Silents never actually were.
According to composer Rodney Sauer, musical accompanists always played for silent film screenings, a feat that will be replicated by his Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra this week when it underscores the innovative 1930 German film People on Sunday as part of Boulder’s Chautauqua Silent Film Series. “Every town, no matter how small, had a movie theater,” the Louisville resident explains. “Each would employ at least a pianist. In larger towns, a rival theater would hire two musicians – a pianist and a violinist. And it would escalate, depending on how popular the theater was. I’ve seen photos of pit orchestras for silent movie houses that had twenty people in them.”
The Mont Alto ensemble – piano, violin, clarinet, trumpet and cello – has a repertoire of hundreds of scores for these black-and-white noiseless narratives. Sauer and Mont Alto are ranked among the world’s experts at this arcane art, along with Denver’s Hank Troy, Donald Sosin and others. They’ve played at such prestigious events and venues as the Telluride Film Festival, Lincoln Center and Grauman’s Chinese, and their work appears on releases by revival DVD labels like Kino Lorber and the Criterion Collection.
“I did my first silent movie in 1994,” Sauer says. “Then one or two a year, and before I knew it I was compiling three or four scores every year.” The recovery and restoration of many silent-era films that had been thought lost spurred a recent gold rush of DVD releases and Turner Classic Movie screenings, which brought Sauer and others commissions. “A lot of it is a drag on the market now,” Sauer admits. “The market for DVDs is dying. People can find a lot of these things on-line now, and we need a distribution method that makes sense. Ultimately, for me it’s a labor of love.”
Silent-film scores were once largely patchwork jobs for accompanists. A literature of “fake books” contained an assortment of musical passages centered on various themes – a chase, a death scene, a storm – from which selections were compiled and strung together to provide atmosphere and emphases that helped the movie and its viewers.
“You would pull the appropriate sheet-music components and create your score," Sauer says. "They often had a program change every week, so when the movie’s run was done you’d just file the parts back in your library for use next time,” Sauer says. Exceptional players could improvise along with a film sight unseen, but this was rare – although Sauer once put together a feature-film score in a single day.
Mont Alto’s work on People on Sunday was hardly that casual. After decades of neglect, the 1930 film resurfaced to popular acclaim in 2012. It was a collaboration among some then-unknown cinema greats – Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak, Eugen Schufftan and Fred Zinneman — and its free and breezy, half-documentary, improvised style was ahead of its time, very reminiscent of the French New Wave with which Godard, Truffaut and company would blow up studio-era cinema conventions thirty years later.
The story is simplicity itself. Four young singles from Berlin go on an outing to the popular Wannsee recreation area. There they mingle, play, flirt. Two break away and make love. And all return home, blending back into the crowd from which they emerged. What makes People on Sunday so extraordinary is its free, loose camerawork; its surprising and exquisite images; its use of non-professional actors; and its contempt for traditional, studio-bound storytelling. The film is focused on the mundane. We are, like the characters, subsumed in the particulars – cigarettes, beer, food, money, love, sex, music, sunlight — that are the concerns of the day. And those only.
Sauer’s scoring is similarly simple. Though the musical universe was ringing with the avant-garde dissonances of Schoenberg and Bartok at the time the movie was made, the Sunday score doesn’t contain any.
“You don’t want art songs,” notes Sauer. One of the characters in the film works at a record shop, and Sauer even tried to track down the record being advertised in the store window. “It was obscure enough that it hasn’t survived,” he says, “but when you think about what twenty-somethings in Berlin in that period were listening to, it was probably American foxtrots.” Sauer plans on incorporating “Someday Sweetheart” and other popular songs of the day into the performance.
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People on Sunday catches the universality of that brief, ungrounded period of the lives of single people, the sensual emphasis that dominates before irrevocable decisions are made – a microcosm of the larger loss pending in the characters’ surroundings. The summer being filmed, in 1929, was the last normal, peaceful and prosperous one that Germany was to enjoy for more than half a century. For everyone you see in this film, the age of peaceful Sundays is about to vanish forever.
Sauer and others bring us a taste of that lost time, when movie-going was a splendid, multimedia event.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “You’re seeing the movie with live music, and it’s much more of an event. Back then, going to the movies was your big night on the town. It was a relatively low-cost but high-elegance affair. It was a production.”
People on Sunday screens at the Silent Film Series, with live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, in the Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, at 7:30 p.m. on July 22; for tickets and information, visit www.chautauqua.com.