Mark Orton’s New Score Breaks Convention but Honors Film

World premiere score for The General to go on tour throughout August.

Mark Orton playing guitar
Mark Orton playing guitar

Walking into Hollywood Theatre over ten minutes late for a press screening, I wasn’t sure if I was missing the beginning of the movie. I walked in while composer and sound engineer Mark Orton was sitting center stage, introducing the story behind his new score of The General, the silent film originally released in 1926 by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman. I had forgotten that this would be a selection of excerpts, not a complete run of the show. So most of the screening was talk. He revealed later that his band was finally getting through early rehearsals before the big debut. That is how fresh this music is.

As it is a silent film, a full 71 minutes of original music was prepared. The result will be a live performance that I surmise will be very special for those who are able to get out to see it. Those who can’t shouldn’t fret, as the actual film is in the public domain, making it very easy to record the live score and put the final product out on video. The entire project, not including the whole process of curating it, has taken Orton just two months. He says that he would sing into his iPhone and pluck away at ideas for the first month, but the second month has been earnest work.

Premiere night is tonight. I think he must be the kind of person who thrives on deadlines. What I saw and heard matched better somehow than I can imagine the classical conventions in music would have in 1926. At least, that’s how it feels today, watching a film that is 90 years old.

Buster Keaton did not apparently specify music for his films, leaving it up to anyone to score. At that time, theaters might come with a full house orchestra, or a great Wurlitzer organ. His peer and equal, Charlie Chaplin, was the opposite in terms of musical direction. Chaplin actually composed his own music for his own films, in a sense one-upping Keaton. Both wrote, directed, and performed stunts in their own films. Both were hilarious.

Mark Orton wanted to punch up the music specifically for Keaton’s comedic timing. That seems to be key to his approach. One percussionist, Matthias Bossi, is providing the dual task of live foley design (that’s live sound effects) and drums. His punctuation to the slapstick is especially welcome, adding 3-dimensionality to purely visual jokes.

Some composers might arrange a traditional orchestra for this, but Orton seeks stylistic compromise. While he works mostly from electrified acoustic guitar, he’ll be using a banjo and pump organ as well. He’s backed by bassist Todd Sickafoose and a chamber style string section. Mousai Remix String Quartet players provide the foundation that electric violinist Carla Kihlstedt builds on. She and Orton have worked together often in a group called Tin Hat.

Aspects of the score are improvised, but from the few scenes that I heard and saw, it calls out the rhythm of the film and responds. Using just enough electronic additions to their acoustic instruments to enrich the harmonics and deepen the moods, they’ve married modern and classical music nicely. I was only able to preview a few scenes, so I can’t detail it honestly.

Buster Keaton portrays a train engineer from Georgia at the onset of the Civil War. He gets entangled in a plot from the North to steal a train that happens to be carrying the girl he loves. The action sequences, including an actual train chase, were very expensive. The stunts are impressive, the comedy is funny, but it was not particularly well received in its day. While it marginally returned a profit, Keaton would lose artistic freedom on his projects.

Appreciation for the film has grown with time. Critics and filmmakers call it the greatest comedy of all time, and to some — including Orson Welles — The General is the greatest film.

The tour will be taken to a handful of Oregon theaters, including the town where much of this film was shot, Cottage Grove. Both runs at Hollywood Theatre have sold out. A third has been added for Saturday, August 20.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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