Silent Film Music
These are short concert pieces based on musical ideas I first invented for specific scenes in 1920s silent films. Even as concert pieces each still retains the character of the original improvisation and could be used, with appropriate modifications in length, in the silent films where I originally used them.
The Great Escape (in a wheelbarrow) - for xylophone and piano
I first invented and improvised around the theme heard in this piece for a locally devised silent film by Martin Wesley-Smith and his brother Peter. The film tells the story of a fictitious character called “Dirty Dan the Pump-Out Man” and is set in the NSW town of Kangaroo Valley.
In the second instalment of this series, called ‘The Old Grey Mayor’ (2004), Dan has been elected Mayor of Kangaroo Valley. The immediate reason for his elevation to high public office was because he saved the Valley from a terrible flood, which he achieved by telling all the citizens to take the plugs out of their baths and kitchen sinks to let the water run away.
In a scene towards the end of the film, Mayor Dan, like many politicians before him and since, has been corrupted by power; as a result, he and his wife, Fluff, are chased out of town by the entire village population. This is accomplished mainly at a fast walking pace, the local citizens being somewhat advanced in years. Dan and Fluff escape with Fluff sitting in a wheelbarrow while Dan pushes it across the showground. Despite a flat tyre along the way they eventually make it down to the Kangaroo River where freedom awaits.
Taking the Air - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
Buster Keaton’s feature comedy ‘The Navigator’, tells the story of Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton) and his neighbour, Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) who accidentally find themselves on board the steamship ‘Navigator’ which has been set adrift on the ocean. The film is about their adventures and eventual romance as castaways on the drifting ocean liner.
The cakewalk, ‘Taking the Air’, is a tune I made up for an early scene in the film when neither Rollo nor Betsy knows the other is on board. A smoking cigarette butt tossed away by Rollo alerts Betsy to the fact that she is not alone. The scene begins with Rollo strolling around the deck ‘taking the air’ with his cane and his top hat. Alerted by the cigarette butt, Betsy calls out. “Who’s there?”. Rollo calls back. Now that each has become aware of the other, they begin to walk faster and faster, eventually running and calling out as they go. As the action increases to a point at which it can go no faster, Rollo trips and falls down a funnel and lands on a plank of wood beside the startled Betsy.
This scene seemed to call for a 1920s style cakewalk which commences at a walking tempo and gradually becomes faster as the scene unfolds. The musical structure I have used for my concert version of this music is variations based on the cakewalk theme. Each cycle of the tune increases both in tempo and in decorative activity until, like the actors in the film, the music is travelling at breakneck speed. In a performance with the film I play a version for solo piano, not as variations but simply increasing the tempo over 2 or 3 cycles of the tune. In the xylophone and piano version, I have extended the idea to make a substantial set of virtuoso variations for the xylophone. As a concert piece for an advanced performer I think it will be a showstopper.
A Slinky Foxtrot - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
This is imaginary silent film music. I composed this piece in June 2019 as an encore for solo piano for the Australian pianist, Piers Lane. I have since made versions of the music for xylophone and piano, piano trio and other combinations. In each of these I make subtle but important changes in order to accommodate the particular idiom of the instrument(s) involved. The xylophone version is highly decorative and virtuosic for the percussionist. The piano version is slightly slower and has a gentler and somewhat ‘slinkier’ character.
The imagery I had in mind as I wrote the piece was of an elegantly dressed couple who have been out all night and end up in a dimly lit nightclub at 2.00am. Alone on the dance floor they create a slow and seductively ‘slinky’ foxtrot.
Mr and Mrs Moose - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
The Charley Chase comedy “Mighty Like a Moose” is a classic 1920s short film about a married couple who each have facial peculiarities: Mr Moose has too many teeth while Mrs Moose has a huge nose. At the beginning of the film, they have each decided to have their features medically corrected without telling the other; Mr Moose gets his teeth straightened and his wife has a nose job. After their operations each is so altered in appearance they no longer recognise one another when they accidentally meet in an elevator. Their mutual attraction quickly leads to an affair, each believing their triste to be extra- marital. As the film unfolds, this mistaken identity theme causes some hilarious scenes including a ‘silent’ dancing sequence at a party.
