Chris Rosenau’s thoughts on scoring Charlie Chaplin’s “One A.M.” and “Easy Street”

Chris Rosenau’s thoughts on scoring Charlie Chaplin’s “One A.M.” and “Easy Street”

The New York Guitar Festival commissioned Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees’ Chris Rosenau to create new scores to two of Charlie Chaplin’s classic short silent films. They perform the scores live at Merkin Concert Hall on Thursday, January 21st, as part of our Silent Films/Live Guitars series.

We started working on all of this a while ago now.  Taking a look back at some of the initial emails, Justin asked me to perform with him for this festival almost a year ago; the end of February 2009.  We were both honored and excited to be involved, and really excited to work together on something again after finishing up the first Volcano Choir record in early 2009.  The idea of scoring films live together was a new challenge, but definitely an incentive.

Then Charlie Chaplin entered into the equation.

Justin was on constant tour with Bon Iver for pretty much all spring and summer of 2009, not leaving him with any time early on to devote to this performance.  That was fine; we had a plan: start watching the movies we had to choose from during spring and summer to narrow them down, pick some films of interest and start writing and emailing ideas back and forth during the fall, and really nail everything down for the specific performance films we selected at rehearsals together in fall/winter of 2009.  

Plenty of time.  

Totally reasonable. . .

. . .but that left me alone with Chuck Chaplin for a couple or months.  

It was pretty weird.

I have worked to a limited degree on movie scores before, but this was totally different.  Normally, in my experience with scoring movies, there are extended, overlapping, recurring themes that one can use as a foundation to develop musical ideas upon.  With Chaplin, with whom I had very little exposure before this performance, the task at hand seemed kind of impossible, at least after the first couple of viewings; scenes changing every 15 seconds. . .relentless waddle walking from one polar opposite scenario to the next. . .nothing really thematically to latch on to.  For a couple of months in the late spring / early summer of 2009, I didn’t know at all how we were going to pull this off.  I watched a lot of the movies trying to figure out what resonated with me, personally first, but then potentially for Justin and I musically as well, trying to select one that was a good fit to try to score.  To no avail.  I kind of freaked out.  

But then, thankfully, after many viewings, I started settling into some of the films.  Longer motifs became clearer within the really dynamic micro-scenes. . .and the movies we were choosing from were all ~ 30 minutes long.  We wanted to perform for ~ an hour, so dividing and conquering seemed a great way to proceed; we’d each loosely musically map out one ~ 30 minute film, and figure it all out when we got together.  Perfect.

I finally settled on One A.M as the first film I was interested in tackling.  It resonated with me personally, and after watching it a bunch of times, I really started to enjoy it.  I knew Justin would dig it as well.  

One A.M. is the only movie that has Chaplin cast almost exclusively by himself for ~ 30 minutes.  The general plot description seems misleadingly simple; Chaplin is trying to get to bed after a night “out on the town”.  That’s technically true, but when watching it minute to minute, it is really much more complex than that.  After improvising while watching the film a lot just to generate ideas, an approach developed; a common key and theme to voice his drunkenness, with moving parts over the top that changed depending on the situation.  We got together in November at Justin’s house, had a blast, and added the meat to the skeleton I had loosely mapped out. . .and it all clicked perfectly.  Now we were really excited.

This first weekend we rehearsed One A.M. we also watched lots of Chaplin movies as we were setting up, taking breaks, etc., to figure out the other film we wanted to score.  Easy Street grabbed us right away.  I think it was the initial, really peaceful scenes of him on the street and in the church that did it, but then, after getting One A.M. under our belt, embracing some of the quick changes and insanity that happen in this movie really interested Justin.  I agreed. . .this idea, of trying to react to the film on a scene by scene basis even more than we were doing with One A.M. was perfect for the multi-actor scene changing of Easy Street.

Justin had also been having fun experimenting with some more traditional American finger-style techniques around that time, so we agreed to go in that direction for Easy Street.  We worked just like we worked for One A.M., except for Easy Street Justin developed the initial themes and parts and emailed them to me as they came to him.

We got together for another weekend at Justin’s house in December and worked through Easy Street.  It ended up being a really fun and really different way to approach scoring these Chaplin movies; with a common tuning to represent Chaplin and the general story line, but many themes and tempos to mirror the scenes from the film.

Now it’s early January 2010, and we have one more weekend scheduled to rehearse the two movies together.  We can’t wait.  It has been a really rewarding process, maybe because it started out seeming kind of impossible, but mostly because we both ended up really getting into the movies and each others ideas.  It is also interesting that, while we never talked about the idea of representing “the guitar” in the performances (since this is after all for a “Guitar Festival”), somehow it just ended up happening.  Between the two of us, we both play acoustic and electric guitars.  We play everything from clean tones to kind-of-freak-out electronics at times.  We play everything from traditional finger-style chicken picking to mutli-loop-based poly-rhythmic riffs.  We play lap steels and slides and mini-string fans and eBows. . .  

Totally guitarded.  It’s perfect.

We’re *psyched* do finally do it.  We hope you really enjoy it.

 – Chris Rosenau

6 January 2010



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