Intuitive information: composer Juliet Merchant on scoring Soviet silent films

Composing for film is an oft misunderstood endeavour, composing for silent film doubly so. How does one approach the technical as well as the emotional challenges of century-old images? How does the creative process differ from standard compositions, or scoring for sound films? Pianist and composer Juliet Merchant has composed scores for six silent films for Klassiki. Here, she describes her method and offers insights into the strangely beautiful world of silent film – from sci-fi to romance and the idiosyncrasies of the Soviet avant-garde.

Aelita (dir. Yakov Protozanov, 1924)

Many people have asked me about my process and each time it strikes me as an intensely complex question. My initial response is to tell them about the practicalities: I require my computer, flat balanced headphones, my hard drive, a piano or two, and a comfortable sitting position in a quiet place. I take a large amount of time to sit with and collect the internal information required to write, and then the composition comes all at once, usually intensely for around four to five hours before I need to digest it and shake off any stagnancy.

The night is much quieter and therefore creativity has much more room to emerge. I typically play around in different keys and instruments until I find something that feels right and engages me. From then, my intuition takes over to bind different timbres together. I generally visualise music in terms of texture, colour, and lines. Dynamic patterns, lights, and undefined structures form in my head when I’m writing and it helps me to see what colour the melody has and how the harmonisation is reflecting it; if the music is too clustered, too thin, or a poor combination of sounds; where sound might be lacking, or where it might need to be built upon. It also helps me to understand what comes next in the piece – whether that might be a sharp change in genre, a decorative run, or a new instrument or modulation. In this way, I can tell where a reinstatement or repetition is required, when tension either needs to rise or fall. I believe this is the way I understand intuitive information that has not yet been processed into words.

Intuition serves as the most “conscious” element when deciding how to write, which is both the irony and power of music

For these reasons, it is difficult to mentally prepare a piece beforehand, because my creation process all happens in a state of flow when I am engaged with the work. In general, my inspiration inevitably comes from the world around me and the experiences that impact me most: namely people, but also long walks, other musicians, nature, and mental wandering. The complexities and incongruences of life have me perpetually transfixed, but it is in the moments of profound kindness where I feel most inspired.

Whilst this is a surface level observation of what an onlooker might witness, I believe that the compositional “process” is a psychological question. To create music, one needs to engage mind, heart, and intuition. Each part of the sentient system serves a different function: the heart serves as the landscape to define the subject; the mind provides the theoretical boundaries; within these, intuition decides how to manipulate the twists, turns, and details of the journey. Intuition, then, serves as the most “conscious” element when deciding how to write, which is both the irony and power of music. It is a product of the composer’s self, the world around them and the connections that are made between them. In my opinion, music is a medium through which our unconscious elements are extracted and transformed into an external “consciousness”.

The journey of writing music for film involves essentially the same internal process but performed in response to external stimuli not native to the everyday environment, and therefore requires an extra leap of imagination. For me, this means that I replace the “heart element” – the emotional part of me – with the emotions I can interpret from the scene, while the mental and intuitive functions stay the same. I do this by watching the film enough times that I can put myself in the characters shoes.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (dir. Lev Kuleshov, 1924)

Perhaps the most challenging feature of writing for film is to compose according to certain timings and to navigate sudden and volatile changes in emotion, which requires one to neatly organise emotional reactions and to digest each of them thoroughly before writing. I break down scenes which have emotional dynamism into smaller, separate segments that contain only one or two emotions each. For example, in Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Love’s Berries (1926), there is a scene at the end that quickly alternates between a fight, romance, and the villains plotting something malicious. Instead of creating music that could layer over all of these scenes in one long stretch, I split the scenes up and created different themes and nuances for each moment to create emphasis and a better emotional affiliation with the characters.

I have written for six silent films for Klassiki, ranging from sci-fi to slapstick and from Armenia to Ukraine: House on the Volcano by Hamo Bek-Nazaryan, Aelita by Yakov Protazanov, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks by Lev Kuleshov, Love’s Berries by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, The Girl with the Hatbox by Boris Barnet, and Life for a Life by Yevgeni Bauer. I hold silent film in high regard because of its use of space to create atmosphere. There are many moments throughout the films where long landscape or “mood” scenes are given more time to breathe than in modern films; I enjoy writing music that creates an atmosphere or specific ambience, which in my opinion is only heightened when it is afforded enough time to develop during the film. Composing for silent film gives me the space to create music that allows the audience to sit with emotions for extended periods of time. The films have varied soundtracks to suit the mood of each piece: the earlier ones are more comedic, whereas the later titles tend to have a heavier mood.

the most challenging feature of writing for film is to compose according to certain timings and to navigate sudden and volatile changes in emotion

My favourite films that I have written for have been Aelita and The House on the Volcano. In Aelita, I have used nearly 90 different synthesisers over the course of the score and this means that there is a constant sense of novelty and change, which I find personally exciting. With House on the Volcano, I could focus on a dark musical mood and focus on the weight of the events that are happening in the film; I specifically enjoy writing music that is stirring and provocative.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks was particularly challenging due to the near-constant movement and tension within the film. In order to maintain tension, one must alternate between moments of low and high energy – however, the horse chase scene alone spans nearly ten minutes. I dealt with this by writing with greater and lesser tension variation whilst still maintaining an energetic style throughout the scene. This meant that the audience still experiences highs and lows but will not have listening fatigue and numbness from constant loudness or speed. You will see a similar genre and style for both Love’s Berries and The Girl with the Hatbox, since they are both comedic films and require a light heartedness and an entertaining accompaniment. In both of these films you will hear mostly major keys, lots of plucked instruments, and many little themes to accompany the characters and scenes. My focus here was to decorate the characters with charm rather than broaden the emotional landscape of the scene due to the comedic nature of the films. The first score I wrote, for Life for a Life, is written for solo piano, the traditional form of silent film music. I started off with writing the bass clef accompaniment to build a foundation off of a which melodies and counterpoint could form. The music is intended to be emotional emphatic and oscillates between gently romantic music and dramatically painful.

Juliet Merchant is a pianist and composer working in both classical and electronic music.

Explore our complete collection of silent film here.