I invented the foxtrot, ‘Mr and Mrs Moose’ for the opening and closing scenes in which the music aims to summarize both their blissful married life (despite their physical impediments they are obviously crazy about one another) as well as being comical enough to work with the final scene in which Charley Chase, having worked out before his wife what has happened, creates brilliant classic slapstick comedy as he fights with himself in order to prove to his wife that he is willing to beat off her ‘lover’ to regain her affections. Directed by the young Leo McCarey (who later directed ‘An Affair to Remember’), ‘Mighty Like a Moose’ is today regarded as one of the greatest of all-time slapstick comedies.
Hieronymous Sprocket’s Bicycle Race - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
Originally conceived for a revolving door scene in the Charlie Chaplin short called ‘The Cure’, I developed the idea further for the final chase scene in Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock Junior’ in which Keaton sits of the handlebars of a motor bike and, having lost the driver near the beginning of the scene, travels alone out of control and at breakneck speed through busy city streets and then out into the countryside where he encounters, among many obstacles, a moving passenger train. The title is just a little bit of whimsy, but it is definitely music that goes ‘round and ‘round like a revolving door or the wheels of a bicycle.
Doreen Strolls to Work (at the pickle founder) - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
The Sentimental Bloke is an Australian classic poem (ballad) by C J Dennis, about the trials and tribulations of a young couple in Sydney and is set around the time of the first world war. A highly successful film based on a section of the poem was made in 1919 by Ken Longford. The poem (and the film captions) contain much of Australia’s colloquial language of the time with hundreds of words and phrases that can only be understood by Australians of the same era and perhaps one or two generations later.
In an early scene, Doreen (the heroine of the story) has just met ‘The Kid” (the Sentimental Bloke) and both are struck with that ‘love at first sight’ feeling. Doreen works at a local pickle factory (called a foundery in C J Dennis’s poem) where she sticks the labels on the jars. In this scene she is happy with the world as she skips and trips her way along the streets of Sydney’s inner suburbs.
Professor Pollard’s Super Rocket Car - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
I invented this music for a chase scene in the film ‘It’s A Gift’ by the expat Australian 1920s actor/director, Snub Pollard. In the film, Professor Pollard has invented a new kind of petrol (gasoline) which is much more powerful than normal motor fuel. He sells the idea to all the motor oil companies with dramatic consequences. A famous inventor, he has also designed a number of other gadgets, which we encounter in the film, including a bullet-shaped super racing car.
I invented the idea heard in this piece for the final crazy car chase sequence in the film. There are now two versions: one for piano solo and the other for xylophone and piano. The piano solo version is quite difficult to play, being a rapidly moving ‘etude’ using parallel 4ths in the right-hand with the constant fingering pattern: 2-5,1-4 at rapid tempo. As a xylophone piece it transforms into a fast-moving study in parallel 4ths using 4 sticks.
The Chase from ‘Cops’ - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
In Cops, Keaton is in love with the daughter of the local Mayor. In the opening scene she is seen telling him that she won’t consider marriage until he becomes a rich businessman. Being hopelessly in love, Keaton takes this to heart and decides that he will try to become rich. He tries very hard to become wealthy but everything he does goes horribly wrong and leads to chaos. The film ends with a prolonged encounter between Keaton and the entire city police force who chase him through the city streets. The music I created for the final chase scene is a 1920s-style ragtime, which covers the final 2-3 minutes of the action.
