Graduate Student Composers Write for Silent Film

By Michael Accinno, Arts Initiative Story Corps

In the early decades of the twentieth century, silent black-and-white films were typically accompanied by live music. Film scores played by pianists, organists, and small chamber groups provided neighborhood theaters with a wordless soundtrack that, out of necessity, included variations from performance to performance. At the final concert of the academic year presented by the Empyrean Ensemble, contemporary composers, musicians, and filmmakers will come together to explore the creative possibilities that can be opened up through the intermingling of moving image and live music.

For this concert, students in the music department’s PhD program in composition and theory created film scores for an eclectic mix of historical and contemporary short films. The Empyrean Ensemble, the department’s contemporary music ensemble-in-residence, will perform all of the works on the program.

“We’ve had a silent film project on our wish list for some time,” explains Empyrean co-director Kurt Rohde. “A lot of our graduate composers are so used to controlling every aspect of the creative process. We thought that having them work with filmmakers could give them the freedom and license to explore new musical approaches.”

For graduate composer Bryce Cannell’s score, Amanesis, Cannel collaborated with filmmaker Joy Li on a short film that explores the shifting contexts of familiar geometric objects. Circles, rectangles, and other shapes are first presented in abstract form, but gradually, their presence within a man-made landscape at the end of the film becomes clear.

According to Cannell, who viewed the film before composing the score, he immediately began to think about musical analogies to cinemagraphic techniques employed within the film: “I was really interested in the idea of memory, and how both the music and the film can be regarded as recalling past memories.”

Memory also played an important role in the score composed by graduate student Gabriel Bolaños Chamorro for the historical film A Trip Down Market Street. Shot by an unknown creator in 1905, the short film follows a San Francisco cable car as it barrels down Market Street toward the Ferry Building. Pedestrians, bicycles, and horse-drawn carriages repeatedly dash in front of the cable car at the last second, as if they are completely unaware of tram’s presence.

Shipped to New York days before the 1906 earthquake and fire, the film represents an important documentary artifact of pre-earthquake San Francisco. For Bolaños Chamorro, whose musical style is strongly concerned with exploring the physical and acoustic properties of sound, his interpretation of the film emerged as fundamentally sound-based: “The sudden entrances of pedestrians and vehicles seemed really musical to me. As a result, there a lot of rapid, sweeping gestures within the score that correspond nicely to what’s happening in the film.”

The Empyrean Ensemble’s concert, New Music from Davis, is scheduled for June 4 at 7 p.m. in the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre. A pre-concert lecture and discussion at 6:15 p.m. will include all of the graduate student composers.


Gabriel Bolaños Chamorro: A Trip Down Market Street for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano, and Percussion

William Cooper: Judas’ Betrayal for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano, and Percussion

Alex Van Gils: Still Life With Fruit for Video, Alto Flute, Bass Clarinet, and Viola

Bryce Cannell: Anamnesis for Bass Clarinet, Viola, Percussion, and Piano

Garrett Shatzer: The Shifts & the Breaks for Flute, Bass Clarinet, Percussion, Violin, Cello, and Piano

Ben Irwin: Synapse for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano

Hendel Almétus: Rêves Transcendants for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano, and Percussion


Admission: $8 Students & Children, $20 Adults | Classical Cabaret Seating