Reel Music: A Conversation with Sheldon Mirowitz of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

By Tricia Patterson

In a dark theater lit only by the black and white images flickering on the screen, an undergraduate punctuates the air with a baton, leading an orchestra in a musical composition they created to illustrate the silent film narrative projected overhead. As their segment hastens towards its close, they literally – and surreptitiously – pass the baton to the next student conductor, the audience barely registering a change in command.

“It is a high wire act,” says Sheldon Mirowitz, professor at Berklee College of Music and director of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO). “It has a vibe in the room that is hard to capture.”

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BSFO performing alongside F.W. Murnau’s, The Last Laugh, at the 20th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2015

The students in question comprise the BSFO, a revolving orchestra that has been balancing on this wire for over five years now. Boasting the only bachelor’s degree program in film scoring in the United States, Berklee attracts some of the best and brightest musicians, growing from 40 majors in the early 1990s to around 400 in present day. And out of those 400, five to seven of the top composers are selected to enroll in the Scoring Silent Films class. From there, students have a single semester to compose an original score for a silent film commissioned by the Coolidge Corner Theatre in nearby Brookline. Mirowitz himself constructs the thematic materials and overall structure of the film score, then divides the film up into 15 to 18-minute reels. Each student composer is assigned one reel to orchestrate.

“We end up with a 400 to 700-pages long score, then we rehearse with the band for a week, then we premier, then we tour” says Mirowitz. “It’s composing for movies, but kind of on steroids.”

The course began almost six years ago, when the Coolidge Corner Theatre reached out to Berklee about commissioning a score for their Sounds of Silents series. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.

“They contacted us and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if Berklee students did a score?’ And I said ‘Yeah! I can make a course out of it.’ It was such a success, we kept doing it,” recalls Mirowitz. “I’ve been doing music for 40 years, and this is the only thing I know people will always go crazy about.”

The relationship has spurred great success after 11 features. In 2013, the BSFO received a Special Commendation from the Boston Society of Film Critics. They have performed at illustrious venues such as the Boston Pops and the Kennedy Center. Last year they were invited to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, who then recommended them to the Murnau Stiftung, a foundation chartered to preserve the work of director F.W. Murnau, as well as other German films produced between 1900 and 1960. The BSFO are now negotiating to provide the official score for their latest offering, the North American release of the 1925 E.A. Dupont film, Varieté.  

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Still from the new restoration of E.A. Dupont’s, Variete.

“It is a really amazing movie. It was extricated when it came out, and things were cut because of controversial elements like breasts and a rape scene. You couldn’t really understand everything that was going on,” Mirowitz explains. “The new release has all the materials back in it, and the movie is very textured. It is bracketed, told in flashback – there is jealousy, redemption – it’s got everything. And our composition reflects that – we even have accordions. It’s a great score.”

Due to their accomplishments and growth, the BSFO have changed the structure of the class this year. Instead of producing one score in one semester, they have extended the class to cover two semesters. But having more time and the brightest minds does not ensure easy achievement. Film scoring is still fraught with many inherent challenges, such as precision timing alignment with frame rates.

“In silent film scoring, frame rates are a huge issue. Until sounds began to be integrated into film, frame rates could vary anywhere from 18 to 24 frames per second, and it is all on celluloid. And now you have to play it back on modern projectors, which run at 24 frames per second, so sometimes the film will be running on a different speed than the score you wrote for it,” explains Mirowitz. “I used to be devoted to celluloid, but now I am a big proselytizer for making digital version of the movies, if they are at the correct frame rate.”

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Still from the new restoration of E.A. Dupont’s, Variete

Even into their sixth year, the BSFO cannot always anticipate this dilemma, sometimes leaving them reworking whole compositions in the final weeks leading up to their performance.

“For Varieté, the work print we were using to write with was running at 25 frames per second, but it turns out the film actually runs at 24 frames per second – the DVD from Europe was running fast, so our score was initially minutes off by the end of the movie,” says Mirowitz. “We wrote for a month before realizing it was different, and then we had to get a new work print made. And it doesn’t have subtitles, so we are relying on my German – which isn’t great!”

Catch the premier of the BSFO’s exciting new score for Varieté, May 2nd 2016 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

A Walk Down Vampire Lane

By John Campopiano

As a horror fan and overall film nut, I know firsthand how exciting it can be to visit the filming locations from your favorite movies. From Martha’s Vineyard, where JAWS was filmed, to the alleyways of Georgetown, where much of THE EXORCIST took place, to the original Michael Myers house in South Pasadena, CA, these movie locations have and will likely always be popular destinations for film fanatics.

