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September 3, 2019

A refreshing look at the movie-going experience

Combining silent films and purpose-made music performed live in the cinema, Silent Remasters takes a new tilt on the audio-visual experience.

  • Interview: Josh Fanning
  • Image: Supplied

This year the Mercury Cinema has brought on music festival programmer Anne Wiberg to turn their annual Silent Remasters festival into something the best up-and-coming SA musicians want to be part of.

Silent Remasters harks back to the days of yore, when film was on film and sound was made live by a pianist (or similar) in the theatre. In the 21st century version however, the Mercury Cinema is deploying some of the most interesting and innovative composers and musicians from Adelaide’s live music scene to score the soundtrack to classic black-and-white films.



Pandora’s Box (1929)
performed by Belinda Gehlert:
7.00pm – Friday, 13 September

The Thief of Baghdad (1924)
performed by Dan Thorpe and Mat Morison:
2.00pm – Saturday, 14 September

The Wind (1928)
performed by Adam Page
4.00pm – Saturday, 14 September

The result we’re expecting is somewhere between a concert and theatre show – with many interesting distractions to keep us entertained and our tiny attention spans enthralled.

Established in 2003 by the Media Resource Centre, Silent Remasters provides an annual opportunity for a range of SA musicians from punk and heavy metal to jazz, classical, experimental and electronic music to develop their practice by composing a feature length score to a silent film.

We caught up with musician Mat Morison who, with Dan Thorpe, will be performing live in the theatre alongside The Thief of Baghdad.


CityMag: Do you reckon modern re-masters of silent films could become a thing?
I think it already has. I’ve seen and heard of many silent films being scored in a modern style, both live and otherwise, all around Australia. We live in an age that allows for niche interests to thrive, and there’s silent film enthusiasts all over the world doing many different kinds of re-mastering, re-imagining, and re-creating of the genre.

If you were remaking The Thief of Baghdad today – adapting it for a 21C audience – how would you tell the story?
Well the story is basically Aladdin, so there’s some pretty classic tropes around class, love, and the hero’s quest that can be explored in many different ways. Personally, I would love to see a version where the Thief is humanity, the Princess is the environment, and all the magic is effective governmental policy on climate change.

There’s no such thing as silence on earth. So what are you guys working with here really? Have you tackled this project with a philosophy at all?
Silence exists in relation to sound. The film wants music, but in the era it was made there wouldn’t necessarily be a score written for it, maybe just some cues for the house pianist/organist to play something “romantic,” or “chase music.” As composers, we have a lot of room to play when filling that silence, especially in changing the implied emotional cues. For example, a scene that was intended to be triumphant, we might decide to make it really camp (which we do). We’ve had a lot of fun exploring this kind of emotional counterpoint.

Rest notes – timing is everything. How’ve you worked across with notes and silence to mimic / accentuate the drama on the screen?
Dan and I both love improvisation, and that’s our most valuable tool when it comes to playing along with the drama on screen. For each scene, or section, we’ve established a tone and palette of sounds we think work for it. Within those sections, there might be a couple of points of drama that we aim to ‘hit,’ but around that we try and give ourselves space to feel and respond spontaneously to the actions on screen, as well as each other’s playing. 

How / where’d you watch the film first? We guess YouTube.
You have guessed correct. Dan and I watched it in his lounge room on a projector, coffee flowing, soon after we found out our film. We kept the sound off and experimented with different kinds of music playing underneath, trying to suss what approach might work.

What sort of research did you do? Did you find out anything interesting about scoring films?
In a past life I studied and worked composing music for film, so I have a method that serves me pretty well. First we compile a playlist of tracks that fit the tone of how we want the score to feel. These serve as an invaluable source of inspiration for whenever we get stuck. Then we develop a palette of sounds and instruments that match that tone. We stick to those sounds throughout the film to give it an aesthetic consistency. The final step is just to improvise along with the film using that palette of sounds, and take note of what works, slowly building up the composition that way.

It’s not your first time doing this – what was the experience like the first time you did it?
Yeah, we did it last year for the classic Buster Keaton film, The General. Honestly, it was such a pleasure. The film is hilarious, so it didn’t really matter what we did. I’d only worked with Dan a couple of times, and it was bigger than anything we’d tackled together before. I think we learnt a lot about each other’s styles and philosophies towards music, and it cemented in my mind that Dan was someone I wanted to continue working with into the future. I was really happy to get this opportunity to do it all again.

What are you looking forward to changing and redoing this year for your score of The Thief of Baghdad
Our compositional process is pretty fluid, and things are changing all the time in response to what we think the film needs, so it hasn’t really crossed my mind to compare it to last year’s film. I have what I like to call my “spaceship,” which is essentially a big pile of music tech that I can stand inside and use to explore the musical universe. That will definitely be making another appearance this year.

Finally, why should we come to the theatre to see this? What’s different about seeing things in the theatre as opposed to the tiny screens we carry around in our pockets?
I think if you hold your phone really close to your face, it is basically like being in a cinema. That being said, I think there are plenty of great reasons to come and see us play our score to The Thief of Bagdad live in the flesh. I’ve created a virtual harp. Dan is gonna get a real life piano into the cinema to play. There are also great things like human contact, popcorn, and that sweet ol’ nostalgic cinema smell. But if you come for no other reason, the music, if I can say so myself, is sounding really good, and you ain’t gonna hear it anywhere else, at any other time.

Silent Remasters

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