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I first watched Ernst Lubitsch’s film The Oyster Princess some ten times in complete silence, with no music in mind at all. From the second view on, I tried to watch the film from the editor’s point of view, from the director’s and actors’ points of view, for the scenery, the “visual sounds”, the space, the flow of energy, the story and plot, and tried to assimilate the overall structure. Then I didn’t watch it again for a few weeks, putting to paper what I remembered – both major and minor things.
I started sketching out all kinds of possible music to the scenes as I remembered them – a two-week jam session, still without watching. Then came the exciting moment of putting the musical sketches upon the images and seeing what worked, and what was useless. I hoped for some nice surprises.
It needed some adjusting and swapping of ideas, but bit by bit the score took form. The advantage of this method is that you can start a working day on any point of the film and work forward (like a hiker) and backward (like a pavement worker). The music structures the sequences, makes bows within bows and guides the viewer, who normally will see the movie only once.
I included silent moments in the score – I wanted to share the experience of my first watching sessions, and avoid the disease many soundtracks have, especially in silent movies, of whining on and on from beginning to end. It’s nicer and more effective to make a temporary conclusion every now and then, and start again with a fresh feeling. Bows within bows.
The recent restored version of the movie was shorter (and a little faster) than the copy I made the music for. Pushing up the tempo of the music didn’t work (tempo is a too-essential part of a composition); cutting in the score was impossible (it would leave a musical ruin). The only thing I could do was slow down a bit of the film and unnoticeably re-edit some passages. And strangely enough, no one sees the difference if a film is played at 24 or 25 frames per second.
Peter Vermeersch. August 2019. Belgium.
Peter Vermeersch is an artist, clarinettist, saxophonist, keyboard player, composer, producer, and the founder of Flat Earth Society. You can learn more about his work at fes.be.