Walking with my Horse - from ‘Cop’s’ - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
“Cops” is one of Buster Keaton’s funniest, but very moving, short films. In the first half of the film, Keaton tries to become a wealthy businessman with a horse and cart and some old furniture. As for the horse, it has been walking this particular route for so long that it knows exactly where to stop to make its usual deliveries. To support this action, my ‘horse music’ has a number of stops and starts built in. The horse’s antics frustrate Keaton who devises all sorts of comic ideas to get the horse to move on including trying to instruct it by telephone. The entire scene is, of course, very funny, but also has that charm and innocence which is typical of Keaton when he interacts with animals, particularly horses (see another Keaton short ‘The Blacksmith’).
My Wife’s Relations – Ragtime - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
I invented this ragtime music for the opening scene of the Buster Keaton short comedy ‘My Wife’s Relations’ in which Keaton, playing the role of a pastrycook, is kneading a large strand of dough to make bread. The situation gets out of hand when he accidentally knocks down a passer-by with a large lump of dough and a fight ensues. In the scrap, Keaton breaks a window and lands in trouble with the law and has to go to court where his ‘trial’ is conducted by a Polish judge who thinks he is marrying two Polish immigrants who do not speak English. In consequence, Keaton ends up married into the family of the buxom woman whose window he has broken.
Junior Fisticuffs - for xylophone and piano or piano solo
I originally made up this is a little piece for an Australian film called “The Man from Kangaroo” (1919), which is set in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, Australia. In the scene in which I used this music, two small boys are having a not-so-serious fist fight, which is mainly sparring and lots of posturing. For this I invented a light-hearted ‘Charleston’ style of music, that is, music which would not normally be associated with a fist fight but might have been heard in a 1920s nightclub to accompany the Charleston dance craze. I used the same music for a later scene in the film in which a policeman on foot chases a couple of petty criminals through the streets of Paddington in Sydney.
Tarantella - for The Man from Kangaroo piano solo
The Man from Kangaroo (Valley) is a silent film made in and around Kangaroo Valley in 1919. In the concluding scenes, the heroine has been kidnapped from a western sheep station by a local ruffian. He escapes with his captive in a stagecoach where they set off at breakneck speed towards Kangaroo Valley. The hero and several helpers pursue the stagecoach on horseback. At the end of this dramatic chase scene the ruffian leaps off the stagecoach as it crosses the Hampden Bridge at Kangaroo Valley. He is followed by the hero who plunges into the water and makes a citizen’s arrest. The final scene sees the hero and heroine reunited in a lover’s embrace.
For this chase sequence I devised a tarantella, which is intended to capture the idea of the thundering hooves of the horses as they pursue the stagecoach. The music hurtles along at breakneck speed and the piano style is deliberately similar to the finale of Beethoven’s piano sonata opus 2 number 1 and the third movement of his ‘Kreutzer’ piano and violin sonata. In fact, on the occasion when I improvised this tarantella for a screening of the film in 2009, a friend later told me he thought he had recognised Beethoven but was not sure which sonata movement I had played. I was quite touched by this.
Doreen’s Ma Thinks Longingly of Home - piano solo
This piece is based on an improvisation I first did for the supper scene with Bill (the Sentimental Bloke), Doreen and her Ma in the Australian classic film ‘The Sentimental Bloke’. In this scene, Bill is in love with Doreen and for the first time has been invited to her home for supper and to meet her widowed mother (referred to in the poem as Ma). After supper some old family photos are brought out and Ma becomes very sad and tearful about her departed husband and about the past as well as her uncertain future if her daughter marries Bill. I imagine Ma as being Irish and her sadness is partly because she will never see her homeland again.
The music is really a ‘song without words’ in the style of many sentimental Irish songs of the era such as My Wild Irish Rose, When Irish Eyes are Smiling, among many others. They are usually in slow waltz time and are often used to dance the ‘Pride or Erin’.