With all of the recent buzz about the NOSFERATU remake (with David Lee Fisher in the director’s chair and monster regular Doug Jones slated to play Count Orlok himself), I thought it might be fun to give Dread Central readers a glimpse into my own history and fascination with NOSFERATU (including the 1979 Werner Herzog remake, NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE). And what better way to talk about a film than to journey to where it was made.

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I first saw F. W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist horror film Nosferatu (aka NOSFERATU, EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS) with my mother back in the early 2000s. The copy we had at that time was the remastered DVD edition hosted by David Carradine with music by Type O Negative(!). Admittedly, I’m not much of a metal fan, but no doubt the booming sounds from Type O Negative (particularly the vocals by late frontman, Peter Steele) helped to burn a lasting visual and audible impression on me.

During and since those first viewings, I’ve dreamed of visiting the land where the film was shot so I could walk in the steps of Count Orlok himself and surround myself in what has always felt to me like an otherworldly place – something out of a dark and twisted fairy tale. Finally, in late 2015, I got my chance…and it was an unforgettable experience.

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The majority of NOSFERATU was filmed throughout Germany – though Murnau did shoot several scenes in what is now Slovakia. (The Slovakian exteriors were supposed to represent the Transylvanian countryside). Within Germany the production spent much of its time in the far north, specifically the towns of Lübeck and Wismar – both of which are gorgeous Hanseatic cities nestled along the Baltic Sea.

While traveling through Germany this past November, I spent two days in Lübeck tracking down the places seen in this iconic, German rendition of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA (much has been written on the history of the conflict between Murnau and Stoker’s estate) – from the Salzspeicher, or salt houses (buildings used to portray  Count Orlok’s home in the fictional town of Wisbourg), to the historic home of Hutter and Ellen, the film’s supporting actors. Thankfully, during my trip I was able to hunt down more than just these two locations, all the while fulfilling a dream I’ve had since those days of first experiencing the film with my mother and, of course, Peter Steele!

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Inside the Booth

By Steph Pixley

I recently had the opportunity to catch the theatrical premier of a new film by director Peter Flynn, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. No, this wasn’t the 2004 Nicholas Cage film of the same title, instead it was a thoughtful, beautifully shot, and timely documentary. It dug into the transition of movie houses across the country from film to digital projection, told through the eyes of the people who arguably know the subject most intimately, the projectionists themselves.

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Ivy Moylan, executive director of the Brattle Theater, watches the film from the projection room. (photo by Jesse Costa/WBUR)

To show the evolution of movie theaters and film projection over the past half century, the film gives viewers a personal tour of a few movie houses around the country with the projectionists who used to work there as our guides. We see the ruins of the Michigan Theater, a movie palace turned parking lot in Detroit, the struggling but still opulent Lansdowne Theater in Pennsylvania, and even the digital setup at the Coolidge. Seeing these old and abandoned movie houses is like looking through a time machine. You can easily imagine families dressed in their finest being ushered to their seats to see the weekly show. These movie houses were built to be a destination and not a casual venue as we think of them today. Projectionists were trained in the art of the perfect show: opening and closing the curtain with perfect timing so that the audience never saw the white screen and transitioning reels flawlessly so no one ever knew there was a man behind the curtain were both key to ensuring the film ran without a hitch. By these standards, in some ways the digital transition has provided the ultimate movie going experience: today when you arrive at a theater, the show is already playing in the form of trailers and advertisements that have been preprogrammed, even before the show really starts. The audience will never get a chance to see the blank white screen.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film was the unearthing of forgotten projectionist booths across the country. Most booths were and continue to be hidden from view, at the back of the house (or even hidden behind the screen as is the case at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA), and behind unassuming doors. Most moviegoers will never even notice them, aside from the flickering light over their heads while seated or the small windows along the back wall of the theater, so in some ways it’s unsurprising that when the filmmakers trekked their way up the flights of stairs at the ruins of the Victory Theater in Holyoke, MA, they found the projectionist booth largely untouched, aside from some animal carcasses and a thick layer of dust. It’s not all gloom and doom for the art of film projecting however. With last winter’s release of, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, on 70mm film, the local Boston Light & Sound suddenly had an order for hundreds of 70mm film projectors. To fill their order, co-founders Chapin Cutler and Larry Shaw resurrected and restored projectors that were headed for the landfill.

