Silent movies are enjoying a bit of a revival this year, thanks to the success of Michael Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which told the tale of a young film star and dancer whose careers are taken in different directions thanks to the advent of the talkies.
With no sound or dialogue – something today’s movie-goers can never fully understand – film scores were of particular importance in setting the scene, building dramatic tension and serving as a means of communication between film and audience.
Now, one new Devon-based ensemble is working to relive the glory days of silent films by hosting movie nights across the county and providing an improvised musical backdrop to accompany the picture. The Seat of the Pants Orchestra – launched earlier this year, the brainchild of Philip Robinson, who has a background in improvising for film – calls on professional musicians from folk, classical and jazz backgrounds to come together and, without rehearsal, create an off-the-cuff soundtrack for movies of their choosing.
“We tend not to rehearse because it’s not the idea of improvising,” violinist Emma Welton says. “It wouldn’t be proper improvising. We tend to watch the film first but that’s about it! It’s a very generous way of making music – we choose musicians who are capable of being bold and having musical ideas but also the sensitivity to sit back and listen.”
Currently, the ensemble – which also does a lot of work in local schools – is touring the south-west with Wordquest Devon, a project dedicated to exploring Devon’s literary past and present, providing a soundtrack to A Cottage on Dartmoor. Thus far, it has been to Church House in Widecombe and will be heading to Barnstaple Library on August 21st, Exeter Library on September 7th and Crediton Arts Centre on September 28th. Since each group of musicians providing the score is different, audiences could easily go to all performances and take something completely different away from it each time – no doubt part of the appeal.
With an intriguing range of instruments – a beat boxer, a shakuhachi (Japanese flute), electric guitar and a psaltery harp are all in there among violins, cellos and pianos – and potential films including Nosferatu, The Passion of Joan of Arc and the Charlie Chaplin back catalogue, Seat of the Pants evenings certainly sound anything but dull.