Silent Film Scoring 101 with Cliff Retallick
December 18, 2017
For a while now, I've wanted to interview composer Cliff Retallick, who probably accompanies more silent film screenings in Los Angeles than anyone.* Since I still haven't gotten around to actually inquiring about an interview, I was quite pleased when the Voyager Institute, billed as "a lecture series that educates, invigorates, and exhilarates," announced that Retallick would participate in a silent film composition Q&A this past September. Lucky for me, his conversation covered many of the topics I would have asked him anyway, so I guess I'm off my self-imposed hook. As a special treat, Retallick also entertained with live short performances peppered throughout the discussion, showcasing how he'd score scenes in films ranging from The Thief of Bagdad (1924) to Sunrise (1927) to Buster Keaton’s short Cops (1922).
*by my unofficial count. Michael Mortilla is another musician whose name frequently pops up alongside silent programs.
Voyager Institute founder Bret Berg, left, and Cliff Retallick, right. (Photo by Kim Luperi)
Please enjoy some of the afternoon’s highlights below:
Was it the music or the movies that enticed Retallick to this field?
Definitely the music, in particular, the piano. Retallick's been interested in music since he was young, and when his parents gifted him a Gershwin Plays Gershwin record, he fell in love with the style and the way Gershwin played. Retallick learned through listening and imitation, which served him well when he started scoring silents, especially since he wasn’t well versed in the silent era before embarking on this path.
I'm not sure if this is the same record Retallick cherished...but I'm guessing it's close.
The one question I’ve been dying to ask: Does Retallick watch the film before or go in cold?
At the beginning, he was given screeners to view before a performance; UCLA would sometimes even project the picture for him if they didn’t have a VHS or DVD copy. But that was 10 years ago when he first started accompanying silent films. The venues soon realized that an advance screening didn’t matter much to Retallick, so they stopped going to all that trouble! For the last 8 years, Retallick’s usually gone in cold. He genuinely prefers the thrill that comes with watching alongside the audience, and he takes pride in the fact that no one can (usually) tell he's viewing most of these pictures for the first time. However, while the process gives him an adrenaline rush, Retallick also admitted that performing for so long - usually about 90 consecutive minutes or so - wears him out. (I can imagine! I would tire after about 15 minutes!)
Revisiting past work: Yes or no?
Though Retallick's wife records all of his performances, he doesn't often re-examine previous work. Even when he's scheduled to repeat a picture he's already accompanied, like Sunrise (1927), he quipped that it would be too hard to go back and study his 'notes,’ so he simply makes it up on the spot instead. (He also confessed that he usually doesn't remember what he played in the past!)
F. W. Murnau's Sunrise, starring Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, is one of Retallick's favorite films to perform alongside.
The "file cabinet of tropes"
As he creates most of his score on the spot, Retallick was asked if he maintains a "file cabinet of tropes" in his head that he can easily segue into when certain situations appear onscreen. Though he joked the cabinet was quite dusty, yes, he definitely gravitates towards select musical schemes; for instance, he's got a variety of go-to tunes for stair sequences, ranging from funny to suspenseful depending on the action’s tone.
Does Retallick study 1920s sheet music?
No, he’s picked up cues from listening and making things his own over time, as musicians do. Retallick’s MFA in music composition also taught him how music informs and guides our emotions and supplements what we see on the screen, and he is acutely aware of the fact that his score can transform the way in which an audience interprets the action; for instance, a love scene can skew suspenseful, romantic, or comedic, all depending on the direction the music steers us.
Retallick demonstrating how to score a comedy: Buster Keaton's Cops. (Photo by Kim Luperi)
"Automatic handwriting" vs. plotting it out
Though Retallick usually has a rough idea of the film's plot before going in (and thus, thoughts on the types of pieces he'll probably play), for the most part, the process becomes "automatic handwriting." In fact, he doesn't like to mull over the task before sitting in front of the piano, but rather fall into it completely while he's performing. On that note, Retallick shared a funny anecdote involving LA movie house staple, actor Clu Gulager, who termed Retallick’s recitals mystical experiences. At the time, the composer politely nodded and agreed, but when he thought about it, he realized performing puts him in a trance-like state. Along those lines, he said he frequently experiences a "weird divorce" of the body, in which he can peer out at the audience for a moment and return his gaze to the screen without missing a musical beat.
The longest film Retallick performed for...
... was 6 hours long. Well, technically they were films – odd reels of them. Yes, Retallick accompanied 6 hours of Soviet writer/editor/director Dziga Vertov’s work, including Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and select other pictures and newsreels, for an audience of one: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. Turan's review policy states that he'll only write about a movie if he can see it in a theater, which led to the rather bizarre assignment. As per usual, Retallick couldn’t recall what he played, but he guessed it was probably "jagged," in line with the content’s themes and tones.
I'd be curious to hear what Retallick played for the Vertov films, including Man with a Movie Camera.
And the weirdest…
… was a silent programmed as part of a special series curated by an Italian artist at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater. Retallick attests the short would qualify as pornography even today, so you know it must have been pretty explicit. Apparently, the woman who let the artist select the program saw it right before the show started and got quite a shock! During her introduction, she presented the short with the disclaimer that if any of the audience members needed to leave, they could do so. (The artist curator urged those who wanted to close their eyes to listen to Retallick play instead!) With that, the atmosphere shifted, which certainly made the performance all the more peculiar, Retallick recalled.
Have you ever heard Cliff Retallick accompany a silent film? If so, what were your thoughts on the music?