On January 28th, at Merkin Concert Hall, Alex de Grassi will be accompanying a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1918 masterpiece Shoulder Arms.
De Grassi, a renowned Grammy-nominated fingerstyle pioneer and Windham Hill recording artist, had originally been looking forward to scoring “Modern Times,” with its strong sense of rhythm accompanying the theme of the mechanization of work, and of people. Copyright issues, though, led to changes in the selection, and he sat down to watch a Chaplin film that was new to him.
“It was made when the U.S. got involved in World War I. It has a very strong sense of `Over there,’ of being in the trenches.”
The first thing de Grassi paid attention to was the film’s sense of rhythm.
“Chaplin’s such a physical performer, there’s always a very physical and rhythmic element to what he does.”
Much of the film, of course, presents an obvious rhythmic identity: that of the march.
“It’s a war movie, so there’s a lot of marching! The first few times I watched through it I found myself tapping out different rhythms, rather than trying to come up with anything melodic on the guitar.”
His experience in other collaborative compositions, he said, has taught him that “trying to latch on to a tempo or rhythm is a good starting point.” He found himself hearing not only 2/4 rhythms but waltzes and “other off-rhythm-things. An off-rhythm can be very clownish, or give a sense of things being off-kilter.
“I’m not sure how melodic this is going to be. There are some obvious pieces of melody that I’m using as placeholders–`Over There,” for example, and `La Marseilleise’—but I’m not sure yet how I’ll use them, or disguise them, or rework them.”
Chaplin’s films, like many movies of the day, were silent only in the sense of not having a built-in soundtrack: when they were released, printed scores were published with them. How did de Grassi address the challenge of not being unduly influenced by these precedents?
“These films, of course, all came with scores, and Chaplin himself composed a lot of the scores. The first few times I watched the film on a DVD, I turned off the soundtrack. Now I’ll check in to hear what the score is doing. It’s all orchestrated, with a particular feel. A lot is sentimental, though there is a bit of irony as well. My approach, I think, will be less sentimental and a little more ironic.”
When he first allowed himself to listen to the original score, did it strike him how similar it was to his own musical ideas, or how different?
“A little of both, I think. When I check in on the score, the thing that’s hard to have a perspective on is the way the film was assembled because of the technology of the time—in other words, the fact that it always looks speeded up. We tend to think, `Oh, it’s all funny,’ because the actual speed of the film is not in `real time,’ but perhaps back then, without hindsight of today’ s technology, people perceived that differently, and did not completely associate the film speed as a cartoonish portrayal.”
The same issue comes up when considering how deeply audiences today associate silent comedies with that distinctive honky-tonk vaudeville piano sound.
“I try not to think about that too much. The soundtrack may be comical, but the music is still working the narrative of the film: there’s fear there, and victory, pride, cockiness. There’s a story here. It’s not all schtick. When I listen to the soundtrack, it reminds me, `Hmm. I need to pay attention to that.’ It’s easy to say, `Oh, it’s period music. There’s a frivolity to it.’ What I have to bear in mind is that, watching it in 1918, it might have had a deeper emotional content. It’s hard to know.”
The way to get at that deeper core, he said, is often to resist the urge to orchestrate and over-complicate the score.
“It’s easy to start thinking about arrangements that are too complex. The collaborations I’ve done in the past have told me that I have to strip the music down to its essence. I consider the process of scoring this film a collaboration, even though the collaborator is finished and gone. So I have to remind myself that you can get complicated, but sometimes a little goes a long way.”
He’s still deciding how many guitars to bring to the performance, because as he imagines the score at the moment, it involves a wide range of sounds: percussive effects caused by drumming on the body of the guitar, drumming with his fingers on the strings, using various implements including a slide, preparing the guitar by sticking various objects under or between the strings, muting, damping and tapping.
“Being able to play with a live audience in a concert hall where you have the chance to make those sounds really well heard, as opposed to in a club or a bar—all those subtleties will really project and carry, I think.”
By Tim Brookes
(Tim is the author of Guitar: An American Life. He blogs regularly on guitar and other matters at www.timbrookesinc.com)