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Victory Theater in Holyoke, MA (photo by Tony Mateus)

The projectionists themselves seemed to be split about the future of their profession with the dawn of the digital age. Some embraced the transition as just another advancement in film, much like sound and then color were in their dawn, while others viewed digital film as a threat to their livelihood and that of small-scale movie houses. Unsurprisingly, digital film doesn’t require any hands on work during projection, so movie houses can grow exponentially and play more and more films without the need to hire more projectionists. Meanwhile, nostalgic projectionists mourn the loss of the tactile experience of projecting a film and film geeks worry about the loss of quality in the transition from 70mm film to digital.

Regardless of their outlook, all projectionists seemed to mourn the loss of the presence of the hulking body of the projector itself in their booths. For the time being it seems that theaters are making a compromise of sorts, by investing in new technology and retaining film projectors for special screenings. So, the next time you decide to see a movie pay attention to how its being projected, and thank the projectionist on the way out!

The Museum of Everyday Life

By Clare Dolan

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The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, VT

Perhaps the best, most basic introduction to The Museum of Everyday Life can be found in a text written on the occasion of its inaugural exhibition in 2011:

“The creation of The Museum of Everyday Life grew out of the following questions: What would it be like to imagine a museum which looked like a giant cabinet of curiosity, but filled with perfectly familiar objects rather than exotic ones? Could there be an institution which, rather than preserving rare and “authentic” objects, dedicated itself to deteriorating objects of no monetary value, but of immense ordinary-life consequence? What would it look like to defy the commodity-based model of collection and display? And how might it be possible to create exhibits by soliciting contributions from the public, to create massive participatory collections of objects and personal stories? Our goal is to explore, analyze and celebrate everyday life objects. This museum is the co-creation of all of us who live ordinary lives and have relationships with ordinary objects. Its purpose is a heroic, slow-motion cataloging of life; a detailed, theatrical expression of gratitude and love for the minuscule and unglamorous lives of the unfamous. We celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch everyday.

In addition to a robust and ever-expanding permanent collection, our special featured exhibits have explored ordinary objects such as the safety pin and the match. These exhibits look at the objects in-depth, tracing their surprisingly fascinating origins, and additionally presenting a wide array of unique perspectives and uses of the objects. The creation of these special featured exhibits has involved the input of many people, from neighbors to college students, from fanatical collectors to local artists and performers, all of whom have donated their time helping to construct exhibits, maintain and improve the buildings and grounds, advertise, and perform at openings and events.

The Museum has three components: 1) The Museum of Everyday Life Philosophy Department, involving the production and publication of theoretical writing about people and their relationship to objects, curatorial methodologies, and encylcopedism, 2) The Museum of Everyday Life Performance Company, which creates puppet shows and performances in an ongoing effort to examine everyday life via the life of objects, and lastly, but most important 3) The Museum of Everyday Life Exhibitions and Collections, comprised of actual exhibits which make the theoretical work tangible and concrete. We are located on Rt 16 about 5.5 miles south of Glover village in Northeastern Vermont, and here, in the imagination of the beholder…”

The Museum has been something I’ve carried around in my head for a long time– an idea, a sensibility, and a wish. When I bought a dilapidated house and barn in remote rural Vermont in 2004, I immediately indulged in fantasies of what it could become. But it took me until the spring of 2010 to make my first exhibition. And it wasn’t until 2011 that the first official Museum of Everyday Life exhibit: “Locofocos, Lucifers, and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match,” inaugurated its opening season.

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International matchbooks from the exhibit, “Locofocos, Lucifers and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match”

In the beginning, I approached the museum mostly in a spirit of fun, wanting to play with the museum as Establishment, to mock the high seriousness and expense of these institutions. I started by writing a manifesto and making declarations about what a museum “should” be (see “The First manifesto of the Museum of Everyday Life”). But as I became more and more absorbed in understanding the actual mechanisms of arrangement and display, and the way different display strategies can encourage different feelings and responses in the viewer/participant, I began to more seriously develop the idea of the homemade museum as a real and potential tool for transforming our relationship to our lives – helping us to be both more self reflective and present in our day to day moments, to transform the way we think about being “ordinary” people and the mundane parts of being human. I would like to force all of us to look more closely at the questions “what do we value?” and “in what way do we value?” and “what objects surround us and why?”

The understanding I have now of the “everyday” is the foundation of everything I make, perform, and write about. I have discovered that this is my central concern, and gives coherence not only to my art projects but also to my politics, to how I try to live my life.

