John Benoit has been digging through his collection of music that is specifically written to be played along with silent films.
He chose from dozens of titles in his collection that are written for piano such as "Paris Fashions" and "Pathetic Music" to play along with the movie "The Mothering Heart" by D.W. Griffith.
Simpson College asked Benoit to arrange a piece for the Vivo Chamber players, an ensemble that was formed last year to bring together string professionals who donate their time to the Simpson College Community Orchestra.
He happily agreed since he's always been "fascinated" by the process of putting live accompaniment together with old silent films.
After sorting through his collection of DVDs of silent films that he said has reached the hundreds, Benoit settled on "The Mothering Heart."
He picked the film for a number of reasons. He wanted something shorter than a half-hour, he said. And, it calls for a variety of music.
"I could have done a Charlie Chaplin film," Benoit said. "But some of those slapstick films call for animated music the whole time."
Every piece of music, with the exception of one, was written in the 1900s, the same time period "The Mothering Heart" was written.
The movie is about a young woman who was recently married and wants a child. It shows viewers some big (and often dramatic) moments in the young woman's life.
Benoit watched the movie over and over, each time adding cues when the scenes changed. He'd mark the scenes as happy or sad or whatever emotion fit.
Then, he'd reference his music collection to see which piece fit best.
He chose 10 pieces of music by three composers to play along with the movie.
Once the music was selected, Benoit orchestrated the music so it could be played by a full ensemble.
Sometimes the pieces had to be cut in half or sped up or slowed down to fit the scene in the movie. Benoit wrote his own transitions so the music would flow together nicely, and he even wrote nine extra bars into one of the pieces so it would last the length of time he needed it to.
"To me, it's almost like the process of sculpting," Benoit said. "I've got the music and I'm trying to make it fit to the scene so I'm adding a little bit here and taking away a little bit there."
A computer program made the sculpting process easier. Benoit has a program that plays back the music he wrote using orchestral sounds.
Before putting his creation before the VIVO players, Benoit said he already "had a pretty good idea of what it would sound like."
As far as actually orchestrating the music, or rewriting it to fit an ensemble rather than just a piano, Benoit said it's a pretty simple process for him.
"The instruments have different characteristics. They have different connotations," Benoit said. "The trumpet has a military sound, a strong sound. The oboe can be mournful at times. The bassoon can be kind of comic.
"As a composer, I understand these things, but the listener understands it, too," Benoit continued. "They've heard all of these sounds in music and movies before."
Now that the music is written and fits into the film, there's only one more thing that needs to be done.
It needs to be performed.
Sandy Tatge, a member of the VIVO players who will perform the music, said playing along with a movie can be challenging because there needs to be more precision in tempos.
"There has to be a lot of attention to the conductor," Tatge said. "he's got to sync to the film and we have to sync with him.
"Sometimes in a concert situation things just roll the way they roll, but when you're doing a film you've got to be precise," she said.
At a recent rehearsal, Tatge said she hadn't seen the film, even though it plays behind her at practices.
"I always try to make a point at never looking at what else is going around me, otherwise you lose your focus on the music," Tatge said. "it's very important you not let yourself get distracted."
The public will have two chances to see the performance. One performance will begin at 7 p.m. and the other at 8:30 p.m. Both performances will take place on Friday, Feb. 8 at Lekberg Hall in the Amy Robertson Music Center. The 7 p.m. show is expected to fill up quickly.
Another piece, called the "Wind Trio" by Kevin Batchelder also will be performed that night.
The first movement in the piece, "B.F.F." is a jazz piece for string bass and two flutes that was adapted for flute, clarinet and oboe.
A slower middle movement is called "The Move" is written for alto flute, English horn and bass clarinet. The faster third movement is called "F.O.C." and is for flute, oboe and clarinet.
The movements include modern techniques such as key clicks and singing.