This winter, I attended my first live-score performance at the Brooklyn Academy of
Music with a chamber ensemble of New York’s Wordless Music Orchestra and principals of the London Contemporary Orchestra performing Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. A friend and I waited with baited breath as the film began, uncertain how the process worked. Will we be watching a silent screening of the film and only hearing the instruments before us, or will we be hearing the audio tracks (dialogue, sound effects) of the film, minus those provided by the live musicians in front of us? I would be happy with either, but was uncertain of what to expect for those moments where there is no score. Turns out the latter is how these live-score performances around the world operate.
One of the companies that does this, Film Scores Live, a co-venture of IMG Artists and the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency, brought the experience to the Robinson Performance Hall last weekend as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra performed a live score to Steven Spielberg’s 1981 top-grossing film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” With a score composed by frequent collaborator John Williams, this film is an excellent example of how such a medium can be used; 73 of the 115 minutes that make up “Raiders” are scored. (“Jaws,” for example, is scored for 35 of its 124 minutes.)
“Raiders” begins with the score upfront, setting the eerie tone for the shadowy figures on screen hunting for treasure in a remote jungle. Woodblocks and various other percussion in the score merge with the sound-effects to mimic bird calls, as the woodwinds introduce the first meandering melody.
The “Raiders” score is such a democratic score, too; over its course, each section has a very memorable, important moment — even if the first thing we think about when recalling the score to the film is the horn fanfare in the ‘Raiders March.’ One can look back to Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (and particularly, its use as the theme to “The Lone Ranger”) and imagine how this type of fanfare inspired an equally triumphant theme for Indy.
The score interacts often with the sound effects of the film; pizzicato strings accent the crawling of spiders on the screen, and the orchestra stabs with emphasis as if in a Bernard Hermann score for a Hitchcock film. The whole opening famous boulder chasing scene has very little dialogue, so the orchestra very much is setting the tone for the adventure. I’ve seen this film probably over 50 times now and know much of its dialogue by memory, so it was a real treat to hear it raw and un-mastered (or “final mixed,” as it was being done live by the musicians). Also, seeing the film at this volume was incredible.
And, seeing it with 2000 people certainly reminded me, after several theatrical viewings as well as numerous private ones, how much of a comedy the film is. The jokes were landing, and the concert hall’s laughter could even be heard and felt over the orchestra. When so much of our cultural experiences are moving towards home and laptop (or worse, smart-phone) viewing methods, moments like this are a reminder of the power of the energy of a crowd in heightening an experience. The orchestra performed in top-notch form with precision, building up to the climatic scene, and lending the necessary weight to the score, as the main action onscreen is without dialogue. The orchestra has to lead the turn from beauty to malice.
The score is also unique in that its main theme only comes to fruition during the end credits of the film. The ASO executed it with much visible delight and triumph, and was given an immediate standing ovation after the final note.
Rich Aucoin is a musician on tour, guest writing for the Arkansas Times as he cycles his way across his U.S. performance dates to raise money for Mental Health America and The Canadian Mental Health Association.