The Seven Chances - piano solo
The Buster Keaton feature film, ‘The Seven Chances’, has an extended opening scene (Prologue) in which we see Keaton talking to his young lady at her front gate. It is really four little scenes in one and each is captioned as Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. In each of these scenes the girl is holding a dog which grows from a puppy to an enormous hound over the course of the four seasons. Despite the obvious humour of the ‘dog gag’, it is a sweet and innocent opening sequence in which we get a glimpse of Keaton as a somewhat slow and inept lover who, because of his shyness, has difficulty telling his girlfriend that he loves her.
I covered this opening sequence with a slow, Joplin-like piece in which I disregard the unfolding ‘dog growing up before our eyes’ comic routine in favour of concentrating upon the single idea of innocent romance.
Barcarolle – Bardelys the Magnificent
‘Bardelys the Magnificent’ was a famous 1926 feature film directed by King Vidor. However, apart from a few black and white still shots from the film the entire masterpiece was thought to be lost for decades until copies of most of the reels were located in France and a restoration was produced in 2006. The still shots are now used to replace a few scenes that have been permanently lost. It was shown at the Australian Silent Film Festival in 2010 and I was invited to improvise its soundtrack.
The film is set in seventeenth century France, in and around the court of Louis XIII. However, it is very much a 1920s Hollywood take on the subject and its era and stars the ‘heartthrob” John Gilbert in the role of the swashbuckling hero, Bardelys and Eleanor Boardman as his leading lady, Roxalanne.
One of the brilliantly constructed scenes takes place on a lake when Bardelys and Roxalanne are in boat (Oxford-style punt). Bardelys is at the back of the punt with Lady Roxalanne in the bow. It is a romance-charged scene with water, swans, willow trees and technically brilliant use of light and just the right mix of closeup and wide-angle shots. For this scene (and other scenes in the film) I decided that the right style of music was not that of seventeenth century France (e.g., Louis Couperin) but the late nineteenth century salon style of Faure and Offenbach because it was more in keeping with the Hollywood film style of the 1920s. At the commencement of this 2-minute lake scene Bardelys has not yet confessed to Lady Roxalanne of his love for her; by the end of the scene he has. I wanted my Barcarolle (boat song) to contain just the right mix of French romantic melody and rippling accompaniment to create the image of highly charged romance and the gentle movement of the boat on a beautiful lake.
‘Alice’s Lament’ - for Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1927) - for piano solo
The Alfred Hitchcock thriller, ‘Blackmail’ was made in two versions, one silent and the other a ‘talkie’. This was the transition era when talkies were taking over from silent films and some theatres had facilities for sound while others didn’t. The silent version is the more tightly constructed of the two, even though the use of captions makes it slightly longer than the talking version.
The female lead is called Alice and she has been caught up in the killing of a man who has tried to rape her. Unfortunately, the crime was witnessed by a local criminal who then attempts to blackmail her.
I invented this lament for the sequence in the film where Alice is struggling emotionally with what she has done as well as the prospect of going to gaol for her crime even though it was committed in self-defence.
Larger Concert Pieces
‘Terpsichorean Dances’ - for Percussion Sextet (2020)
In Greek mythology, Terpsichore (pronounced Terp-sicoree) is one of the nine Muses and is the goddess of dance and chorus. Accordingly, the word "Terpsichorean" could be interpreted as referring to a strong presence of dance elements. As a Greek goddess, Terpsichore is usually depicted holding a lyre while accompanying dancing and singing.
My ‘Terpsichorean Dances’ for Percussion Sextet began life as a piano soundtrack for a short film by my colleague, Belinda Webster, which was about various types of flowing water. When used for this purpose the music was slower in tempo, more meandering and, of course, much shorter, having been written to fit a 3-minute pre-constructed set of images. As I worked at turning the original soundtrack idea into a larger piece, I found that it wanted to go faster and be more dance-like with greater intricacy and and complexity of rhythmic interplay of its various elements. This, in turn, suggested new musical ideas thus enabling the music to extend into a substantial musical statement.
