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Talking War Pictures with composer Jamie Saxe

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Jamie Saxe on War Pictures

Assistant Exhibition Curator, Fiona Trigg, talks with Jamie Saxe, composer for our touring exhibition, War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918.

In creating the soundtrack for War Pictures, we wanted to present a wide range of different music Australian audiences would have heard accompanying silent films in their local cinemas, everything from solo piano through to full orchestral scores. With this in mind, we approached musician and composer Jamie Saxe to put together a mix of both original compositions and adaptations of existing recordings to match each of the 32 items in the screening program. Jamie has written music for a range of TV and film programs, but had never worked with silent film before. 

Fiona Trigg: What makes writing music for silent film different from writing for sound film?

Jamie Saxe: The advent of film was really the beginning of a new musical language and the development of a lot of musical conventions that began to assist in the story-telling process. Music had, of course, existed in theatre and opera but film brought on a whole new perspective to composing for action and underpinning story. In 'talkies', one has to consider working around dialogue and atmosphere, effects tracks. Music is really only one part of a more complex soundscape.

I guess with silent film there is greater attention to the music as it was often the only sound component. With the absence of dialogue and sound effects the music would often take on a more 'literal' role or seem more overstated than a modern score in the way it mirrored action on screen and told a story.

FT: What did you discover through your research into the history of music and silent film?

JS: Certainly in smaller theatres in Australia, a piano or a small ensemble would often be used, and theatre organs were common right through until the 1940s. Orchestras also played in larger theatres. The birth of foley and live sound effects also occurred during this time. I created a sound effects track for the Chaplin short, A Film Johnnie. These comic effects worked well with comedy and slapstick films but could easily lampoon or trivialise more serious subjects.

FT: What films in War Pictures did you find the most challenging to compose for?

JS: The Battle of the Somme (1916) was the film I really wanted to get right. I had tried a more dramatic, heroic theme and sensed immediately that that type of tone was not creating the right mood. Possibly because this film is documentary in nature, it really felt as if you were staring back at ghosts. The men in this film face machine-gun fire 30 minutes after this footage is shot and many would not have survived. You see so much in the faces of these young men. It is certainly a point during the war where reality really set in and society shifted from endorsing duty and adventure to seeing the waste, carnage, insanity and futility of the war. I wanted the music to capture this. 

The overall challenge of the project was deciding how 'literal' to be about presenting a cohesive sound for the film. One approach would have been to write music for a set ensemble so that the music did in fact sound like it was being played live in a theatre. We wanted to use music from the time and hence decided that including original period recordings in conjunction with original scores was the way to go. We wanted to have diversity in the sound and create some kind of musical journey that captured the hope and naivety of 1914 which finally turned into the sombre reality of 1917 and finally a reflective hope in 1918. The actual sound of a lot of the original recordings gives such a sense of the time. So balancing these with newly written music became the aesthetic challenge.

FT: Which is your favourite piece of footage in the show and why?

JS: I really love The Battle of the Somme and the final scene of the returned soldiers going for a trip to the cinema. I also love the sequence (from The Australians' Final Campaign in 1918) where we used the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. For me, the actual war footage really resonated. Seeing the faces of these young men and women one hundred years ago who undertook such a bizarre task in taking part in this insane part of our history, haunted me through the project.

I think it is easy to forget the scale of upheaval this event had on the lives of so many and I still cannot comprehend what it would be like to, be it selflessly or stupidly enter into that war, to actually abide by that type of honour or sense of duty. It is easy to see it as foolishness and folly in today's world. I am still humbled and overwhelmed by that type of sacrifice.

FT: Is there a film or TV show you’ve seen recently where the music really impressed you?

JS: Alas, I have watched little film or TV recently because, happily, music keeps getting in the way. I did however watch the new series Gallipoli (2015) this month and I really liked its soundtrack. The other score that has blown me away recently was for the telemovie The Outlaw Michael Howe (2013) composed by Roger Mason. He thought outside the square and challenged many of the musical conventions that occur in this tradition that started back in silent film days. The music gave the film its very own unique voice and that, for me, is the main purpose of a film score.