Passionate about ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’
It’s a Saturday afternoon in May, but 17 young musicians and one professor aren’t out enjoying the sun. They’re rehearsing a score that seven of them have composed for Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” It’s the latest effort from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, which under the leadership of Berklee College of Music film-scoring professor Sheldon Mirowitz has composed and performed a dozen scores to such classics of the Silent Era as “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) and “Sunrise” (1927).
Last October, the BSFO had its first overseas performance, in Istanbul, playing its score for the Lon Chaney “Phantom of the Opera” (1925). The “tour” for “Passion” has more dates but covers a bit less distance.
The BSFO debuts the new score with a screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre June 6, at 7 p.m., as part of the Coolidge’s Sounds of Silents series. A screening with accompaniment from the orchestra takes place June 9 at the Cabot Street Cinema, in Beverly, at 7 p.m. The tour concludes June 20, with a 7:30 p.m. screening with live accompaniment at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, in Vineyard Haven.
“Honestly, whenever I’m stressed, I say, ‘OK, we’re going to take a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard,” Eunike Tanzil says with a laugh. “That’s how Sheldon tricks us! That’s how he makes us do it.”
Tanzil, 20, is one of the composers. They’re all from Berklee, where some 300 students major in film scoring. This latest iteration of the orchestra also includes musicians from Boston University, the New England Conservatory, and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
“There’s no better place in the world to do this,” says Mirowitz, of the wide variety of young musical talent the orchestra has to draw on. Himself a composer of film scores, he’s a three-time Emmy nominee.
Almost three-quarters of Berklee students who’ve written BSFO scores have jobs in the film industry, as composers or film editors. The international composition of the class indicates what a magnet for talent the BSFO is. Tanzil is from Indonesia. The other young composers are from Japan (Eri Chichibu), Malaysia (Shaun Chen), Brazil (Luis Zanforlin), Spain (Pedro Osuna), Israel (Ehood Gershuni), and Taiwan.
The Taiwanese student, Richard Chen, is conduting this rehearsal. Each of the students conducts his or her portion of the score. Among the musicians he’s conducting are percussionists, keyboard players, a flutist, violinist, cellist, viola player, horn player, and oboist (doubling on English horn).
“Our goal is to make the films that we work on better with our music,” Mirowitz writes in an e-mail. “If we cannot do that, we should not do the job — and it is a job, as I like to remind my students (‘this is not a class — it’s a gig’).”
Mirowitz adds that “Passion” is one of his favorite films and had long been on his short list of films for the BSFO to tackle. A visually austere yet emotionally overwhelming depiction of Joan’s 1431 trial for heresy and execution at the stake, it’s “undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the era (perhaps of all time).”
Dreyer’s film is celebrated for its unrelenting use of close-ups, most of them of Maria Falconetti, as Joan. She gives what some have called the most powerful performance in film history.
Not only does that set the bar very high for the BSFO composers, “Passion” is unlike anything they’ve seen at a multiplex. Lack of dialogue is the least of it. As Chichibu, 27, diplomatically puts it, “The film itself is a little bit different from my background.”
The class began with a screening, in February. Working on the score would give the students an appreciation for the film that wasn’t originally there.
“It was really, really boring,” Tanzil says. “My first impression was, how can we make this interesting?”
“That was my second impression,” says Chichibu.
To ensure continuity, Mirowitz provides the students with themes and motifs. “But we put it in our instrumentation and our own variations,” Tanzil says, “and some students come up with other motifs.” Mirowitz then apportions the film equally to the students for scoring. In this case, it’s about 15 minutes each. “Even though, we’re seven, we’re making one film,” says Chichibu.
Three of the 17 musicians at the rehearsal are singers. There will be four for the actual performance. The BSFO has twice used vocalists before, but never to this extent. Dreyer based his film on the trial transcript. Using those texts, Mirowitz came up with lyrics. The result is in everything but name an unstaged opera — or, rather, the staging is on screen.
“The singers will be synchronizing the transcript to the screen,” says Sean McMahon in a telephone interview. McMahon is the incoming chairman of the Berklee film-scoring department. “So the students have to write songs that have lyrics. That is tremendously difficult. That is a huge logistical hoop to jump through.”
That’s one reason for Tanzil thinking with some frequency about that Vineyard-bound ferry, come the end of June.
If that’s not enough encouragement, there’s Mirowitz, who’s as much cheerleader as teacher. Tanzil breaks into a grin. “Every time we say, ‘Oh, it’s so hard.’ Sheldon says. . .” Chichibu joins in, and they say in unison, “ ‘Guys, we’re doing something that’s never been done before!’ ”