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Bread and Puppet Circus, 2009

I started forming this sensibility when I worked at the Bread and Puppet Theater, which was where I “grew up” as an artist and learned how to think about art-making and living. Bread and Puppet gave me an example of how one artist, (founder and Director Peter Schumann) and subsequently a whole constellation of people who have worked with the theater over its 52-year existence, have found ways to integrate an art practice with fierce engagement with the rest of the world, and to not forget or leave behind the dumb normal tasks of life that we spend 90% of our time doing. Schumann is a genius at connecting his relentless art-making to everything else: the world, its politics and people, everything that happens culturally and rhetorically and politically, plus the sunrise and sunset, eating, sleeping, scratching, getting dressed, sneezing, pooping, etc etc. Inspired by this, but being my own person, a woman of a particular age, I have developed my own perspective, and emphasis, and tactics. But the Museum of Everyday Life is my ultimate expression of this understanding: a locus where the everyday object is the vehicle for examining the intersection of the Ordinary and the larger world stage of politics, power, economics, historic events, natural disasters – the “big” things.

At the same time, the museum is also a profoundly intimate space. The Museum of Everyday Life lives inside each of us, a vast and echoing cabinet of curiosities, every minute of every day filling our endless drawers and cases with new additions to the permanent collection. My choice of the match as the subject matter of our first exhibition reflects both this intimacy and its connection to the “larger” world. A simple household match hums with danger and hope. When we strike it for a moment we hold between finger and thumb the Promethean gift of Possibility. Each match is a tiny revolution, a promise of radical transformation. The match reminds us that all objects in some way come from the human body. Not only does the design of the match accommodate the requirements of the thumb and forefinger which must be able to grasp it, and the shapes of cup handles and bowls, for example, mirror the human hand, but also the bowl and the cup and the match echo the very shape of human hunger and thirst, the body’s need for heat, the eye’s requirement for light in order to see. Every object in our museum of everyday life speaks to the body, amplifying it, extending it, the way an echo in a deep canyon empowers a whisper. Belying their status of apparent insignificance, these humble, mundane things toil away endlessly to unburden us of the vast problematic contingencies of the body.

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Title: Woman-Shaped Toothbrush. This toothbrush was found by Ron Kelley in 1985 when he moved into an apartment at 520 E. 11th. St. in NYC. Several years later Ron left the city for Southern Vermont. During the spring of 1990 his wife discovered the toothbrush lolling about on his desk. It surprised her. A lively conversation ensued. Since that conversation, this toothbrush was removed from Ron’s desk and brought down to the tool section in their basement where it languished for 24 years until it was resurrected for this exhibit, titled, “Toothbrush from Twig to Bristle In All Its Expedient Beauty”

Just as the bowl and the cup handle and the match are shaped by the demands and needs of the body, so also do the objects in the museum of everyday life record our attention and ministrations. The upholstery on the arm of a couch is worn smooth by caressing elbows, the chipped corner of a lacquered box is carefully glued back into place, a favorite wallet is creased and cracked by being opened and closed countless times. These things bear the proof of the lives we have led, the things we have done. They remember us.

In Syria, where everything is on fire, millions of people are on the move, carrying their last, salvaged possessions on their backs. Recently, the nation of Denmark declared its right to confiscate cash and valuables carried by refugees. Humanely, it claimed, excluding items of “sentimental value” from seizure. But what is sentimental? And what are “valuables”?

A gift from a lover, a family heirloom, a note, a paperclip, a pocket knife, a picture frame: in the museum of our everyday life a million invisible threads are tied to our fingers, ears, lips, and eyes, which are tied to every object, which are tied to the lips, ears, fingers, eyes and hearts of other people. The web is invisible. The object is seen, can be picked up, and cradled. Objects have secret powers that are not easily understood. In the noisy world of what we call our “popular culture” (the clangor of video and cell App and cinema and mp3 and reality show, of celebrity and specialty and infamy) the secret powers of the ordinary can appear to be muffled, smothered. Until the next hurricane. Until the lights go out.

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Pencil sharpener exhibit

These are some of the reasons I am compelled to pay such close attention to ordinary objects, and why I feel they deserve not just one museum, but many museums. And because I am in love with the visual vocabulary that is available within the museum form – boxes and frames and short texts and titles, vitrines, dioramas, curtains, drawers, shelves, pedestals, maps, doorways – I take particular pleasure in putting together the exhibitions on my own. This past February I picked the special featured object for our upcoming season and then began spreading the word. People have responded from all over, sending everything from ideas, associations, ephemera, suggestions of where to find multiples of the object, art made out of the object, special examples of the object, and unusual uses of the object. I do a lot of research and scour garage sales, the internet and my neighbors’ barns and basements for objects. Slowly an assemblage materializes. The fun is in sorting through it, arranging, describing and contextualizing – giving it shape. That is how the exhibitions come to be.

That’s the story of The Museum of Everyday Life.