This is an overview of the main themes and selected variations from Johannes Contag’s score for “The Crowd” (King Vidor, 1928), one of the masterpieces of the silent film era. The score, written as a live accompaniment for 12-piece chamber orchestra, was premiered to great acclaim at the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival. The studio recording presented here is a faithful adaptation of the live version.
Wellington/New Zealand’s innovative SMP Ensemble, which here revisits its cinema performance, frequently evokes the atmosphere of an American 1920s parlour band. The ragtime-infused piano is an intimate-sounding old upright rather than a classical grand; the strings delve into the impassioned vibrato associated with silent film music (as well as providing occasional flourishes of ukulele), the winds are dominated by the proto-jazz colours of clarinet and bass clarinet, and the percussion takes the form of the then-emerging ‘trap set’. The ensemble also effortlessly merges in and out of more traditional orchestral idioms, instilling the necessary gravitas when the film’s narrative turns to drama and tragedy.
Contag’s compositional aim was not to reinterpret “The Crowd” from a contemporary perspective, as is often the case with new scores for silent films, but rather to emphasise its existing qualities. While the orchestration and stylistic leanings such as ragtime and the Charleston aim to transport the listener back to the film’s original milieu, the score is nevertheless firmly rooted in the present thanks to its increased attention to narrative detail. Today’s audiences have high expectations when it comes to slice-of-life character drama, and a nuanced, sensitive soundtrack can do wonders to bring out a film’s psychological dynamics. Given the seminal contribution of “The Crowd” to the silent era at its very peak, the composer had the benefit of hindsight to produce a score that responds to the compelling narrative finesse and candour presented in King Vidor’s masterpiece.
SMP Ensemble line-up for “The Crowd":
Hermione Johnson – piano
Martin Jaeneke – violin
Alix Schultze – violin
Peter Barber – viola
Charles Davenport – cello
Louis van der Mespel – bass
Mitchell McEwen – flute
Mark Cookson – clarinet
Nick Walshe – clarinet, bass clarinet
Shannon Digby – bassoon
Johannes Contag – ukulele, percussion
Vincent Hardaker – conductor (recording)
Karlo Margetić – conductor (live)