Timothy Brock on Restoring Charlie Chaplin’s Sound
Last week, conductor and composer Timothy Brock led the New York Philharmonic in a live orchestral performance of the score to Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights—a score that Brock, working with Chaplin’s family, had spent several months diligently restoring. The next day, he stopped by Criterion for a visit. One of the world’s foremost authorities on silent-film music and an acclaimed composer of original music for silent cinema, Brock has garnered international renown for his efforts in musical restoration, especially for his work with the Chaplin estate over the past two decades. Brock, who is featured in a program on our release of The Gold Rush about Chaplin’s music, has restored the scores to twelve of Chaplin’s films—among them the great classics Modern Times, City Lights, and The Gold Rush—making them usable for live performances.
While he was here, we talked about his love for early twentieth-century cinema, the delicate process of restoring Chaplin’s music, and his latest source of inspiration.
How did silent film become your area of expertise?
Well, there are two stories to that. One of them has to do with my interest in silent film as a child, because when I was ten I saw my first silent film in a theater in West Seattle with an organ—a grand Wurlitzer, and I came home to my mom directly after that and said, “That’s what I’d like to do.”
What film did you see?
They were showing films all day long, and I remember three of them: Cops, by Buster Keaton; Nosferatu; and I believe the other was Metropolis. So I said to my mom, “I want to write music for film.” And she knew I wanted to be a composer, but she said, “Why would you want to write music for old films? There’s already music on films.” And I said, “No, these don’t have any words at all.” And then she realized I was talking about silent film—and she’s been worried about my career ever since.
But then I was trained as a concert hall composer and conductor, and the orchestra I was in would program one silent film per season because I just loved to do it. I got asked to write my first score for silent film in 1986, and subsequently I started writing scores for Kino and wrote about seven scores for them. And then I started working for the Chaplins in 1998, and that’s when things really started moving.How did you start working with them?
Well, they contacted me because I was principal guest conductor with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and they knew I did silent film. I’d done a couple restorations already, so they said, “We’re thinking about making Modern Times for live performance—is this something you think we can do?” I flew to Paris a couple weeks later and looked at all the documents and said, “Absolutely, you can do it, this would be terrific.” So I started doing that and subsequently have done all the features—I just finished The Kid two weeks ago—and have been working for them ever since.
Can you tell me more about the actual music restoration process?
Every score is in different states of condition, it just depends on how thorough or well kept the archive is—it’s just like film, except there’s no vinegar involved—so the process is different for each restoration.
Let’s take Chaplin, for example, that process is quite specific. Chaplin’s archive does contain the entire, full, orchestrated scores. But Chaplin, as a filmmaker, was making changes all the time, sort of trial and error, and he was that way as a composer as well. He would compose a piece of music, they would make a short score of it and orchestrate it, and he would sit down with the orchestrator and tell him what to do. They’d make a full score, they’d make parts for the forty to sixty musicians, and then they would listen to it, and he’d go, “Hmm, no, I don’t like that, let’s have the oboe do this line instead, on trumpet here . . .” So players were writing stuff down all the time, because he was dictating the changes he was listening to. All of those changes were done on the parts, or on pieces of paper they attached to the parts. I found music for Modern Times on the back of laundry receipts and paper menus and things like that, whatever scraps of paper players could find at the last moment and write down some notes.
So Chaplin restorations rely heavily on the players’ parts and not the full score. Sometimes you don’t even recognize the piece by reading it. You think, that’s not what I’m hearing at all, because he changed it so much. So to restore that, essentially, you have to take the players’ parts, put them back together, and listen to the audio—which is also something that is very unique to Chaplin, because he recorded everything he ever wrote. So you’ve got an aural documentation of the piece, so you can compare which notes they played and which notes they didn’t play and you try to get the score to as close as Charlie heard it in the studio—that’s the ultimate goal. But with Chaplin film scores, he didn’t write any of his film scores to be played live, so then you have to make not only a score that’s a documentation of what’s actually in print but what’s actually performable, which are two different things.
