In case you haven't seen it, Buster Keaton's "The General" is one of the greatest movies ever made. No hyperbole needed or used: the movie is the pinnacle of the silent film era, combining some of the most jaw-dropping stunts and hilarious physical comedy ever captured on celluloid. To see a screening of "The General" would be a treat by itself, but something altogether more exciting and original is happening.
Many surviving movies from the silent film era weren't recognized or appreciated for their scores. Back when the films were played in theaters, an organist or pianist would accompany the film with music, sometimes the same score for each movie playing the theater in a given week. Imagine a serious silent film with a goofy score that doesn't remotely capture the mood or tone of what's happening.
In celebration of the 90th anniversary of "The General" and Portland's Hollywood Theatre, the Oregon Community Foundation and the Oregon Film Office have combined to present a touring show of the film through the state's historic theaters. Composer Mark Orton ("Nebraska") has written an entirely new score for the film and will be touring with it, performing the music live with a seven-piece orchestra.
The amount of original music being written for "The General" is staggering when compared to a modern film containing dialogue and other diegetic sounds. "It's a lot of time," says Orton. "A normal feature film often has as little as 20 or 25 minutes of music in it, and this is wall-to-wall for 75. It's a heavy lift if you're actually scoring this thing."
Orton already had some experience with silent films and Keaton in particular before taking the gig. "I'm a huge fan of Buster Keaton. I was turned on to it back in the day when I was in my early 20s. Before my own band got going and I started scoring films, I was a sound engineer, and I toured with one of my heroes: the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. We were touring with Buster Keaton films and doing live soundtracks."
The live score will also contain instruments not just handmade and original, but some authentic to the period. "This naturally evolved out of my time with (his band) Tin Hat," says Orton. "Tin Hat was an ensemble that based itself around a core of violin, guitar and accordion. The only real mission statement with that band—aside from trying to create something really original, cutting edge and somewhat avant-garde - was to keep it fully acoustic and expand our sonic palate."
Orton seems to be the perfect composer to add something entirely original to Keaton's 1926 masterpiece. His multi-instrumental training has allowed him to get to know his arsenal of oddities intimately. "We were using extended technique, so preparing the piano with bolts and chains on the strings, pipe cleaners threaded through the guitar strings and other sorts of odd tricks. Rather than use additional devices or electronic effects, we would do it with all organic textures. So that led us to collecting all sorts of odd-balls and antiques. I've collected a ton of stuff like old Civil War reed organs called field organs. I have take-offs on auto harps and zithers, marxophones, a strange collection of oversized harmonicas, which will work their way into the score for the train sounds."
Using all the tools he already had at hand was an easy choice for Orton. "As a film composer I'm working in the studio, playing my own instruments a lot of the time," he says. "I'm always looking for new colors. They can be inspirational as a composer. So, I've amassed all this stuff, and it makes sense that it would find its way into a film that is both based in the Civil War and created during an older era of music."
This screening of "The General" isn't just a chance to see a classic movie with an original live score, but a singular event that could never be duplicated. Orton might release his composition on disc or vinyl, and the Tower might have another showing of the movie one day, but the combination of the film and the live score is probably once in a lifetime.
Tues., Aug. 16, 8pm
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend