It was the night before Halloween, and the stage was set – the anticipation of a ghoulish silent horror film from the 1920s, a vintage theater full of charm, audience members in costume, even the pianist was dressed as the Grim Reaper. It was my first time at the Art Theater in Long Beach, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some time. (I absolutely loved the venue. Anyone in Long Beach, go there now.)
In fact, it was a night of firsts for me, since it was also my first time seeing a silent film with live music. I was immediately struck by the pacing of the film – I found myself all-too-aware that I’ve become numb to absurdly fast-paced media. As such, it was refreshing to be able to sit back and enjoy the slower action of The Phantom Carriage. The pacing was in no way a reflection of the depth of the film, which seemed to be well ahead of its time. In fact, the unfolding of events allowed for layers of subtlety that a faster-paced film could not have achieved. Special effects abounded (ghosts walking through doors, etc.), flashbacks on flashbacks, plot twists…this film had it all, and a classic tale of morality to boot.
Needless to say, I didn’t just come to see this classic film – I also came to see the reimagined score by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. The composer, Dubowsky, was also the conductor of the ensemble, which was comprised of Charles Sharp on bass clarinet/flute, Henry Webster on viola, Slam Nobles on percussion, Jeff Schwartz on double bass, and R. Scott Dibble on keyboard and electronics. The score was full of musical imagery, from cymbal swells to represent waves, flouncy flute lines as women laughing and bass clarinet riffs for men laughing. There was also a fair amount of mickey-mousing, such as the tick tock of a horse walking, ensemble members talking with hands over their mouths to represent the muffled chatter of the crowd in the picture, to drum hits as literal smacks and falls of the characters onscreen.
The music itself was mostly tonal, with a handful of themes that played through most of the film. These themes sounded traditional, often patriotic, meant to reflect the time period and the innocence of many of the characters on screen. Along with the conventional harmony implied with these melodies, there was an undertone of a more abstract, experimental score that could emerge at any moment, which perhaps was meant to represent an underlying evil. At the times when this part of the score did emerge, it was usually when something supernatural was happening onscreen. My favorite moments were these moments of abstraction – it was here that I felt the underlying character of the film was more present.
Instruments also became representations of character’s actions. For example, as a character onscreen shrugged off the command of someone, a bass clarinet line approached the scene with similar attitude. For the most part, I got the impression that the bass clarinet took on an emotive role, rather than portraying specific action. By contrast, the percussion largely seemed to reflect specific actions on screen, which is helpful when the film itself has no sound embedded within itself. Electronics played a subtle role throughout the score – mainly, they acted as a quiet force in the background, waiting to emerge.
Overall, the whole experience was a lot of fun. (And slightly spooky.)