Student Sounds Give Voice to Silent Film Clips

Spring 2014 Issue

Stretansky Concert Hall looked more like an early-20th-century movie theater than a state-of-the-art acoustic music venue earlier this year when the Susquehanna University Orchestra presented student-composed scores to select silent film clips. Combining live music and movies was common practice throughout the silent film era, with larger theaters often hiring organists or ensembles for the job.

Students taking music composition with Associate Professor of Music Patrick Long were asked to revive the practice using their own musical talents. Many of the students are interested in careers writing music for films or video games, and the assignment gave them practical experience tackling some of scoring’s most difficult aspects.

Matthew Tiramani ’15, a music education major from Lewisburg, Pa., noted how challenging it was to capture the emotion of the clip while also keeping in mind the timing of the piece. Another student composer, Christopher Barnhart ’16, a music education major from Riegelsville, Pa., described two additional challenges: writing music that didn’t sound corny, because the musical gestures matched the clip too closely; and writing music that sounded like it didn’t fit the clip at all. “But once you find that balance, you can have something really good,” Barnhart says.

The composers also had to consider their performers. Writing music for an orchestra is a dramatically different experience than writing for small-group ensembles.

“To encode thousands of notes on paper that will result in 60 musicians playing their different parts together and having it all turn out and sound good-it’s quite a challenge and requires a great deal of experience. This project provides these students with a significant step on that journey,” explains Long.

Thanks to the hard work of the composers, performers and faculty, the project also provided a unique, enjoyable experience for the audience. The concert gave the audience “a chance to experience what it was like in the early part of the 20th century when this was what going to a film was like,” Long says.

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