John Nugent: There's no downside to live music in the cinema

Our film columnist can’t get enough of the trend for live musical scores at film screenings in London

It’s rare, when watching a film, that you struggle to hear the dialogue because the background music is too loud. Even rarer still to see the conductor, a few feet from where you sit, gesturing to the orchestra to turn it down a bit. This is the strange and wonderful reality presented to you when watching a film with a live musical score, and its an increasingly common fixture on London’s cultural calendar.

Incidentally, the aforementioned conductor doing a spot of on-the-fly sound editing, was Hugh Brunt leading the London Contemporary Orchestra at a live scoring of There Will Be Blood at the Roundhouse last month - and I must stress, this was an uncommon and minor blip in an extraordinary evening. (If anything, I almost preferred to just listen to the music than that distracting film they insisted on showing.)

It’s one of the many unusual challenges that comes with staging such an event. Most film soundtracks are digitally sequenced to synchronise with their visual counterparts with the precision of a watchmaker. In the gladiatorial arena of a live setting there’s no room for tinkering. Movies are indelible - but every night of this kind is unique. Now, some might wonder why you’d pay to see “Quiet Conversation Backing Music For Scene 27” performed live - and it’s true, incidental music is often functional and unaffecting, instructing an audience how to feel, and no more. It’s the more distinctive soundtracks that present a juicier live prospect.

There Will Be Blood’s soundtrack, with its dazzling sense of neoclassical disquiet from floppy-haired Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, lends itself perfectly to a live performance, and others are similarly obvious choices. David Lean’s Brief Encounter was soundtracked by Rachmaninov’s famously grand romantic sweeps; Under the Skin’s score by Mica Levi is horror distilled in sonic form; Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator score is arguably more exciting than the film it backs. All enjoyed the live score treatment in London in the past six months, to rapturous receptions.

Silent film makes even more sense for the format. Some have an original score surviving (Chaplin wrote his own music for Modern Times; an orchestra performed it exactly as he intended at the Southbank Centre last year) - but many older movies have long lost their original soundtracks, and as such, are effectively musical blank slates. Bands like The Pet Shop Boys and 65 Days Of Static have written and performed sublime new scores for old films, and pianist Neil Brand makes a respectable living improvising on the ivories for regular silent strands at the Barbican and the Cinema Museum.

It’s hard to see a downside to this phenomenon. Live scores marry two artforms in a glorious, intoxicating union, leaving you more appreciative and enamoured of both. The only real problem surfaces when you go back to watching films the regular way, on a regular cinema screen, or a regular telly. Suddenly, the music is not coming from some gorgeous eighteenth-century Stradivarius viola, but a couple of measly speakers from Dixons. Suddenly, you have to slum it with Dolby Surround 7.1.

I’ve tasted the good life, and now I don’t want anything less than the Philharmonic.

John Nugent is a writer at Sky Movies online. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_nugent

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