Q&A, Phillip Johnston on the Art of Silent Film Music

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a 1926 silhouette animation created by female film pioneer Lotte Reiniger. It is known as a landmark in cinema history and the world’s first known feature-length animated film. Its story is based upon One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales often referred to as The Arabian Nights. Saxophonist, composer and educator Phillip Johnston recently composed a brand new continuous score of 65 minutes of music to be performed live with the film by a quartet of soprano sax, trombone and two keyboards against a pre-recorded track of samples, hooks and live music. He released the music as an album on October 26 via Asynchronous Records.

In our interview, Johnston talks about the process of scoring a silent film, including his work on The Adventures of Prince Achmed and how jazz and improvisation influence his silent film music. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: How did you get into scoring silent films?

Phillip Johnston: I’ve always loved film music. I made my first film score in the early ‘80s and had been working for a number of years in the contemporary film scoring business when some friends of mine – a group called The Club Foot Orchestra in San Francisco – has done a silent film score and performed it live. I thought that would be a perfect thing for me and my agent at the time proposed the idea to the American Museum of the Moving Image, who put on a festival of different contemporary scores for silent films. I loved doing it and that was the beginning of what’s now been 25 years of doing scores for silent films. The first one I did was The Unknown (1927) by Tod Browning and I’ve been continuing steadily, getting more and more into it both as a composer and as a fan and cheerleader for the art form.

What is it like to perform these scores live?

It wasn’t until the end of the ‘20s that sync sound began to be developed and you could prerecord a score; music was always performed live and I find it fascinating that because film wasn’t really valued as an art at this time, there’s this vast body of work and scores that were performed live and rarely documented. The idea that every time a film was shown it had a different score until the end of the silent era, to some degree, is something that I think about a lot.

Once we got to the sync sound era, every film had one single score and one single performance but now, in the modern era where we have live scores for silent films again, every performance of a silent film has a different score in a sense because every live performance is different and I love the return to that quality. Live performance makes it a new, exciting event that has all the kinetics of a live performance plus the addition of working with film and visuals and the interaction between them. The time travel element is another fascinating part of it. I look at the composition and performance of silent film scores as a form of time travel, a chance to collaborate with an artist from 100 years ago.

You also have the opportunity to introduce many people to the silent film art form.

Yes, one of the great pleasures of working in this area is the opportunity to introduce people to this incredibly rich body of work. A lot of people are not familiar with them. I teach a course in the history of silent film music and when I survey my students, most have never seen a silent film and the few who have, have maybe seen a Chaplin film but never Metropolis [Fritz Lang, 1927] or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Robert Wiene, 1920] and when people come to see the performances, they are introduced to the art form and get really excited about it.

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

How does jazz influence your work on silent film music?

The idea of combining improvised music with composed music in the process of creating a silent film score is an interesting topic. A score for film traditionally has very little room for improvisation in it because it has to match the film exactly. However, elements of improvisation have often been used in film scores in general as part of the composed structure. But now, in the modern era, the art form of contemporary scores for silent films is an incredibly rich one for jazz and improvisation because one, generally for silent film you have music all the way through the film, so there’s a big space to fill, and two, you have this kinetic live energy of the live performance, which lends itself to jazz and improvisation.

Silent films offer a very natural place to use improvisation and jazz. People take a lot of different approaches to it. There are people out there who do completely improvised scores to silent films. Most people have some combination of improvisation and composition and most of my scores are like that. Other people write completely composed scores for silent films but in modern silent film music, there is room for all those varieties – from jazz scores to classical scores to folk music scores. There’s been a lot of stuff done recently with electronic scores for silent films. It’s just a very rich field.

How did you end up writing the score for The Adventures of Prince Achmed?

The path that led me to it was a long, complicated one. When I was in New York, I had a great relationship with the people at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and they wanted to commission me to create a new score. We looked at a bunch of films together and one of them was Prince Achmed. It turned out they were making a new print of F.W. Murnau’s Faust [1926] so we ended up doing that. But I always kept Prince Achmed in the back of my mind because I just thought it was an amazing film. When I was doing my practice-based Ph.D., I remembered Prince Achmed and went back and used that for my project and started performing it professionally. It was a path of quite a few years but I’ve always loved animation of different kinds and it seems almost really surprising that I’d never worked on one before so this was the opportunity to do it.

Did you notice any difference?

I’ve never really thought about it before, but I wouldn’t say it has much to do with animation versus real people. I’ve done five complete silent film programs and have tried to make each different from the others in some kind of substantial way. For example, one of my earliest scores was a Georges Melies project that was a collection of about eight [short] films and in each of there’s a different relationship between the music and the film. The next was Page of Madness [Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926] and I decided to use a lot of improvisation; I found a way to structure improvisation exactly linking to what was happening in the film. In Faust, I used songs as well as instrumental music and worked with a librettist and a singer. In Prince Achmed, in addition to live music, I used a pre-recorded audio layer, which is based on samples and loops, and then performed live against that.

The first thing I do with any film is diagram the entire structure and figure out how the form is going to fit with it and I think the fact that this film was episodic in a sense makes it a little different from the conventional narrative that goes from point A to point B led itself to the ideas that I was feeling within the score, which was using elements of minimalism. Part of the idea was to take some thematic material and develop it over an entire score. So, the score had a couple of singular idées fixé that lead through the entire film.

Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

How do you collaborate with your musicians in the process of making your scores for silent films?

The musicians don’t collaborate in the creation of the scores but all my scores have more or less elements that require improvisation. That can vary widely and I try to find a variety of different approaches to combining improvisation and composition, and then take that idea and structure it to work together with the film in the way that fits best with each individual section.

When I perform Prince Achmed live, part of the score is pre-recorded and that includes all the drums. I perform live with me playing the saxophone, James Greening playing the trombone and then I have two keyboard players. Also, some of the keyboard parts and pre-recorded. But when you listen to the record, you can’t really tell because it’s all recorded. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in playing with some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard here in Sydney. The people I’ve worked with on a lot of my projects are among the people who play on the recording of Prince Achmed and my other recent recording, Diggin’ Bones. They’re amazingly versatile, skilled and creative. Just like when I lived in New York and I had a crew of musicians that I used on my film scores and in my different bands, in my music for theater and dance, I’m lucky to have that here in Sydney too. People like Lloyd Swanton and Alister Spence, James Greening, Casey Golden, Nic Cecire, all those people are people that I’ve worked with in a lot of different contexts.

Phillip Johnston with the Prince Achmed ensemble.

Would you say listening to the album version of the score is an event in itself?

I didn’t have the rights to release this film with the music but I needed to record it for the delivery of my final Ph.D. project. Film music has to stand of fall based on its interaction with the film; the real work is the music together with the film and anything other than the film is not really the work. That being said, I’m not really in the position where I have the resources to widely tour my silent film project; I’ve performed them a little, toured them in the U.S., Europe and so on but I can’t do that very widely. So, not that many people are going to get to see that, and that’s unfortunate.

That being said, when I was young and first getting into music, one of the biggest influences on me was listening to recordings of film music. I loved it just as music; composers like Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Bernhard Hermann were tremendous influences on my music. So, I think there’s a tremendous value in audio recordings of film music and I myself got so much pleasure out of them. I still buy lots of recordings of film music because I love the music. It’s something else, something different when it stands on its own but I like to think that these stand on their own as music and are enjoyable to listen to, otherwise I wouldn’t put them out on records.

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