“Great Scott! After thirty years we find ourselves being sent Back to the Future. This time the re-entry is in the concert hall…”
So said composer Alan Silvestri in his program note for showings this weekend of Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film at Roy Thomson Hall, with that brilliant score played live by the Toronto Symphony, including an additional 20 minutes of music for the occasion. It feels a bit like a rebirth, this phenomenon of orchestras playing film-scores as live accompaniment to films in theatres, one that’s happening more and more all over the world. During TIFF this past September the TSO made Vertigo with Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score even more compelling, played before our eyes rather than as an invisible part of the film. Live performance can re-invigorate a familiar movie in ways that are almost impossible to communicate without actually seeing for yourself: but I will try. This is simultaneously something old and something new.
Old? Yes we have seen the film before, but there is an even older component, echoing the way silent film worked. In the days before the talkies the musical component was in effect out-sourced, such that the performance was a little different in each location. In a big-city theatre it might have been an orchestra, while in a smaller town perhaps it would have been a small ensemble or maybe just an organ or piano. Nowadays we take the perfection of the soundtrack for granted: that it’s synchronized, that it’s flawless and the dynamics balanced perfectly with other sounds in the film. In a live presentation like this one, the levels can’t be quite so perfect. The occasional wonky sound from the brass or percussion –the intrusion of a live performance—was a little splash of life, a reminder that at least some of this Back to the Future was unpredictable. You’d look down from the screen where Marty & the Professor were enacting their story, to see a gang of percussionists making those magical sounds, strings, brass, all making it happen. Watching the film with a live performance of the music is literally deconstructive, taking the usual seamless whole apart. We see how it’s done, complete with four percussionists, brass, string, woodwind players…you may never connect a particular sound to a specific instrument, until you see it played in front of you and discover what it takes to make that sound. And while you think you know a film, might have seen it a dozen times (as i’ve seen this one), it’s brand new when you see it done this way, brand new as though it had just been created, because in a live performance it really has been created anew.
And yes it was perfect. That’s definitely new. Steven Reineke conducted the orchestra in front of the huge screen, with a smaller screen below to prompt his cues. Maybe it’s crazy to say this, but silent movies would have been way easier with this kind of system. We glimpsed a process that is wonderfully precise, allowing a live performance to synchronize with a film originally released with a recorded orchestral accompaniment. No question it feels like a tour de force to have everything synchronized, right down to that lightning strike. But it’s wonderful that they’re figured this out with the help of technology.
There’s something else new that originated with Reineke’s brief spiel at the beginning of the show, even if it’s simultaneously old. Reineke told us to feel free to respond: to cheer for heroes, boo the villains, and to applaud anytime we wished. And we did. When George finally punches Biff? Whenever the Delorean hit 88 mph and time-traveled? When the lightning strikes?
I couldn’t help thinking that this too was both old and new. I’ve never seen this kind of eruption at a Toronto Symphony concert, where we’re supposed to be silent at the end of a movement of a symphony even though instinct screams “applaud”. I love displays of emotion & approval by an audience. And yet when you read of the premieres of symphonies in the early 19th century you see we’ve changed. Movements of symphonies were encored in response to wild applause.
People don’t usually notice film-scores. It’s a truism that film music is done right when you don’t notice it, whereas if you notice it something must be wrong. The downside of this is that people don’t notice just how much of their magical experience originates in the subtle musical compositions accompanying the visuals. You might try playing parts of your favourite film with the sound turned off: as we do in my film music course at the Royal Conservatory of Music. We watch the scene without the music and we listen to the music without the visuals. Is the shower scene music from Psycho inherently scary, without Norman Bates to remind you to scream? How does the music work?
I am hopeful that films with live accompaniment will bring new audiences to the symphony. So said the gentleman sitting beside me, on a pilgrimage Back to the Future from Halifax: one of his favourite films in a unique presentation. At one point Reineke asked us: “who is at their first symphony concert”? Hundreds of hands went up, including the fellow beside me. And will they encounter the same old attitude? I’d be very happy if some of those rules –especially the prohibition on applause between movements—could be swept aside. I recall ballet performances where an impressive jump would generate spontaneous applause, same as the lightning in this film. Sometimes I wish we were free to cheer or jeer exactly as we feel, and certainly the excitement of this crowd feels able to break through to a new kind of appreciation. But of course I might regret such an invitation when the level of chatter & iphone play interferes with my ability to hear the music.
The TSO will be playing Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho as part of their presentation of Hitchcock’s film on October 31st. I can’t wait to see what films will be next to get the live accompaniment treatment. Maybe I’ll see you there.