Halloween with Young Frankenstein and Featuring Anderson & Roe

Drama, Created on the Spot

Even before sound came to motion pictures, music was part of the movie-going experience. It was a pragmatic matter in the early days. Projectors were loud machines, and the noise they made could distract from what was unfolding onscreen, so a piano became a theater mainstay. Music drowned out the racket. The gifted musicians that played these instruments (usually piano or organ) were dramatists who used their improvisational skills to help interpret celluloid tales and draw an audience into a film’s embrace. In their own way, they were forerunners of the composers whose scores began to be heard on film soundtracks not long after soundtracks became a staple part of films and the silent era receded into the past. Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe give silent film accompaniment a new spin, performing their arrangements of favorite classical and pop/rock works in the service of three masterpieces of horror. Happy Halloween! 

Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” 
Radiohead: “Paranoid Android”
Ravel: La Valse
Stravinsky: Great Sacred Dance of the Chosen One, from The Rite of Spring
Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre: Bacchanal for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Violin
Anderson & Roe: Ragtime alla turca (after Mozart)
 

Notes on the music by Anderson & Roe:

Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean”
Michael Jackson’s iconic dance hit hints at the sinister side of human nature, recounting a tale of obsession and suspense. Immortalized by an enigmatic, film noir-inspired music video and an out-of-this-world dance move (the Moonwalk), we’ve reimagined the song in an avant-garde, “classical” vein while emphasizing its nocturnal edginess and MJ’s legendary use of rhythm. As you listen to our updated version of this classic song, escape your comfort zone and lose yourself to the thrill of intrigue and innovation.

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Radiohead: “Paranoid Android”
THE MUSIC  Since its appearance on the rock scene in the early nineties, the visionary band Radiohead has continually redefined its sound and aesthetic to brilliant effect. With the album OK Computer (1997) Radiohead fully established itself as a creative force to be reckoned with. The crowning track of the album may well be “Paranoid Android,” a three-part suite clocking in at over six minutes. With a title that references a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the song was originally intended to be humorous. Yet beyond this intention seethes music suggesting something far more complex; an unsettling mix of alienation, violence, and madness prevails throughout. In creating our cover of “Paranoid Android,” we drew inspiration from the song’s epic scope, the strikingly evocative images of the lyrics, and Radiohead front man Thom Yorke’s distinctly emotive singing. Our treatment of the musical material, however, is far from literal; the arrangement takes on a life of its own as it strays from the original’s structure and elaborates frenetically on melodic motives.

THE FILM Much as contemporary blockbusters prioritize CGI wizardry, early films also prized special effects. Developments in cinematography and editing in the early twentieth century helped spawn a new film genre, the “trick film,” in which visual illusions and sleights of hand were the sole focus. Among the early masters were Georges Méliès and the Spanish-French filmmaker Segundo de Chomón (1871-1929). De Chomón’s The Red Spectre (1907) features many of his favorite tricks: hand-colored tinting, multiple exposures, creative editing, and imaginative surrealistic imagery to rival Dalí.

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Ravel: La Valse
THE MUSIC Still as shattering and relevant today as when it was composed nearly a century ago, La Valse is a work of fascinating duality. In Ravel’s vision, the Viennese Waltz is both glorified and deconstructed. Perhaps best known in its orchestral version, Ravel also made transcriptions for two pianos and solo piano. In the preface to the published score of La Valse, Ravel offers the following evocative scenario: “Through breaks in the swirling crowds, waltzing couples may be glimpsed. Little by little they disperse: one makes out an immense hall filled with a whirling crowd. The stage is illuminated gradually. The light of the chandeliers peaks at the fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.” The atrocities surrounding Ravel in the aftermath of World War I incited him to create music of farsighted modernity and urgent eloquence and La Valse continues to resonate in our complex times.

THE FILM D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) was one of the Silent Era’s most accomplished directors. His Birth of a Nation (1915), while a landmark cinematic achievement, continues to be a lightning rod for controversy a century on due to its cringe-worthy depiction of the Old South. Griffith’s early The Sealed Room (1909) is a more straightforward affair, telling a Poe-influenced story of infidelity and a King’s twisted revenge.

