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Not So Quiet On The Western Front: Orchestra Brings Back Sound To Silent Film Fest

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Stacy Nick
Orchestra members Rodney Sauer (left), Britt Swenson (front) and David Short (right) rehearse music for the screening of “All Quiet on the Western Front” as the silent film runs on a screen on the wall. The musicians synchronize the music to the action in the film.

Since the early 1990s, the five-member Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra has been setting the musical scene for silent films in Colorado and across the country.

“I came across a large collection of silent film music at the University of Colorado that had just been donated there, and started looking through it and realized that there was this whole repertoire of music that had been used in silent film orchestras,” said Rodney Sauer, founder of the Louisville-based orchestra. “It had pretty much been ignored since 1929.”

Ignored — much like silent films themselves. The genre was quickly shelved with the advent of “talkies.” But among film aficionados, they’re still lauded today at various festivals.

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Stacy Nick / KUNC
Rodney Sauer founded the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra after discovering a collection of silent film sheet music at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Rodney was originally a biochemist with a side passion for music. But once he found the untapped niche of performing and recording music for silent films, there was no going back.

“This was something that I had never heard of,” he said. “And it sort of became our own little playground where we were discovering these pieces that had been written and performed decades ago and probably not much since. And also, I really came to appreciate silent film. It was quite a mature art form by the time of the end of the 1920s. And the idea of doing movies with live music in the theater, it really adds a specialness. It makes it an event.”

This month, the orchestra is performing at a special screening of “All Quiet on the Western Front” as part of the Chautauqua Silent Film Series. The film was made in 1930 — a time when talkies were already big in the U.S., but hadn’t broken through in other countries, yet. To compensate, the studio produced two versions: one silent and one with sound. But screenings of the silent version only recently began in the U.S. after a copy was found and restored by the Library of Congress.

For the Mont Alto orchestra, the movie created an opportunity to dip into another bag of tricks: sound effects.

“In spite of its title, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ it is not quiet until the very end,” joked Nancy Sauer, Rodney’s wife and his partner in what they jokingly call “the family business.”

Stacy Nick / KUNC
Nancy Sauer holds up a marching machine built to imitate the sound of feet marching in unison. The machine, built by Rodney Sauer, is part of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s sound effects gear.

Included in their kit are a bass drum for large explosions, a wooden peg system for marching, dried beans and rice dropping on a metal paint tray for crumbling debris and an electric typewriter to mimic the sound of gunfire.

“When you get a repeating key going, it does a great job of (making the sound of a machine gun),” Nancy said. “Then you've got to be careful to get it back, obviously, so you don't get a ‘ding’ in the middle of a tense scene.”

In preparation for the screening, she spends hours watching and re-watching clips from the film to make sure she hits her cues at just the right time.

“The human brain will forgive the sound being just slightly behind,” Nancy said. “Because of course we're used to (the idea that) the sound arrives after the visual. But you have to be prepared for it. So if you’re just like fractions of seconds behind, that's OK. (But you) can never be early … Our brains are not OK with hearing the sound before the visual.”

If the orchestra and crew do their job well, Rodney Sauer says the audience won’t really notice them.

“Our job is to not draw attention to ourselves during the film,” Rodney said. “We want people to be focused on that and feeling the emotion. And what we're doing is we are using the music that we've chosen for each scene to underscore and strengthen the scene, to make it more emotional, to make it sometimes it's to make it funny. Sometimes it's to make an ironic comment. But most of the time we’re taking the film at face value.”

Recently, the entire orchestra got together for the first time in more than a year to rehearse in front of a TV screen playing the film over and over.

It’s definitely a different way of rehearsing, says David Short. The freelance cellist joined the orchestra 14 years ago.

“It's a very different experience than the (traditional) concert, where it feels like there's a wall kind of at the end of the stage,” Short said. “Here we were sitting really close to the audience because we're watching the film, too. And there's a kind of a bigger connection from the musicians to the audience … The reactions of the audience are very visceral because they're in the moment.”

For Short, the music also had a very familiar feel to it.

Stacy Nick / KUNC
Nancy Sauer demonstrates how a repetitive key on an electric typewriter can mimic the sound of machine gun fire.

“I had watched silent films growing up,” he said. “I actually have a deaf brother. And the cool thing about silent films is ... the soundtrack helps the movie and it changes the way the movie feels but you don't need it. So I would be watching it, listening to the soundtrack. My brother would just be watching the film and we could actually share watching the movies together.”

Many of those movies were comedies, screened at a cranked-up speed with cheesy music to match. For Short, it’s been a joy to play the music the way he feels it was meant to be played.

“The music that we play here is music that I won't play anywhere else,” he said. “It's nice because it has that chamber music feeling where it's just the five of us making music together. But at the same time, it's really nice playing a whole collection of music that just does not get performed anymore, which is a shame because some of it's really, really good and it's nice that we can actually bring that back and keep the repertoire going.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Rodney Sauer.

“You've got a performance that's going on,” he said. “It's a live performance. It will never be the same, exactly twice. And so you're experiencing that as this sort of revival of a lost, but quite beautiful sometimes, art form.”

One that if he has his way, will never go silent again.

The Chautauqua Auditorium Silent Film Series begins July 7 with a screening of the Harold Lloyd comedy “Safety Last.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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