Let’s say you’ve got a wind player in Hollywood who’s responsible for playing the flute, the clarinet, the saxophone, the baritone saxophone, and sometimes even the bassoon—it’s impossible for one player to play those parts live. So you have to spread it out. City Lights, for example, that score engaged thirty-four players total, but you have to use at least forty, forty-five players to do it and make it sound how it sounded then. You have to make a score that’s actually performable, as opposed to a clear historical reproduction of what’s actually there, because those are two different things.
Given that Chaplin was such a musical genius himself and so meticulous with what he composed, what’s it like taking on the restoration of his work?
It’s a daunting thought—especially if you’re a film nut, you get very nervous. The first Chaplin score I did was the biggest one of all—Modern Times. I got less and less nervous about it as time went on, but I was still extremely apprehensive about making any changes that I thought Chaplin would not have liked. The boldest move I did was when I had to make a new score for A Woman in Paris. That is really a score that’s not written by Chaplin, because he was quite elderly at the time. So I had to posthumously put together a new score for it from unused music that he wrote from previous years, all the way from City Lights to The Kid. That was the most ballsy thing that I had to do, and I was very nervous about it, as you can imagine. It’s a daunting feeling to put together a work of art that you know was done by one of the great artist minds of the twentieth century—and it’s compelling, to say the least.
Is it challenging to avoid making the score more grandiose or orchestrated than it originally was?
Like in film restoration, the tendency is to make things look prettier, as opposed to actually documenting what’s there. For example, in City Lights, in the boxing sequence, there was some talk of removing the wire from Chaplin’s body when he would fly across the ring. They sort of digitally removed that, which was not cool, so they ended up having to put it back in so that you can actually see it. Last night my son Parker, at the philharmonic concert, said, “Dad, I saw something I never saw before, I saw the wire that Charlie was on.” And I said, “Yeah, that was put back in, and rightly so!”
Now, musically, you have to decide, because, okay, let’s say a performer in the recording plays a wrong note, but Chaplin jut went ahead and let it pass. There are some situations where you think, well, I kind of like that wrong note as well, so let’s keep it in, maybe he thought that was all right too. But on the other hand, like in the case of City Lights, they were doing these takes that were ten minutes long, and if one guy plays one wrong note, you’re not going to throw away the whole really good take because of that. So it’s a matter of picking and choosing, and you want to put in every last detail. But what you don’t want to do is, like you say, make things more grandiose than was originally there.
There was a tendency to make things more polished and slick from the 1980s and early ’90s, making these symphonic presentations with lots of fanfare and polish, and that’s not good. For instance, there was the score to The Kid, the version that we’ve been having up until now has been the music he wrote in 1971, released in 1972, and when done live it’s been a really big orchestra, big strings, sweeping “de da dum.” But if you listen and look at the original print, the orchestra is really small compared to what you see on stage, it’s under forty players. So I restored this score down to a much smaller size, because it’s much more intimate, I think, and the film warrants having an intimate sound. So in that case it makes sense to do that on many levels.
If I’m doing it as strictly a music restorer, I really go more as to how it was—and that means listening to audio, the original acetate recordings, over and over and over again to make sure it’s exactly note right. I don’t try to interpret the Tramp character as much, that doesn’t factor much into the restoration. But as a conductor, on the other hand, that’s another story; there, you really try to frame the music in a way that serves the film, and that you can do in a very intimate way.