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Stravinsky: Great Sacred Dance of the Chosen One, from The Rite of Spring
THE MUSIC From its legendary 1913 premiere in Paris—which, like several compositions of that era, sparked a riotous uproar—to more than a century later, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring continues to electrify with its savage rhythms, harmonic daring, and mythical weightiness. At its core, The Rite of Spring is about primitive instincts and emotions, from the brooding omens at the work’s opening to the terrifying abandon of “The Dancing Earth” heard at the conclusion to Part I. This work bears a greater symbolic import as an encapsulation of the tumultuous sociopolitical climate of the early twentieth century and bespeaks a certain rite of passage that is universal in the human experience: the loss of innocence, the poignancy of discovery, the claiming (or reclaiming) of personal liberation. The Rite of Spring transformed the face of culture, and Stravinsky’s version for piano four-hands brilliantly brings the music’s clashing dissonances, percussive edge, and overwhelming force to the fore.

THE FILM In the composition’s centennial year, we felt inspired to bring the visceral power, timeless relevancy, and symbolic depth of the Rite to a new medium: the big screen. To that end, we let our imaginations go haywire in an effort to translate the mad imagery evoked by the music. This project sparked within us a nearly obsessive devotion every step of the way, from extensive brainstorming sessions on tour to sleepless nights in the editing room. For the sake of the film we destroyed a valuable nineteenth-century organ, plunged into the waters of the Pacific in the middle of the night, traversed the scorching desert clad in tribal masks and heavy robes, threw buckets of colored paint at each other, had millipedes crawl over our hands, and literally played with fire. We went to these extreme lengths because we ultimately had no other choice: we had to stay true to the raw immediacy, colossal scope, and archetypal vision of the music. The genius of Stravinsky’s Rite demanded the sacrifice of our comfort zone, awakening us to startling new levels of audacity and awareness.

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Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre: Bacchanal for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Violin
Danse macabre, the third of Saint-Saëns’s four symphonic poems, was premiered in 1874. The broad waltz theme may be recognized as a variation on the Dies irae, the ancient liturgical chant for the dead. While the Danse macabre is Saint-Saëns’s most frequently performed orchestral work, it was not originally conceived in orchestral terms. Saint-Saëns adapted it from one of his songs for voice and piano, a setting of a verse by French poet Henri Cazalis. With vividness and verve, Saint-Saëns depicts the fantastic tale of Death’s frenzied dance. The work begins with the tolling of midnight bells, after which Death, portrayed as a fiddler, tunes up and commences his waltz. A second theme evokes the roused skeletal celebrants who become increasingly energetic until, with the cock's crow, they disperse and vanish. The musical material in Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre has proven to be ideal for multiple piano treatment, and to date, we have created no fewer than six different compositions based on the original score. In all iterations, we exploit the capabilities of the piano, illustrating the rattling of bones with percussive rhythmic drive and creating atmospheric effects through use of pedal and swirling harmonic figurations.

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Anderson & Roe: Ragtime alla turca (after Mozart)
THE MUSIC In his beloved “Rondo alla Turca” (from his Piano Sonata in A major, K.331), Mozart appropriated a number of characteristics from Turkish military music, most notably a predilection for noise. It was also the perfect piece to utilize the “janissary pedals”—clamorous cymbal, triangle, or bass drum effects—featured on many pianos of Mozart’s day! The world has certainly changed since this music was composed: in Mozart’s time, audiences would have delighted in the frightening yet exciting exoticism of his Turkish Rondo, but to modern listeners, this music does not necessarily sound particularly exotic. We composed our Ragtime alla turca to help audiences connect with the spirit of Mozart’s original. Just as he appropriated elements of the Turkish style into his “Rondo alla Turca,” we have appropriated elements of Mozart’s music into our composition. Although our piece diverts considerably from Mozart’s rondo, we sought to capture the utter joyousness and revelry, folksiness and virtuosity, of the original work.

THE FILM Buster Keaton (1895-1966) is one of our most enduring comedians, his boater hat, hair-raising stunt work, and eternally deadpan expression engraved into our collective consciousness. In The Haunted House (1921, directed by Keaton and Edward F. Cline) Keaton is an unwitting bank teller who stumbles into a bounty of booby traps in a bank robbers’ “haunted” lair.

—Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, with silent film notes by Steven Ziegler

(October 2017)