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Triangle of energy: Paul Mac, Peter Knight and Gus Macmillan on the art of scoring for silent film

This month at Fed Square, a program of classic early French, American and Australian silent films will be presented with original live music accompaniment – performed by the composers themselves. Kate Mulqueen spoke with former Dissociatives member, electro-artist and composer Paul Mac, contemporary composer and jazz-trained trumpet player Peter Knight, and banjo and flute-player of Melbourne-based bluegrass group Blue Grassy Knoll, Gus Macmillan, to learn more about the process of creating their original scores for these silent films of early cinema.
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A black and white film is in the background, with a silhouetted figure and palm trees. In front of the screen, hands are raised over a drum, with muted sticks.
Not So Silent Cinema, 2023, at Fed Square. Image: Will Hamilton-Coates

In the age of streaming, scoring for silent films might seem a somewhat obscure and economically precarious past-time for a musician.

Defying the odds are Melbourne-based bluegrass-inspired five-piece Blue Grassy Knoll, who have built a touring career on performing their scores for silent-cinema-era Buster Keaton films from the 20s, 30s and 40s. It seems that the theatrical alchemy of silent film and score performed live in front of an audience generates something more than the sum of its parts.

Triangle of energy

“There’re three things that are going on.” says Gus Macmillan, banjo and flute player of Blue Grassy Knoll.

“There’s the film itself, there’s the band, and then there’s the audience. It has this triangle of energy. We’re bouncing off the film. The film is responding to us as well in a way, and the audience is responding to both. The synergy of it makes for something that’s fairly unique.”

Blue Grassy Knoll, consisting of Steph O’Hara, Simon Barfoot, Gus Macmillon, Phillip McLeod and Alex Miller, have been carving a niche for themselves as a touring ensemble, performing their live scores of Buster Keaton films to great acclaim across five continents, since a serendipitous turn of events in the 90s.

“Someone had told me about a project that they’d seen at the Adelaide Festival some years previously about a live accompaniment to a silent film”, Macmillan says. “And I thought: wow, that sounds like something I would really be interested in trying.

  • Five men, dressed in black and white shirts, ties and bowler hats, look quizzically at a reel of old-fashioned film. One of the men holds the huge reel under one arm, while the others inspect the tape that has come off the reel and is strung between them
    Blue Grassy Knoll. Image supplied.

“My girlfriend at the time was a film student and I knew nothing about silent film. And I said, ‘Who do you reckon? What film do you reckon would be good to score to?’ And she said the best film she saw all last year when she was at film school was this film called Our Hospitality by Buster Keaton. I’d never heard of it.

“I think we tracked down a copy from the National Film and Sound Archives in Canberra.”

“We [the band] were sitting down in a room together and watched this film in silence. We were all pretty accomplished musicians, but we’d never done anything like this before.”

After a whirlwind six weeks of a “delightfully analog, very organic” experience composing their score, Blue Grassy Knoll went on to perform it to the 1923 classic Our Hospitality, one of Buster Keaton’s earliest films, and the first he directed, for the 1996 Melbourne Fringe Festival.

“And I’m still kind of blown away by this, what was astounding was how much laughter there was in the crowd from people seeing it for the first time, because of course, by that point, you’ve stopped laughing at it because you’re so busy trying to remember what to do next and just play it, that we suddenly realised that this thing had just sort of grown a life of its own.”

Since that first foray, Blue Grassy Knoll have composed scores for seven more of Keaton’s films, as well as the 1922 Chinese comedy short film Labourer’s Love.

“I think Our Hospitality is probably my favourite of the films that we do, partly because it was the first one that we did, but also, I think it’s probably Buster Keaton’s best film.

“Everyone says The General, but – a bit the same way as [Blue Grassy Knoll] were with our score – it was Keaton’s first full length feature film and he was just having a ball. He was just finally then given the license to go out there and make a big full feature movie. It looks like he just was just brimming with ideas. And I mean, structurally, it’s a beautiful piece of cinema.”

Former Dissociatives member Paul Mac is best known as an electronic artist and singer-songwriter, having been a touring member of Silverchair and won an ARIA for Best Dance Release in 2002 for his track 3000 Feet High. His journey to create his original score for 1919 Australian silent film The Sentimental Bloke, was an act of happenstance. “The National Film and Sound Archive got in contact with me, saying they’ve restored the film [for the film’s 100th anniversary] and they wanted to commission a new score for it and a live performance,” Mac says. “I haven’t done heaps of films, to be honest. Kath & Kimderella is probably my famous one so far.”

  • Paul Mac wears a black shirt, open at the collar. He is looking at the camera, a slight smile on his face. He has dark, cropped hair and greying cropped beard. A long metal chain hangs around his neck
    Paul Mac. Photography: @mica_chutrau

“I spoke to different people and read some books and thought, how do I even approach this? It’s just relentless. It’s just music, music, music the whole way, for two hours or whatever it is for that film. And it’s also a question of, well, what does it sound like? It’s from 1919, so I didn’t want to get stuck in that period, but it had to feel like it matched.”

