by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
October 12, 2003
THE MUSICAL CONNECTION
SACILE, Italy -- What is the connection between Bob Mitchell's 91st birthday, the silent film festival now in full swing in Sacile, Italy, and the current state of American politics? There is a common theme running through all of these and it goes right to the emotional heart of things.
What it has to do with is the use of music to stimulate emotion, to enliven and to manipulate. What our civilization has learned is that the story of a spurned geisha, a chase scene, or a political message can all be brought to life by adding a melody. Giacomo Puccini took a story about the Bohemian life in 19th century Paris and created the opera La Boheme. Early day movies lacking sound tracks were brought to life by the organist or piano player. Opera composers and early movie pioneers adapted orchestral and keyboard music to bring emotion to storylines.
Perhaps equally important, they learned that music can be used to offer emotional direction. The opera score lets us know who the bad guy is before he does the evil deed. It tells us which lady to root for and which to suspect.
In other words, music is inherently manipulative when attached to a story line. This does not mean it is a bad thing - quite the contrary - because it depends on the context. Music can be used to manipulate us in the service of great art. It can also be used to manipulate in the crassest ways.
Thus we have two events in California in this same month of October, 2003 - the recall election and Bob Mitchell's 91st birthday. First a little about Bob. He was born on October 12, 1912 in Sierra Madre, a little town in the Los Angeles foothills. A musical prodigy, he had the chance to play the organ accompanying silent film performances at the Strand Theatre in Pasadena beginning in 1924. He continued through the remainder of the silent era which died abruptly following the widescale introduction of sound-on-film in 1927. Bob Mitchell is probably the oldest surviving silent film organist who still practices this profession. Of course he took a modest 65 year hiatus, coming back to the profession in the early 1990s when he was offered a chance to play at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles. He is still active as of 2003.
It is a remarkable experience to watch film in the presence of live musical accompaniment. The organist functions much as the opera orchestra functioned in the 19th century and as the current day musical soundtrack functions for our modern movies. It adds the critical emotional direction and complements the actors' movements. When asked how film accompaniment was done by live performers, Bob Mitchell explains that he took opera themes, classical music, and the popular music of the day and wove it together. The Pilgrim Chorus from Richard Wagner's opera Tannhauser might go into a performance alongside Sidewalks of New York and something from Beethoven. Every performer handled it a little differently. The use of music to direct and manipulate emotion was carried directly into sound film and from there to television and radio. The music of Star Wars is the direct descendant of what Bob Mitchell and his thousands of colleagues did on the fly in the years 1900 through 1927.
This year's silent film festival here in Sacile, Italy (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, to give it its correct name) is holding a special series of symposia on the history of music in film performance. It is an important subject historically and deserves a wider discussion than it has had up till now. The importance lies not just in the history of art, but in the whole question of how music has been subverted and perverted in the present day for all sorts of noxious uses, from selling soap to selling political candidates. It is after all not just tragic Bohemians and heroic Valkyries who are brought to life musically. Many a political candidate is sold to us by the heroically rising orchestral score on the sound track and the waving flag dropped subtly into the picture background. We could go into examples - the recent California recall election certainly offered many fine ones, but this would be to belabor the obvious. Arnold Schwartzenegger and Gray Davis alike used heroic sounding musical themes and waving flags to obscure what was, after all, a discussion about how far to raise taxes vs how harshly to cut services. The disconnect, so obvious to discerning listeners, is the use of music more suited to the last two minutes of a movie where the lone cowpoke, having defeated the bad guys, rides off into the sunset. The political hucksters are simply following a tradition that goes way back. Grand opera is certainly part of the core tradition. Silent film accompaniment is its historical extension, and the musical soundtracks of modern films and televised political ads are merely their logical extensions.