Music for the Cinema

Barry Cullen, Peter Cullen and I were engaged in writing a score for an 80 minute film from 1922. The film, called Wheels of Chance and based on a short story by H.G. Wells, is very much of its time; a comedy of errors and an exploration of the social changes wrought by the rise of the bicycle; the blurring of the lines between classes and the increased freedom bicycles afforded women.

The film was to be shown at a festival was called On Your Bike and it was promoted by the Waterfront and Belfast City Council, although unfortunately it seemed to be a footnote in their marketing.

While we had slightly more than two month’s notice of this project, various difficulties meant that we had about three weeks between receiving the only DVD from the BFI library and the performance date.


I’d be lying if I claimed that any of us had any experience in this area.

Both Barry and I have produced short soundtracks before but these have been simple, non-narrative pieces exploring sonic spaces rather than long-form descriptive movements written to support and explicate a drama.

It’s been a serious learning experience.

Before our final rehearsal I’d thought what we’d end up with would have good moments. The final movement, for example, is really lovely, one of the pursuit sections has evolved into a brilliantly oddball piece of tension, and the theme for the main protagonist is an hilarious earworm of woodwinds, but I thought it would very obviously be a rushed first attempt.  For three people with full-time jobs and a good selection of other musical commitments, I thought we’d acquit ourselves well and be not in the least ashamed of what we were to perform.

As it turned out, the final rehearsal saw everything coalesce, everyone brought out the flourishes they’d been thinking about but had yet to unveil.  From Sunday morning after we packed up our equipment, the red mist had truly come down – we were cooking and ready to serve the beef.

But I have to say, writing a film score for a silent movie is very, very difficult.

For a movie post-“2001: A Space Odyssey” the task is fundamentally different. Hell, “Lawrence of Arabia” marked a sea-change in movie making as far back as 1962, but David Lean’s radical advances were only really starting to become mainstream by the time Coppola filmed The Godfather in 1972.
Digressions aside, the cinema I’m used to is so far removed from that of 1922 as to be a wholly different language, a separate art form.

There are no tracking or panning shots. There are no mood-setting wide shots. Rarely does scene lasts much longer than 10 or 15 seconds without being broken up by on-screen dialogue and if it does it has fixed camera placement for its duration. Every single shot contains one or more of the main characters so there is little scope for pure ambience or mood-setting.

In the process what we have learned about themes, motifs, key changes, reaction themes, timbre, texture, phrasing, tonality, voicing, repetition, suggestion, variation (to name but a few) would fill a thick volume.  But we’d do it again like a shot.

The film was shown in the Waterfront Studio, Belfast at 6pm on Sunday 4th September, its first screening for around 90 years, while we performed our new work live (more details here).  I don’t think either Barry or Pete would contradict me in saying there were a fair amount of jangling nerves pre-show…

Once we got going though, apart from a couple of (ahem) technical issues such as playing to a different edit of the movie than that to which we’d written and rehearsed our score, we came good and presented a much better piece than we expected to nothing but praise and applause from the audience.

Thought for the moment.

I’m listening to AC/DC’s Fly on the Wall for the first time in two decades, on vinyl.
There are some great songs and potentially fat chops on this album, but was it spoiled by production decisions?
It has a very “in the room” production, where it genuinely sounds like they’re playing in a church hall and you are one of fifty people at the far end, loving it. But it just doesn’t work as a reference work.
Like Black Sabbath’s output between Vol.4 and Technical Ecstacy, like most rock music between 1978 and the late 90s, no-one seems to be listening to the guys and girls who have been working with mic placement and room mapping.