Compositional palette

Contemporary composer and jazz-trained trumpet player Peter Knight has worked with multi-instrumentalist Dũng Nguyễn, Minh Ha Patmore, Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson previously to compose the work 1988 for Australian Art Orchestra in 2020, and presented this work for the 2023 OzAsia Festival in Adelaide. When Knight was approached by InsiteArts to compose for a series of silent surreal and Dadaist short films, he immediately thought of this ensemble.

 

  • A man with dark-rimming glasses, wearing a black top, looks to the camera, emerging from darkness. Red light forms a pattern across his face.
    Peter Knight. Photography: Sarah Walker

“Dũng is a Vietnamese born multi-instrumentalist,” Knight says. “He’s a great jazz guitarist, but he grew up learning Vietnamese traditional music from his grandfather in rural Vietnam. And if you’ve ever heard any Vietnamese music, they have the most extraordinary instruments. There’s a single string zither called đàn bầu. And that can slide glissando through quite a wide range of pitches – it’s quite an unearthly kind of sound. He plays other zithers and a lute called the đàn nguyệt. Minh Ha Patmore plays this extraordinary percussion instrument called the đàn tre, which is made of bamboo. It hangs from this frame, and it looks a bit like a whale skeleton.

“These instruments look beautiful and they sound really unusual. That’s combined with my approach to trumpet and electronics and using old tape machines. And Erik Griswold, who’s a piano player who’s going to be preparing the upright piano, so the piano doesn’t quite sound like a piano. And then Vanessa Tomlinson, who’s also a beautiful percussionist, will be playing vibraphone and drum kit and other found instruments.

“There’s a huge palette there. But unlike a feature film where you can basically experiment for days, weeks, and drawing all kinds of sounds and bring all kinds of different musicians into the picture – pardon the pun – this is a little bit more constrained. But also, I think maybe that’s more focused sonically.”

For Paul Mac, the sounds he would eventually use for The Sentimental Bloke emerged through a combination of experimentation and practical decision-making.

“I decided to use acoustic instruments and woodwind and brass and play the piano a lot, which is something I hadn’t done for years . So it was like, okay, that’s my palette, with a sprinkling of electronic stuff for fun and additional colour.

“I started on the piano, got a friend who plays guitar and banjo, and then just started demoing that and building,” says Mac. “Often it happens that throughout that process, I am thinking in the back of my mind: I need something that sounds like an oboe or something that sounds like a clarinet. I was just using synth sounds at that point. And then once I’d got all the voices that I needed, or that I could afford, it was then translating that to see how it sounds with real instruments.

“Once I was working with a real clarinet player, he would say, ‘Oh, that would sound much better on the bass clarinet.’ And I hadn’t even thought of that. And same with sax. The sax player said, ‘Oh, I can also play baritone. It would sound honkier down there.’”

Feeling the way

When Blue Grassy Knoll first composed Our Hospitality, musicians were in their 20s, playing folky instruments like banjo and fiddle and accordion at rock gigs, with a self-described anarchic streak. They were new to film scoring, and so yet to develop an established process.

“We were very much feeling our way,” says Macmillan. “And what it enabled us to do was to explore a range of musical styles that wasn’t available to us when we were playing our live pub gigs.”

“There was a lot of improvising that happened in the early days. The band was looking at the film and saying, right: this is when the girl, Buster’s love interest enters, so we’re going to need some sort of a love theme here. And there’s a big chase scene at the end, so we’re going to need some sort of chase music. The band members would go off and come back with ideas for sections of the film. There was a lot of collaboration. We spent hours watching and we would write as the picture was happening in front of us. We would sit there and try out an idea and play it for a minute or two and say: okay, so that fits there, but it needs something else there, or: it clearly changes here, so we need the music to change here. So, we’d stop and rewind the film and we’d start again from that spot and we’d go on.”

Peter Knight’s compositional process has emerged from his training as an improviser. “As a musician or as an artist or composer, you’ve just got to keep finding a process that works for you, and it’s different for everybody,” says Knight.

Some people just imagine things right out of their heads and then write them down in front of the piano. Other people work very conceptually and build up frameworks that come from mathematical ideas or other structural ideas. I like to work from musical materials themselves, and I think that’s probably partly just because the thing that got me excited about music in the first place was improvising.

“I’ve been playing a lot with throwing sound at things and seeing how things land, rather than starting with preconceived ideas. It’s quite improvisatory and iterative. That’s my process for creating the material.

“[The ensemble and I] developed a piece called 1988 [for the Australian Art Orchestra] during COVID. We passed a lot of ideas back and forth via Zoom meetings and Dropbox. Dũng and I would sketch something out and then we would send it to Erik. And then Erik would suggest some ideas, and then he would play something and then send it back. And then we did the same with Vanessa, and the same with Minh Ha.