The piece is scored for 2 vibraphones (each with one player) and 2 marimbas (each with 2 players). The second player of Marimba II (lower part) also plays crotales (antique cymbals) and optional African djembe drum. The music unfolds continuously, each musical idea morphing into the next. Harmonically, it makes a journey through tonalities (modes) that are each a 4thapart (e minor, b minor, F# minor, C# minor and finally C# major).
Medea (1989 - completed 2018)
Medea was originally written in 1989 in response to a commission from Pan Pacific Music Camps for a chamber orchestra work for their string students. I took a small motivic idea I had previously used for the final scenes in a theatre production of the ancient Greek tragedy, ‘Medea’, by Euripides, and turned it into an extended, hypnotic fugato for strings. However, unlike the play, I had always wanted my orchestral piece to include a transformation after the play’s tragic concluding scenes so that the music’s ending would contain an element of beauty and hope rather than despair. I completed a first version of this music in 1989 but was never completely happy with the ending I had written. I eventually returned to it in 2018.
In the play, Medea, the wife of Jason, seeks to punish her husband by murdering their two children, thus creating one of the most harrowing and psychologically disturbing conclusions in all theatre. In my musical response, the first section, approximately 60% of the piece overall, is relentlessly contrapuntal; from a quiet beginning it pursues its musical goal with single-mindedness as the fugue subject is gradually developed and transformed, eventually morphing into a long descending e minor scale which becomes progressively slower as it is taken over by the lower strings. Here, it is as though the music has become weighed down by its self-obsessed pursuit of a single emotion to the point where it can go no further. This might be thought of as being a musical equivalent of the principal character’s disturbed psychological state. Having seemingly come to an emotional standstill, a transition occurs in which the final cycle of the same descending e minor scale takes the listener only as far as “A” which is now established as a new pedal note, heralding a new tonal centre. A short chordal transition introduces a lullaby, which is hypnotic music of a totally different character compared to the fugato. This gently rocking music might be thought to represent the liberation of the souls of the two children. Written for two solo instruments, violin and cello, each playing in very high register, the melodies of the lullaby float high above a gentle string accompaniment. Here, it becomes music of regeneration and renewal.
Overall, ‘Medea’ resembles a sonnet in its design because its first section is longer than the second, as well as revealing two different ways of looking at a single subject.
Putting aside the theatrical origins of this music, my orchestral piece might alternatively be thought of as ‘absolute music’, that is, music that has no particular meaning or association with a story of any kind, but simply functions according to the logic of its own musical construction.
Medea is dedicated to my cellist daughter, Amber.
Medea can be played by a small-medium size chamber orchestra, but the ideal sound for this piece is that of a large group of strings: 20-24 violins (divided into 4 equal sections), 10-12 each of violas and cellos (each divided into 2 equal parts) and 3 or more double basses. Ideally, when the solo violin and cello emerge (from bar 100), their sound should appear to come from within the orchestral texture rather than sounding like concerto soloists playing at the front. In a live performance this could be achieved by having the soloists sit/stand within or immediately behind the orchestra (not off stage).
A commercial recording of ‘Medea’ is available, performed by the David Stanhope and his Orchestra with soloists Dimity Hall (violin) and Julian Smiles (cello). This performance is released on the Tall Poppies label (TP 264).
‘Autumn Song’ - for Flute and Piano (2013)
Autumn is the season of nostalgia. My ‘Autumn Song’ is a nostalgic piece, particularly in the character of the melodic line that is played by the flute. The melody has that slightly sad characteristic that might represent someone (perhaps a person of advanced years) looking back at things from their past: beautiful things, sad experiences, happy memories, memories of events that would be lovely to live through again. These are the sorts of memories that the season of autumn can evoke. The piano accompaniment of the middle section acts as a counterpoint to the nostalgic flute melody, like the second voice in a 2-part invention. The piano part should be continuously moving with little or no rubato. It is designed to be suggestive of fallen autumn leaves on the ground, constantly on the move, swirling around in a gentle autumn breeze.
