In a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedreni), the protagonist in the 1963 horror classic, hears the sound of fluttering wings emanating from the top floor of the house where she’s hiding out from an army of homicidal birds.
In the original version of the film, the only noise made during Melanie’s climb up the stairwell is the thumps of her footfalls. But in a recent screening of the film at The New School, her terrifying ascent was accompanied by the ominous sounds of trembling violin melodies and death march drums, which built to a chaotic crescendo as Melanie opened the door of a bedroom and confronted hundreds of avian attackers.
The eerie soundscape was created by none other than the College of Performing Arts (CoPA) Theater Orchestra, which performed Jazz student Nathan Kamal’s original score to The Birds as live accompaniment to a screening of the film. The thrilling performance marked the third edition of (Un)Silent Film Night, which was hosted by Wall Street Journal critic-at-large and Hitchcock devotee Ed Rothstein and introduced by School of Jazz dean Martin Mueller.
Playing before a packed house and in front of a big screen at Tishman Auditorium, the CoPA Theater Orchestra — students from Mannes School of Music and the School of Jazz — improvised a full score to Hitchcock’s originally scoreless film with Kamal’s “musical sketches” as a guide. Inspired by Hitchcock’s directorial vision, Kamal’s score emerged from the rich “natural” sounds of The Birds as well as the film’s slow-burning suspense and improvisational scenes.
“The physical choreographies of several scenes were improvised by the director and his actors with little preparation,” says Kamal, BA/BFA Liberal Studies/Jazz ’17. “Keeping in this creative vein, the players from both Mannes and Jazz improvised whole sections of the score. Co-creating this score with these players, and with their dazzling conductor, Maestro Gary Fagin, has been the kind of collaboration every jazz composer dreams of.”
Collaboration was a defining feature of (Un)Silent Film Night, an innovative partnership between Mannes School of Music and the School of Jazz. “A true co-creation,” as Kamal describes it, the score grew out of a continuous back-and-forth between the composer and the Mannes players, who seized the opportunity to improvise and build on Kamal’s “musical sketches.” The resulting pieces incorporate a broad sonic vocabulary ranging from lush chorale harmonic textures to extreme dissonance and extended techniques.
The recent production of (Un)Silent Film Night is the second edition of the program, in which CoPA students performed contemporary composer Carl Davis’ score to Harold Lloyd’s classic silent film Speedy. The inaugural event, in April 2015, featured a screening of the memorable silent films The Immigrant (starring Charlie Chaplin) and Sherlock, Jr. (starring Buster Keaton) hosted by actor Matthew Broderick.
For Richard Kessler, executive dean of the College of Performing Arts, (Un)Silent Film Night epitomizes the school’s commitment to collaboration and innovation.
“(Un)Silent Film Night demonstrates the potential that students and faculty are able to realize now that Mannes, the School of Jazz, and the School of Drama have been brought together in our new College of Performing Arts,” he says. “The program — like so many programs in the current professional arts landscape — brings together multiple art forms in a single production and allows students to collaborate across disciplines.”