Back to School: Sheldon Mirowitz

Professor Sheldon Mirowitz “conducts” the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

Photo by Pamela Gentile, SFSFF 2015

SFSFF 2015
An Interview with Berklee College of Music Professor Sheldon Mirowitz
by Max Goldberg

Whose palms wouldn’t begin sweating at the thought of a final exam performed in front of a packed house at the Castro Theatre? But that is exactly the culmination of Professor Sheldon Mirowitz’s Scoring Silent Film practicum at Berklee College of Music in Boston, the only school that provides an undergraduate degree in film scoring. Over a single fifteen-week semester, six students work with Mirowitz to compose an original score, rehearse an orchestra, and provide live accompaniment for a paying audience. Previous classes have tackled kinetic classics like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Safety Last! (1923), but this semester’s composers have been charged with the altogether more delicate task of F.W. Murnau’s expressionist masterpiece, The Last Laugh (1924). A landmark of film style, Murnau’s kammerspielfilm of an aging doorman demands subtlety and sensitivity in its musical accompaniment—qualities that will surely serve Mirowitz’s students as they find their places in the world of contemporary film scoring.

How do you help your students to see the challenges and opportunities that are particular to composing for silent films? The students in this class are in their final or penultimate semester of study in Berklee’s Film Scoring department, which really is the only academic program of its kind. The first thing we do is to watch the film without music. The students tend to be kind of stunned at how slow everything moves, and then they get worried [laughs]. I spend a hunk of time in the first classes talking about the way the film is put together. In the case of The Last Laugh, they need to understand how many wonderful cinematic inventions are involved, like going through the glass window and the dream sequence. I also explain a lot about the social mores and cultural references within the film. So there’s a bunch of superstructure stuff that comes early, but then we begin looking closer at the film and talking about how the music will work. Then they get it, they start seeing all the things they can do. The important thing is that we don’t approach the score as so-called “silent-movie music.” We approach it like a modern film, and we try to actually make the film modern again—that’s the goal. So we deal with it the same way that we would deal with any film scoring assignment, except that in a silent film we have a lot more responsibility.

It must seem novel to film scoring students to be composing for live performance. Does this change the calculations of composition, especially in terms of needing to keep the score from being too difficult to conduct? Yes, definitely, and they always make it too hard for themselves at first. I’m always reminding them that we’re putting on a show. And, by the way, that attitude is important for all film scoring work. It puts you in a position where you’re doing something at the service of a bigger concept, and that’s really the job.

The Last Laugh is a film that’s known for its graceful camera movements. How do you avoid overpowering the subtle fluidity of Murnau’s visual style? It must be very different from the abundance of musical cues you get from something like Safety Last!  It is very different, but then every film is different. The fundamental thing is to keep the composer’s intent in the right place. If you’re intending to write some incredibly cool music, it will produce poor results in every circumstance—not just for a delicate film. The Last Laugh is about this character, and so in this case it is all about us being able to feel what he’s feeling as he’s feeling it. This is what generates the music. As the teacher, I need to keep asking the students: What does he feel now? Why does he feel this now? His whole life is about this coat, this station, this job. This is who he is, and we need to understand what that means.

People talk about how the exaggerated, expressionistic quality of Emil Jannings’s performance poses a problem for contemporary audiences. How much of an issue was that for the class? It’s a little bit like appreciating Noh theatre. You have to understand where it’s coming from. The key thing for us is to find the human truth in his character’s situation. Everything flows from that: the pacing, the instrumentation, the melodic qualities, and so on. I think that in the first two weeks the students were a little disoriented by the performance, but now they’re getting it. Everything starts to make sense to them because of their constant worrying and concern about making the right story happen!

That the film doesn’t have any intertitles is probably exciting for a composer. It is exciting. I don’t actually have any problem with intertitles, but the challenge for a composer is that you have to know exactly when a joke or a major point happens. The hardest thing about The Last Laugh is that after the first thirty minutes or so, the film moves pretty unrelentingly into a very depressing story. It’s difficult to make that work without the film feeling drawn out and repetitive. Unlike most people, I actually think that the ending is necessary. The secret is to compose music that makes it seem like it’s necessary.