slow music, a slow introduction in 5/4 was what I composed first [17:28]. I actually came up with all my ideas for a sloppy cadenza and fast music and the Ravel ending before, and all the fast music was written throughout today. I was thinking a little of the comical music in Ravel's opera, "L'Enfant et les Sortileges", with the tea-cup and kettle and the tuba backing it. I was also thinking of "funny music" I've seen in shows like Murray Gold's series 4 Doctor Who music, like when the Doctor meets Donna through the windows during "Partners in Crime" or something like that... a little bit, perhaps. Various pauses in the music are very effective to help create the comical effect with short notes, accents, and an overall minimal structure, filled with lots of spaces. It's sort of like the music itself is wondering what will this third show entail... before all hell breaks loose in the second half, as we discussed above.

So yeah! Similarly to other composition entries I've done on this blog, I'm not sure how helpful any of this will be for you until you've actually seen the score, which I will surely post on YouTube like my recital once I have it finished. (I'm thinking of these similar to Stampy's Book Diary, my favorite YouTuber, chronicling his process writing his first novel, even though we don't know anything about tit yet.) In my case, I'm chronicling the composition process of this piece, and things I have thought about musically while working on it. I'll keep writing here as I work on more chunks of music, and if you enjoy it I might continue into the performance process as well. Again, sorry it isn't totally related to the violin, but in all honesty, music is music, and it's all out there to be enjoyed. And again, who knows... maybe I'll want to orchestrate this someday!

Anyways, that's it for Part 1 - this series will probably be all I'll post for the near future, unless something else happens, such as a Christmas violin video I end up making or something. I hope to put a bit more effort editing these posts and such as well. Hope you have a fantastic rest of your day, and I'll see you all later!

Off-topic, but today I realized I never posted the introduction section of Birds of Prey, a piece I wrote in 2014. So here it is, alongside the rest of the piece, for your listening pleasure.



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