Monday, May 14, 2012

Making ZORRO "Not-So-Silent": An Interview with Composer Brendan Cooney

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, Bryn Mawr Film Institute

There are a lot of highly anticipated superhero movies coming out this summer, but a great action film doesn't need to have the latest special effects... or even a prerecorded soundtrack. In The Mark of Zorro, the original swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks thrusts and parries his way through Spanish California as the masked bandit Zorro. On Tuesday, May 22, Bryn Mawr Film Institute will host a special screening of the 1920 silent classic, accompanied by an original score performed live by Not-So-Silent Cinema's quintet of talented musicians. Trust me, you won't miss CGI explosions.

Brendan Cooney, the creator of Not-So-Silent Cinema and the composer of the fantastic new score, answered some questions via email about why he loves The Mark of Zorro and how he approaches creating silent film scores.

How did you come up with Not-So-Silent Cinema?

The Not-So-Silent-Cinema project began at a small concert series at the Mennonite Church in Germantown where I was invited to play piano for a screening of the classic vampire film Nosferatu. After playing several more films at the venue I decided to start expanding the project, writing scores for small ensembles. The project has blossomed leading to shows in larger venues like the International House in West Philly and the Armory in Boston, MA. We did a short Halloween tour of my Nosferatu score this past October up the East Coast, and this Spring I debuted a new score for some Buster Keaton shorts.

What about The Mark of Zorro particularly inspired you to create this score? What makes this film special?

I was already a big fan of the 1940 Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power, a charming film full of humor and storybook romance. The 1940 version is so great that I was was expecting to be disappointed when I sat down to watch the original 1920 film starring Douglas Fairbanks. But the 1920 original version is an absolute masterpiece. Even without sound it captures all of the magic, charm, and romance of the later versions of the film. Douglas Fairbanks is an impressive athlete, performing all manner of death-defying stunts, leaping off buildings, and over tables like he was a cat. The fight scenes are ballet-like in their choreography.

What is your score for The Mask of Zorro like?

This score was a lot of fun to write. As the film is set in Spanish California, I felt I had license to mix and match all manner of Latin American and Spanish musical genres. In the score you will hear flamenco, mariachi, tango, salsa, and many other influences. It is a goofy score, the musical jokes highlighting the humor of the film. But it is also a score which takes the romance and valor of the film seriously. I wanted the audience to find the film both funny and inspiring.

Do you have a favorite part of the film or score?
There are, of course, many stories of heroes with secret identities. What makes the Zorro story particularly exciting is the extreme contrast between the heroic Zorro and the weak, foppish dandy Don Diego. Some of the best scenes in the movie are the Don Diego scenes, where Diego torments his family with his pathetic weak nature. As a viewer you can't wait for Diego to reveal his true identity to them.

Not-So-Silent Cinema's performance of Nosferatu at The Armory.
How do you write for a silent film?

Composing for these films is a different than other composition projects because structure of the music is dictated the narrative arc of the film and not by some internal musical form. Some live film scores you will hear are entirely improvised. My score contain a great deal of improvisation but they are also meticulously written out. There are clear themes and motifs that reappear and everything is time-coded to fit perfectly with the film.

I wrote this score specifically for the musicians involved, a fantastic group of players from all corners of the Philly music scene:

Patrick Hughes is a brilliant trumpeter. He has toured the world with Melody Gardot, and is a long-time member of the West Philadelphia Orchestra, Philly's premiere balkan brass band.

Alban Bailey is a gifted guitarist. The first time I heard him play he was playing some of the fiercest and daring avant-garde free improvisation that I had ever heard. I later learned that he was a tango guitarist in the Oscuro Qunitet and that he played a lot of Djano-esque gypsy swing in OctoMonkey. He seemed like the perfect candidate for this project.

Josh Mazhiz is the man about town on his bass. He plays in virtually every configuration you can think of, from complex through composed jazz trio music with Tom Lawton to theatre pieces at Sprial Q to the scrappy rock band TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb.

Nezih Antakli is a percussionist with a wide pallet of rhythmic styles at his command. Here in Philly he plays in the West Philly Orchestra. He has toured Europe, Turkey, Argentina and the US.

Why should someone see this film with live accompaniment?

Silent films were intended to be seen with live musical accompaniment. Often times we take film music for granted, letting it wash over us and influence the way we perceive a film but without actually paying conscious attention to what we are listening to. Seeing a silent film with a live score changes all this. The score becomes something real and tangible, being created in front of your very eyes.

It also allows audience to enjoy live music in a different way. Modern audiences are less and less inclined to sit through an hour of instrumental music. But watching a live film score gives an audience a reference point to make sense of and enjoy live music.

We have had rave reviews from audience members. People love these projects.

Thanks, Brendan! We're looking forward to your musical spin on this action adventure.

The Mask of Zorro is playing next Tuesday, May 22, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available online here.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

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