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.”

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.”

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.


One thought on “Reel Music: A Conversation with Sheldon Mirowitz of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

  1. Terrific piece with plenty of insights about live scoring that I would never even think to consider! The frame rate differential Mirowitz mentions is a huge wrinkle in the digital vs. film dilemma.


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