The finale of City Lights, for example, has this sort of Puccini-esque building up at the end until there’s the fade-out of him and the flower. Chaplin originally wrote that for solo string players, so it starts off with two players and comes up to four players, and then it comes up to six players and eventually pyramids up to a point at the end when it becomes the full orchestra, and it’s a very intimate way to end the film. It’s extremely powerful when it builds like that in the end, when she’s caressing his hand, because it goes completely silent, so that when she takes his hand there’s no music at all. And then it goes one player, two players, three players, four players, five players, until there’s a string orchestra sound, and then the whole orchestra comes in at the end, and it ends in F minor, which is . . . what a key to end the film. So as a conductor you bring those things out, and as a restorer, you make sure that they know it’s one player, two players, three players, and building from there. So that’s my job as a restorer.
What is your process like, then, when you’re writing your own compositions?
That’s a completely different process, except that the thing that’s most useful is the knowledge and experience of doing period restoration. When you’re immersed in the world of 1920s music, and period music, that cannot help but be a factor when you’re composing. I’ve been composing silent film since 1986, and I started working as a conductor—about a hundred concerts a year starting in 2000, and I notice that my compositions have begun going a little further backward, in terms of orchestral color. So I’ve found that composing for this music is definitely highly influenced by the amount of restoration work I’ve done in silent film.
But it still sounds like me, I hope. I don’t want to just parody other composers. But I don’t do something that a director, if it were eighty years ago, would go, “What is that?” I would not do something that would upset the film. A lot of colleagues of mine really feel like their music shouldn’t necessarily serve the film but should be equal to the film, and to me that’s absolutely wrong, I really believe in the power of the director’s vision. I’ve written some things and think, wow, that’s really good music; then I watch it with the film and think, that’s too bad, because it’s not helping the film at all. So I put it away and say, “Eh, I’ll use it somewhere else someday.” It’s something I’ve always believed.
What is it about this period that’s always fascinated you?
I was a specialist in early twentieth-century orchestral music; my specialty was early American and early Russian music, so I’ve always been fascinated with it. My family has been a major collector of old 78 records, of which we’ve got about ten thousand, which I’ve now inherited. I’ve got them all, and I don’t know where to put them. We’ve got three gramophones in the family, and it’s always been a major component of growing up, and it is for my children as well. And silent film is something I’ve always been into, since I was about ten. There’s just so much film out there and so much music to be made from them, it’s really great.
Is there a score or restoration you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
The Gold Rush is something that I’m quite proud of. We took the 1942 score and extended it to match the silent version, and I was quite proud of that, because I don’t think I ended up writing a single measure that Chaplin didn’t write himself. I inverted things and put things back and put in little pauses where they were. I asked the Chaplins and Kevin Brownlow, I said, “Look, you guys want to do The Gold Rush at 22 frames per second, but the music doesn’t work for that speed, and the music is a really large portion of what the success of the silent version of the film is.” So I said, “Can we please put it back to 24 frames per second?”—which isn’t unheard of, it’s 1925, it’s a little early for 24 frames per second, but I thought, musically the timing is very good, there’s very little under-cranking, so it’s not going to go super, super fast. And everybody seemed to be quite pleased with how it looked at 24 and the music worked really well, so I was really pleased with that restoration process.
What was the last thing you listened to that you were really inspired by?
That’s a very good question, because I don’t take that question lightly. My discovery recently was Leonid Utesov. This is going to see incredibly geeky, but he’s a Russian singer, like a Russian vaudeville singer who’s extremely popular, and I just discovered his songs recently. I gave the U.S. premiere of Shostakovich’s Hypothetically Murdered, a vaudeville piece that Shostakovich wrote for Utesov, and I’d never heard of that guy before, and I just discovered the songs that he did and also some film work as well. And it’s made me now want to write music for Russian silent film, which I always wanted to do but never had enough nerve, because I was a little afraid that there would be a lot expected of me as an early twentieth-century Russian music specialist. I thought, gee, that’s just asking for it, but when I started listening to his songs, I could not stop listening to them. So I thought, okay, I should pick a film I really love, like Boris Barnet’s The Girl with a Hatbox, for example. The male lead in that is so Chaplin-esque, I thought, that might be a good film to start, why doesn’t somebody ask me to write that? So there you go.