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Berklee students score with 'Sunrise'

New music for a silent classic gets debut at Coolidge

F.W. Murnau’s 1927 classic starring George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor has been called “the most beautiful film in the world.’’ F.W. Murnau’s 1927 classic starring George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor has been called “the most beautiful film in the world.’’ (Film Forum)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 5, 2010

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A French film magazine once called F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent classic, “Sunrise,’’ “the most beautiful film in the world.’’ The Coolidge Corner Theatre will be showing “Sunrise’’ tomorrow evening with a new score the Coolidge commissioned from the Berklee College of Music film scoring department. The screening is part of the theater’s ongoing Sounds of Silents series.

A stunningly photographed film of great emotional sweetness, “Sunrise’’ is the story of a couple (George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor) whose marriage is threatened by the husband’s affair with a vamp from the big city (Margaret Livingston). The film won Academy Awards for best picture, best actress (Gaynor), and best cinematography.

So is it harder scoring the most beautiful film in the world than just your regular multiplex-variety movie?

Sheldon Mirowitz laughed when asked that question last week. Mirowitz is the Berklee professor who, with eight of his students, composed the new score and orchestrated it for “Sunrise.’’

“In some ways, it’s way easier because it’s such a good movie — and in some ways it’s way harder because you want to live up to it. It’s very inspiring.’’

That inspiration has resulted in a 600-page score. Even Mirowitz, a film composer with three Emmy nominations to his credit, found “Sunrise’’ a challenge. “It’s actually even harder than I thought it was going to be,’’ he said, “and it’s been very hard.’’

Obviously, silent films lack dialogue. Even more daunting for a composer, they also lack any other sort of sound. There’s no reliance on sound effects or ambient noise to maintain moviegoers’ auditory attention. “Sunrise’’ will have continuous music for its 94-minute running length. It’ll come from a 10-musician ensemble that will be accompanying the screening live.

For the students, the difficulty was more than offset by the opportunity that scoring “Sunrise’’ offered. Berklee has more than 300 students majoring in film scoring. It offers the world’s only undergraduate major in film scoring. So great is the demand for chances to compose that Berklee students will seek out filmmaking counterparts at Emerson or Boston University, offering to create scores for their student films.

Most of the students involved in the “Sunrise’’ score gathered at Berklee Wednesday night for a first run-through with the musicians. “We’re students who are used to doing just small projects,’’ said Joao Goncalves. “So this is a great opportunity.’’ “It’s a crazy opportunity,’’ added David Wheeler, another of the students.

Repeated descriptions of daunting workloads and deadlines met at the last minute made the opportunity sound more onerous than crazy. “This class has kind of taken over their lives,’’ Mirowitz conceded. But when a reporter asked if the assignment had been fun, the answer was a resounding chorus of “Oh, yesses,’’ “Definitelys,’’ and “Yeahs.’’ More to the point, the expressions on the students’ faces were of the what-a-stupid-question-to-ask variety.

The semester started with Mirowitz providing the students with themes around which the score would be organized, as well as a few cues. Their job was to expand on those themes and orchestrate them for roughly the equivalent of a reel’s worth of film each. They have a varied musical palette to deal with when orchestrating. The ensemble consists of piano, violin, cello, clarinet, flute, trumpet, French horn, oboe, percussion, and keyboards.

“We spent the first four weeks dealing with nothing but technical issues,’’ said student Glen Cheney.

“Then we were writing and writing and writing and writing and writing and writing and writing,’’ fellow student Sonia Belousova interjected, a slightly mad grin on her face.

The other students are Norman Kim, Yong Eun Kim, Mayreni Morel Caraballo, and Jidam Kang.

Belousova’s somewhat crazed look was suitable preparation for the rehearsal that followed. After thanking the musicians, Mirowitz kicked things off by saying, “This is going to be fun! It’s also going to be a little bit insane.’’

Monday night, each student will conduct the musicians during his or her part of the score. That’s how things worked on Wednesday, as the players sight read under the baton of each student-conductor. Mirowitz hovered in the foreground, equal parts cheerleader, Dutch uncle, and A&R man. Notably absent was any sign of “Sunrise.’’

“We’re not going to play to the actual film until Monday morning,’’ Mirowitz explained. “That’s when the print arrives. We could work from DVDs, but they’re not at the exact same speed. The whole process is a bit of bucking bronco.’’

Apparently, Mirowitz doesn’t mind being in an unsteady saddle. In the spring, he and a different group of Berklee students will be scoring another silent for the Coolidge, the Clara Bow feature “It.’’

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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