“We built compositions that way. It’s always more fun for the performers, especially if their instrumental language is really incorporated into the structure of the compositions. As a result of that process, I’ve got a ton of recordings of everybody playing around with the kind of musical ideas that are going to inform the score.

“And so then, I take those recordings and I put them into [music composition software program] Ableton Live. I use the program like a sampler and improvise with combinations of sounds and textures along with the film; I have the film running alongside the composition. So, I improvise with existing sounds.

For Knight, the improvisatory skills of the ensemble he works with allow him to make room within the composition for the artists to improvise during the live performance. “I’ll have instructions about textures and densities and maybe timbres and sound worlds, but also leave space for these great improvisers to actually respond in the moment in real time to what they’re seeing and the other things that they’re hearing.”

Different musical scores for The Sentimental Bloke have been written by various composers since its original release in 1919, but for Paul Mac, creating his original score required a clean slate. “I watched it a heap of times silently – I didn’t really want to listen to anybody else’s attempts just because I didn’t want to be influenced by what other people had done – and then I just started on it,” says Mac. “And the first theme that I came up with came from the words of the movie, ‘The Sentimental Bloke’.

“I just started off in this cute, fun way, and I did it linearly. It was a question of: okay, where are we going now? We’re getting a bit bored of that theme, let’s go somewhere new.

“And it’s an old-fashioned love story, straightforward and simple. So [to create the score] it was a question of how do I decorate it and take the audience somewhere? And for the final theme, I really had to push myself and come up with the most hyper-romantic, gorgeous theme that I could, and I’m really proud of it.

“I hacked away at it like I was going through really dense bushland until I got to the end. And it was fun because I just had to try and keep surprising myself.

The Sentimental Bloke was based on the narrative poem The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, written by Australian writer C.J. Dennis and first published in 1915, which gave Paul Mac additional fodder for developing his score.

“In the film there are overlayed cards, where writing from Dennis’ book features over the footage. I read the book, and it’s really beautiful poetry, but every time one of those cards came up in the film, I’d have to hit pause because the font was really difficult to read. And it’s like, ‘What’s that word? Hang on.’ And then I’d sort of spell it out phonetically and then realise, oh, that’s what it is. That’s really funny. But you sort of lose lot of the joy of it because it’s just a bit painful.

  • Film still from The Sentimental Bloke (1919). A woman with dark hair lies in a bed, and a man stands over her, looking at her. Card reads 'Dorren she took so ill that I lorst me block'
    The Sentimental Bloke (1919)

“So I thought: okay, this stuff is meant to be heard rather than read. I thought about who a good Aussie voice would be to read it, and reached out to Rhys Muldoon, who I’d met before, and he came and read the cards. And then I had to think about how to perform this live. So, I spoke to some people who were experienced in film, and they said, well, you’re going to need that set up as a cue.

“Because normally the director would tell you, ‘Okay, we need you to do this with the music from here to here, and not at this point.’ But in this case, you’re sort of on your own. You’ve got to make it up.”

A touring success, a world premiere and a washout

While Macmillan estimates Blue Grassy Knoll have performed Our Hospitality more than 300 times since that first performance in 1996 at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, the performance of Peter Knight and Dũng Nguyễn’s score for the program of Surreal Shorts on 20 February at Fed Square will be a world premiere. The first – and only – previous performance of Paul Mac’s composition for The Sentimental Bloke at Sydney’s Westpac OpenAir Cinema in 2020 turned out to be a literal washout.

“We did one performance in Sydney, at an outdoor cinema. And the world’s worst thunderstorm happened during the middle of the film. People were sitting in ponchos or left. It was just heartbreaking. But we did it, and the people who came said they loved it. That was the only live performance of it. So, it is exciting to have another opportunity to get it heard again. Because I’m really proud of it and I really love it, and it just felt like a real waste because – even the film itself – now we’re in a sort of post-DVD environment, it’s not on any streaming services. To bring it to life again is a really exciting opportunity.”

And how is he feeling about it? “I’ll be nervous as all hell. I know at the end of it, it’ll be a total buzz. And I’m glad that I can hopefully bring some joy to some people in a live setting.”

 

The Sentimental Bloke (1919, Australia), with live score by Paul Mac is presented in partnership with the National Film & Sound Archive of Australia, ACMI and Insite Arts and will be performed at Fed Square on Tuesday 13 February at 8pm. 

Surreal Shorts with Live Score by Peter Knight and Dũng Nguyễn is presented in partnership with ACMI and Insite Arts and will be performed at Fed Square on Tuesday 20 Feburary at 8pm, featuring Meshes of the Afternoon (Dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid, 1943, USA, 14 mins), Anémic Cinéma (Dir. Marcel Duchamp, 1926, France, 7 mins.) and L’étoile de mer (The Starfish) (Dir. Man Ray, 1928, France, 21 mins.).

Our Hospitality (1923, US), with live score by Blue Grassy Knoll is presented in partnership with ACMI and Insite Arts and will be performed on Tuesday 27 February at 8pm.

See the full Summer at the Square program.  

Kate MulqueenWriter

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