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Mar 30, 2010 2:08 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Creative Orchestra project turns to scoring silent films

Mar 30, 2010 2:08 PM

A few weeks ago, Bruce Wolosoff put down his composer’s pencil and stopped working out musical phrases on his piano in his Shelter Island home. Instead, he set up camp at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton to teach students how to hear and write music. And when the first notes of the resulting original music sounded on March 24, there was hardly an empty seat in the house at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.

What followed was a program of historic silent films set to music written and performed by Hayground students and a handful of professional musicians. Afterward, Mr. Wolosoff breathed a sign of satisfaction.

His ongoing quest to demonstrate that a lack of training in musical theory doesn’t mean music can’t be composed was supported by the pre-high school students. The premise is that anyone can “think in music.” The results are presented in an annual concert by the Creative Orchestra—made up of students enrolled in the three-week music composition program at the Hayground School.

This year’s concert, “A Night at the Movies!” took the audience into film history set to music of the present. The hour-long program featured fully-developed songs or soundscapes (musical sounds that create an environment) set to films from the 1900s.

Many of the films were produced in France and Germany by pioneers of the cinema. The silent films were mostly shorts (typically several minutes long) or excerpts from longer works. All were conceptual, experimental or reflected the beginnings of the filmmaking process as practiced by the Gaumont Film Company that was founded in France in 1895.

The program opened with films made in 1902-1906 by Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968). Ms. Guy Blaché was the first female director and is generally credited with adding narrative to film. Movies from 1904 and 1906 by magician turned French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861-1938) also helped launch provided material for the Hayground program.

Music featured percussion instruments, electric guitars, piano, synthesizer, cello or trumpet. Different combinations of instruments featured different student musicians. Between films, students scampered from the stage while the next group of students suddenly appeared from the darkness.

The compositions ranged from lyrical and beautiful to sharp percussive sounds that punctuated the action in the film. Appearing in the films were clowns, roosters, raindrops, careening waters, silver balls, sudden bursts of light and vibrating geometric shapes that pulled toward the viewers and receded.

The audience clapped in time when prompted during the Hans Richter film, “Rhythmus 21,” while an electric guitar (played by eighth-grader Esme Ashley White) led the way. A constant on stage was cellist Katya Wolosoff, Mr. Wolosoff’s daughter.

Mr. Wolosoff frequently played piano or synthesizer. Jazz musician Alex Huberty appeared frequently. Hayground teacher Jon Snow made a few cameos, as did Hayground School founder and teacher Arjun Achuthan. Composing music is a favorite for some students, while performing is a strong suit for others.

“I really loved playing,” said Pearl Williams. “I enjoy it because it’s not sticking to music that’s written. You know what you have to play but you don’t have to stick to it. You can change things, a little.”

For the last six years, Hayground School students have been provided with opportunities to see if they can write music and perform their pieces, or others written by their schoolmates. The program launched six years ago and operates under the moniker of the Creative Orchestra.

The students are immersed in music-creating for nearly three weeks. The program culminates with a concert that until this year was held at the school. Afterward, many are inspired to learn how to play an instrument and apply those skills at the next Creative Orchestra concert, Mr. Wolosoff said.

Anchoring the base of the music-writing is a theme or through-line. Students have written music inspired by a Van Gogh painting, haikus and a Beck Hansen song. They have created compositions in which the music changes and is inspired by pure imagination. This year, silent films provided the shape for the music.

“It was real fun because the video inspired the music,” said Ms. Ashley White, who wrote a few of the compositions. “It made it easy. I’m thinking in music, so the music just came to me.”

The experience was so positive, Mr. Wolosoff is already thinking that “A Night At the Movies II!” may be on tap for next year’s program. “The kids really enjoyed it,” he said. “They’re already asking to do it again.”

Mr. Wolosoff is a professional composer whose works include opera, chamber music, symphonies, quartets and more. His music has been recorded and performed in numerous festivals and venues in the United States, and Japan. This includes the Music Festival of the Hamptons, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, WNYC’s Greene Performance Space and the Center for Contemporary Opera at Symphony Space in Manhattan.

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