The art (and science) of film music

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The art (and science) of film music is front and center these days at Luther College. In January, I taught a new first-year seminar on film music, culminating in four collaborative film scores composed and performed by the students in my class. We were treated to a truly virtuoso performance on Feb. 25 when organist David Briggs improvised an original soundtrack to the classic silent film The Phantom of the Opera." On April 4, one of the most interesting film composers (and iconic music figures) Philip Glass will be on campus to play a solo piano concert and meet with composition students. And on April 28, the composition studio will cooperatively compose an all-electronic score to another classic silent film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."


This will be the second time that we have embarked on a project like this. Four years ago, 11 students composed an original score for "Nosferatu," that we performed with live instrumentalists using a click track. A video of that film, synched with the original student soundtrack, is here. We will use a similar process this semester: first, we watch the film as a class, making observations and constructing a chart that breaks down the film into its component scenes and segments. We then decide on which elements of the film are worthy of musical motivic treatment—that is, which characters, actions, settings or moods recur throughout the film that we want to mark with musical gestures. So, when we see a particular character appear in several scenes, we hear a musical sound that we begin to associate with that character. We thus compile a set of musical materials that we can all draw from—a shared palette of musical motives. We then divide the film into segments, and each student is responsible for one.

The last step is to stitch each segment back together, and hope that a sense of continuity flows from one student’s work to another. Although the process may seem like it would result in a kind of musical hodgepodge, our experience with "Nosferatu" was quite the opposite; individual creative voices were certainly present in the final product, but the film score possessed a kind of organic unity, primarily due to the use of musical motifs.

You are invited to attend the world premiere of "Dr. Caligari" at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 28, in the Center for Faith and Life Recital Hall. As an added bonus, "Dr. Caligari" will be preceded by another original film score. Luther senior Dylan Carlson has composed music for the opening scenes of Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights," performed by a 10-piece student chamber ensemble.

Brooke Joyce

Brooke Joyce

Brooke Joyce is associate professor of music and composer-in-residence at Luther College. Joyce's music has been described as "vividly pictorial" by the San Francisco Chronicle and "exceptionally gripping" by the Los Angeles Times. His works have been performed by soloists and ensembles around the world, including the Indianapolis Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, the Brentano Quartet and tenor James Gilchrist.

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