I first composed this music in 2005 for flutist, Paul Curtis, and subsequently revised it in 2013 turning it into a shorter version at the request of Australian flutist, Lamorna Nightingale, who, in the same year recorded it with pianist Jocelyn Fazzole for their ‘Spirit of the Plains’ CD (see ‘Recordings’ on this website).
‘Jewel’ - for Violin and Piano (2009)
‘Jewel’ was commissioned by Auckland goldsmith, Christine Hafermatz-Wheeler and her husband David. Their intention was to have a musical work which would be reflective of Christine’s artistic creations and which could be played at international exhibitions of her work.
Christine’s art involves working with gold and other precious metals and stones to create individual pieces of jewellery that are unique. Her completed work is complex, beautiful and striking in its individuality. Hers is an ancient craft, which she summarises thus: ‘forged, heated, crimson flame and ringing anvil; saw, pliers, torch and solder, flaming stones and crimson surround.’
In ‘Jewel’ I have tried to capture the ancient and timeless nature of this craft by using techniques which are, in themselves, ancient and timeless, such as quasi plainsong and variations. The sound of the Tibetan cymbal (tingsha) provides the idea of metal in the music and serves to divide the sections in the manner of a religious ceremony or meditation. The violin’s ricochet arpeggios are, in themselves, a variant of the plainsong melody and are intended to be like a congregation chanting in response to a priest. The music is slow-moving and contemplative in character, and endeavours to capture the intricate, complex designs and sense of counterpoint and line in Christine’s completed work.
‘Jewel’ was recorded by myself and violinist, Elizabeth Holowell in 2009 for the Atoll label in New Zealand (see ‘Recordings’ section of this website)
‘Locomotive Music’ - for two marimbas/4 players (1993)
This piece was commissioned by the University of Newcastle’s Percussion Ensemble for a festival in 1993. I decided to respond to their request by writing music that assumed equal levels of skill with each of the players; thus, I created parts of equal difficulty with a great deal of imitation and dialogue. Constantly moving in relentless semiquavers, the music uses drumming patterns translated to pitched percussion. It also contains much counterpoint, even commencing with a type of fugal exposition in ‘pitched Morse Code’.
The music unfolds in 3 sections of similar length and each is in a different, though related, key (mode).
On a slightly darkened stage at its first performance (which was recorded by ABC Classic FM Radio) the Sydney Morning Herald’s music critic, Fred Blanks said: “Locomotive Music… caused a veritable blizzard of marimba sticks.”
‘Locomotive Music’ has been recorded by ABC Classic FM and by the JADE Recording Company (see ‘Recordings’ section of this website).
‘Sundays’ - for solo piano
A gentle and delicate piece, I wrote ‘Sundays’ for a young friend, Rachel Austin, who lived at Boggabri in northern New South Wales. The homestead where Rachel lived had a wind chime on the wide verandah and I incorporated the pitches of the chime in the music. I imagined Rachel sitting alone at her piano on a Sunday afternoon simply playing this music to herself; if an audience is present at all they are invited to not be seen but to eves drop on the performance.
I played this piece myself at a concert in Colorado Springs in October, 1989. A slightly imperfect recording of this performance can be heard on this website under the heading ‘Recordings.
I understand that Rachel Austin played it herself at concerts on many occasions including for her final school exams.
Suite for Concert Band (1990)
This music was commissioned by the City of Newcastle Concert Band. Composed in the manner of a baroque suite, I invented a ‘theme’ and then applied it to each of the four movements. However, there are a few twists. The four movements are: Overture in the French Style, FP (Francis Poulenc), PG (Percy Grainger) and Carnival (what a baroque gigue might sound like if it had been written for a carnival in Rio).
At its inaugural performance it was recorded by radio station 2 NUR FM. The second movement ‘FP’ of 2 NUR’s live recording can be heard on this website in both the ‘Compositions’ section and the Composition Interview with Dr Jane McKellar, also under the heading ‘Compositions’.