Musics composed and directed by Timothy Brock.
Live accompaniment by Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna
(In case of rain, the screening will be canceled)
The silent screen produced just two comic epics: Chaplin’s The Gold Rush in 1925 and Keaton’s The General in 1926. What is surprising is not that there are so few but that there are any at all. For there had been no such form until these two men saw a way to it. A comedian’s qualities are not at all what an epic wants. An epic wants an event of great scale and significance, one rooted in a historical moment, a moment so representative that it takes on mythological status. And it wants a hero at its center who certainly need not be perfect but whose aspirations are matched by his capability. It is an elevated form, the epic as such, and it is a deeply serious one. But comedy’s business had always been to reduce pretension, to mock deep seriousness, to ask what could be so lofty about a man whose shirttail was hanging out. Epic quality vanishes under the assault of the clown. […] “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts” [Rudi] Blesh reports Keaton saying to his staff as he set about constructing exact replicas of Civil War locomotives, preparing 4,000 military uniforms, searching out virgin forests for The General. Keaton was turning to history for material, and to history that had already acquired mythological standing. Keaton had always worked in scale: with ships, locomotives, hurricanes. He had wedded himself to huge inanimate objects before and careered across the landscape. […] The story he had hit upon took maximum advantage of one of silent film comedy’s most venerable tools. It was one long chase. Or, rather two long chases back to back: from South to North, from North to South, using the same track both ways. And there had always been another side, a geometric side, to Keaton’s sense of narrative form. […] Keaton’s film resembles a boomerang. The General is a great parabola flung against the skyline, lifting on a first long curve that seems destined to go on forever, then gently and ominously curling in space to retrace its passage until it lands without loss of force in the hand that has set it in motion. Call it the Keaton Curve magnified to embrace the two halves of a continent, if you will.
Walter Kerr, Silent Clowns, Alfred Knopf, New York 1975
Buster Keaton and the Sound of the Engine
This is not the first time I have been asked to adapt or reduce one of my own film scores. However, it would have never occurred to me to re-orchestrate a piece for health reasons. In 2005, the Berner Symphonie-orchester commissioned me to write a score for The General for a large orchestra. The Swiss orchestra was about 80 players strong, and I have performed the score many times with other orchestras since. With the original orchestration, my intention was to emulate the weight and speed of the locomotive and I had every instrumental color at my disposal.
The outbreak of Covid-19 made conducting a large score quite impossible, at least for the time being. However, every obstacle can theoretically provide a new opportunity and this extraordinary edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato gave me the great chance to look again at the music and see how the composition might change not only in color, but in character.
This adaptation is faithful to the original spirit of the composition, in that I tried to write a score that suggested the music of the American civil war, without using any authentic folk songs. The songs of the civil war, and their inseparable lyrics, bring with them imagery that I felt would compete with the film. Yet the rhythm and bite of these songs have penetrated my score – directly from the 1860s sheet music that I have collect- ed over the decades.
In the center of the orchestra is a southern-style rhythm section, made up of guitar, upright bass, trap drummer, piano and four saxophones. Having been in a fair number of hillbilly combos as a youth, I didn’t find this an artistic stretch, and it was great to use this setup for film music. This reduced orchestration helps keep the momentum going when the film calls for a lighter touch and provides a framework for several solos.
Whereas in my original score I had made a large use of brass and percussion in the perpetual mechanical rhythms to emulate the locomotive at full speed, this new adaptation relies on the intimacy and the authentic western color of the combo – the true lifeblood of the piece.
I also included a very ancient and unknown instrument (at least in Europe), the ‘Railroad Imitation’ originally manufactured by Ludwig & Ludwig in 1914: it is so hard to find nowadays that I had to build one from scratch for this concert. This instrument was one of many effects that were made for trap drummers engaged in theaters throughout the silent era. It is made of 14 metal springs and a metal rod that scrapes the length of the springs and sounds convincingly like a steam locomotive.
In our current and long overdue dismantling of the glorification of the South, I had to revisit my life-long relationship with this film. There are mixed messages, but I do take comfort in that single intertitle, early in the film. Johnnie Gray was by all measures completely oblivious to their war, and that all he cared about was his engine, and his girl.
The score calls for piccolo, flute, oboe, english horn, clarinet, bass-clarinet, two alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, bass saxophone, bassoon, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, three percussionists, piano, celesta, acoustic guitar, upright bass and strings.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, liberamente tratto da The Great Locomotive Chase (1889) di William Pittenger. Scen.: Al Boasberg, Charles Smith. F.: J. Devereux Jennings, Bert Haines. M.: J. Sherman Kell. Scgf.: Fred Gabourie. Int.: Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (capitano Anderson, spia nordista), Jim Farley (generale nordista Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (generale sudista), Charles Smith (padre di Annabelle), Frank Barnes (fratello di Annabelle). Prod.: Joseph M. Schenck, United Artists, Buster Keaton Productions. DCP. Bn.
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