Conductor and Library of Congress music scholar Gillian Anderson’s first encounter with Wings, the 1927 silent film about two World War I pilots, came about when she was asked to synchronize its original piano score to the movie’s visuals for screenings at the Library of Congress. The 200-and-some-page score was the only surviving piece of a full-orchestra arrangement, and it was “basically a skeleton,” with more cues for other instruments than piano parts. Even with the synchronization, it was tough going: for the first few performances, Anderson sat next to the pianist and pointed to the measures she should be at when she fell behind.
Nevertheless, the combination of music and film was so moving that when when the score was performed again a few years later at the National Gallery, she and the accompanist were in tears by the end of a rehearsal. “You’re supposed to make your audience cry, not yourself,” she says. “That’s when I decided to try to reconstruct the original score.”
This weekend Anderson’s reconstruction of J.S. Zamecnik’s entire score–played as it was intended, by a live 25-piece orchestra–will accompany a screening of the movie at the new Harold Washington Library. Anderson herself will conduct.
Zamecnik’s use of a large orchestra made reconstructing the score difficult, but it wasn’t unusual for the era; Anderson estimates that there were 500 orchestras that size or larger playing film accompaniment, particularly in larger cities. “A lot of people were thrown out of work with the advent of sound films,” she says.
Anderson had done this sort of thing before; over the course of eight years she’d reconstructed the score for D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. The Wings piano score, like many silent film scores, was a combination of original music and portions of preexisting compositions. (Frequently, says Anderson, film scores were totally improvised; more rarely, they were completely original compositions.)
But this score was unusual in that each section included the name of the source piece, the composer’s name, the publisher’s name, and the copyright date. Zamecnik’s penchant for detail gave Anderson an exact list of music to look for. The problem was that none of the music was still in print and none of the publishers were still in business.
She hunted down the 68 pieces she needed everywhere–the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Eastman School of Music, the U.S. Marine Band Library. But her main source was the Balaban and Katz Theater Orchestra Collection at the Chicago Public Library, a mother lode of cinematic sheet music donated back in the 70s by the Plitt Corporation. For many of the works she’d only been able to find smaller arrangements, but at Balaban and Katz she found 25-piece scores for about half of them. The rest had to be reorchestrated by Anderson and two colleagues, Stephen Bulla and Christine Niehaus. Then the grind began: combining all the separate pieces of music into one score.
Zamecnik usually used only a small part of a preexisting score; “out of a hundred measures, say, he would use 32 measures starting somewhere in the middle.” So Anderson had to compare musical notes to find the sections used, then write in clef signs, key signatures, mensuration signs, and the film cues. Multiply that times 6,000 measures and 25 instruments, and you get “a lot of crappy, boring work.”
But she was thrilled by the result; she especially liked the sound of the saxophone parts, which almost didn’t make it in. Saxes weren’t standard in film orchestration, and she wasn’t sure the saxophone notations she’d found should be used. She’d assumed the saxes in some of the preexisting scores weren’t used in the original film accompaniment. But “the saxophone is a sound associated with World War I in Europe,” which seemed like one good reason to use them. She also eventually found sax parts in other film music.
So the saxes will be heard at the screening on Saturday; what won’t be heard are sound effects. A prerecorded sound-effect track complete with machine guns was prepared for the original version; unfortunately, it’s long since disappeared.
The screening starts at 2 Saturday at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State. Admission is free but seating is limited; for more info call 747-4850.