Chaplin Film Score - A Composer's Diary - Part 2

December 18, 2018, 7:12 PM · Here is the link to the film I'm referencing; I mute the music, of course.

This is the second 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.


It's been difficult for me to find consistent time to compose between personal stuff in my life to classes and practicing to relaxing a bit at the start of Christmas break, but today I found a couple hours in the evening to focus on a new section of music. While I spent some time starting snake-charmer music for Act II of the show last week, I forgot where I had placed my other notebook, so I opened a new one and worked on the scene at [7:00] tonight. In my piano lesson, I had come up with an idea inspired by Satie: writing ironic sentimental music. This scene has Chaplin's character Mr. Pest attempting to help the lady he knocked over into the fountain, and I wrote this romantic slow waltz, ending on a B-flat major seventh chord - a very typical climax/sentimental chord to use indeed. After I wrote that, I kept watching the film. Mr. Pest believes a lady in the other row is flirting with him; he goes to sit next to her, only realizing she was actually trying to get supposedly her boyfriend to come over. I decided to reuse the music in G major, and flattened the first statement of the theme to G-flat major just for a bit of variety and to emphasize these two different women. I also added piano tremolos in octaves in the right hand playing the melody in the second statement, which was inspired from Vince Guaraldi's use of them in his jazz trio for A Charlie Brown Christmas on Spotify. In between these two statements of this melody I inserted "funny music" while Mr. Pest returns to his seat before he meets the lady, a cadenza in the low registers of the piano. After the phrase dies down with an octotonic swell in the right hand mimicking a glockenspiel and wind chimes I often hear in TV romance music, I return to the low "funny music".

The last bit of music I worked on tonight was when Mr. Rowdy in the stands above sprays his drink all over the crowd below, which turns the piano music into lots of little gestures on an F# fully-diminished seventh chord, followed by a quick waltz that returns to the "funny music" as the bit of chaos dies down. It's a very different kind of chaos than the throwing tomatoes scene I mentioned in the last part, because this is fleeting and in a completely different context.

Since that's all the new music I composed, I thought I'd talk about a few trends I've noticed I've already done in these sketches tonight, but I feel exist throughout other pieces I've written.

Chromatic scales are a staple of my music: quick ones to get me to another part of the register, ones that go up and back down like a trombone glissando, or, like I did in "Into the Forest" in 2015 and "Music for the Galactic Palace" in 2017, a slow upward chromatic scale in the bass to raise tension. In a way, I used all three approaches during this section of music I composed today. This is just something I noticed looking back through my sketches I thought I'd bring to light.

I also love to outline dominant sevenths, which are all over the sketches for this score so far as well as other music I've written. Of course, these dominant sevenths never resolve properly, because I love to use them for the color effect. One of the low bass cadenzas tonight outlines a dominant seventh in the melody. I also love using the whole-tone scale; ever since my 2015 String Quartet (as well as experimenting with it in "Birds of Prey" in 2014), where I used it in a very Ravelian fashion, I've tried to be a bit more subtle about including it so it doesn't just sound like I'm copying Debussy and Ravel. Hints of a whole-tone scale are in the waltz at the end of what I wrote tonight - or, rather, augmented chords.

I don't think I have too much else to say. I just wanted to focus on what I was working on tonight in this entry. I don't plan on writing a blog post after every composition session I have; I'll probably end up taking notes on my phone throughout the next few days and perhaps I'll be back after Christmas with a compilation of notes, but I wanted to get the ball rolling, and this was such an interesting section to work on since it isn't directly music for the show, but music to narrate the events on-screen before the show with quite a lot of changes. Perhaps I'll do the same thing next time: finish the snake-charmer music, and then pick another section in the first half of the film to score. Linking these bits of music throughout the first half especially might be a little difficult, but I'm sure everything will come together just fine as I start engraving!

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