Concert Review: Battleship Potemkin by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

It probably looked like I dropped off the face of the planet, but I’m writing now to (very belatedly) talk about a very interesting performance that I had the pleasure of attending last month.  At the Kennedy Center on March 9, the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra gave an excellent performance of a newly commissioned score for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet film, Battleship Potemkin.  New scores for silent films are almost always interesting in and of themselves, simply for their ability to transform works of art that might otherwise seem fixed.  If you screen Battleship Potemkin four times with four different scores, it might look the same each time, but the different scores will turn each screening into an entirely different film.  As a new musical interpretation of Eisenstein’s film, Berklee’s orchestra did not disappoint.  The score was simultaneously faithful to the idioms of Soviet Modernism and contemporary in ways that made it emotionally accessible to a modern audience.

But just as interesting as the music itself is the manner in which it was created.  The score is the result of a one-semester course taught at Berklee by Dr. Sheldon Mirowitz.  I’ve been in touch with Dr. Mirowitz via email in the weeks following the performance, and his project sounds genuinely unique.  In his course, students learn to compose film music, not as solitary composers, but as part of a team.  As he explained to me, Dr. Mirowitz gets the commission to score a silent film, and then creates an outline for the music and its core themes.  He next assigns each student a reel of film, and has his students compose and arrange music for their segments based on his core material.  Throughout the composing process, the students workshop their music in class.  Everybody brings their demos, synched to picture, and both the professor and his students give critical notes for revision.  Ultimately, these separate pieces form one cohesive soundtrack, one that sounds like product of a singular vision even though it emerges through collaboration.

The course’s pedagogical approach is thus very well suited to contemporary film scoring, even though it’s put in the service of decidedly old-fashioned means.  From what I understand, Dr. Mirowitz’s process of scoring by committee is very similar to Hans Zimmer’s method at Remote Control Studios.  Zimmer, who is at this point the most powerful film composer in Hollywood, has used similar “composer teams” to score some of the most powerful moneymakers of the past two decades, including The Rock, The Lion King, The Thin Red Line, Gladiator, Inception, and Rango, along with the current Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes franchises.  Zimmer’s method – the head composer writes a handful of theme suites, develops an overall architecture, and then hands things over to his team of composers who score the actual scenes – has in many ways become the industry standard.  In this sense, having students learn to write as part of a committee under the voice of a guiding composer is remarkably to what they’d actually be doing were they to work in Hollywood.

Of course, were they to work in Hollywood, it’s very doubtful that they’d be asked to write anything like the music we heard at the Battleship Potemkin performance.  While Dr. Mirowitz and his students’ score had many modern harmonic touches, it was nowhere near Zimmer’s synth-doubled brass anthems, pre-programmed percussion loops, or synthesized ostinatos.  What Zimmer and his associates produced is generally not so much traditional orchestral music as pop music partially played by an orchestra.  By comparison, the music that the Berklee students are writing is much more traditional, rooted in the language of early 20th century concert music.  Add this to the fact that silent films themselves have a radically different sense of pacing, editing, and overall sensibility than contemporary Hollywood films, and it seem that these students are training for a career that has long since passed.  But actually, the archaic nature of this project is part of what makes it so brilliant.  Many of the problems of present-day Hollywood music come from so many composers only knowing how to write the simple, chord-based music that fits into Zimmer’s landscape.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of music in its own right, but it becomes a problem when it’s literally the only kind of music that major film composers understand.  Professional music literacy, not only in terms of theory but also in terms of history, often seems like a thing of the past.  I’m not saying that every film composer needs a degree in music composition – in fact, many of the most accomplished composers of orchestral film music have been entirely self-taught (from Danny Elfman to last year’s Oscar Winner for The Artist, Ludovic Bource).  But the people who write movie music for a living should still be able to demonstrate some basic comfort-level with film music idioms that predate the last Jerry Bruckheimer film.

The benefit of Dr. Mirowitz’s project is that while it does train students to write in a contemporary committee setting, it also educates them in varied and complex orchestral languages from generations past.  Based on the evidence I heard at the Kennedy Center, these students leave the class knowing how to do more than program simple chord progressions into a keyboard – they leave with a genuine sense of their musical history and the ability to evoke many different iterations of film music.  This adaptability will serve as a great asset for any of them, should they decide to enter the film industry.  Producers and directors are not always going to want the Remote Control Sound, after all – sooner or later, the industry is going to change again.  When that happens, the composers who make it will be the the ones who can adapt the most readily to new musical languages.  In training his students in varied film music styles from generations past, Dr. Mirowitz is also training them to be adaptable composers.

For the present, however, his course makes for a wonderful music project in its own right, and I look forward to many new silent film scores from Dr. Mirowitz and his students.  For more information, visit:


2 thoughts on “Concert Review: Battleship Potemkin by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

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