Music and Silent Film: “Way Down East”

Last weekend, Hamilton College hosted the American Musicological Society (AMS) Conference, during which composer Philip Rothman oversaw the second performance of his score that accompanies the silent film, Way Down East. Here’s a trailer of Rothman’s musico-visual adaptation:

I happened to write a pseudo-review for The Spectator, Hamilton’s weekly student newspaper (I’m the former Editor-in-Chief) of the film last week. In my comments, I spoke largely of how enthralled I was by the entire display of sound imagery and visual dynamics. When music is set to a silent film, the effect is astounding; suddenly any dialogue that appears on the screen is laced with new meaning, and the most ordinary or banal of exchanges becomes extremely nuanced. Rothman’s music — so endearing in its simplicity, so authentic in its design — complemented Lillian Gish’s distinctively ethereal and poignant facial expressions.  I think I came to realize, while watching Way Down East, that this genre (silent film accompanied by music) might actually make for a very intellectually stimulating experience, simply because the brain must interpret the music as it would words in such a context. And the music reveals the originality and breadth in emotional scope of the plot. As Peter Gilbert of Vermont Public Radio noted in this segment, “Yes, it’s melodrama, but it’s good melodrama.” Way Down East, especially Rothman’s conception of it, is breath-taking and genuine. Maybe this is why I have some difficulty watching movies with too much action and too many words — the sensory input really gets to me, and it helps to be able to relax and partake in a new kind of cinematic and acoustic activity, rather than feel inundated with too much noise and banter.

I conducted an interview with Rothman last week, and I hope to type up the transcript very soon. You can check out Rothman’s website here.


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