Daron Hagen's New Score to The Tramp - A bit of background

BLOG UPDATE: 6-9-15:  Read Erin's Interview with Daron Hagen below!

Several months ago, after I chose the theme for the 2015 Festival (Cheers! Toast 20 Years of Music in the Mountains), I began to search for other artistic endeavors whose birthdays we celebrate this year. Oddly, Beethoven didn’t write much in 1815, but luckily Schubert did. Berlioz didn’t accomplish much in 1865 (unless you include his memoirs), but Brahms filled the void that year with his Second Sextet for Strings. 1915 brought some of the most intriguing anniversaries: the birthdays of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, the anniversary one of my favorite pieces (Debussy’s Sonata for Viola, Flute, and Harp – a luscious combination), and the year Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp premiered.

I have always loved to see film with live music. There’s something about the innovation of prerecorded video mixed with the immediacy and fear of live music that thrills me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve conducted several film-music events. In the live version of Casablanca, I had to make sure to pair Max Steiner’s score with famous snippets of film like the reveal of the gun or the start of Sam’s piano solo. For selections from Pixar films, the tempo changed every two or three measures going from 96 to 100 to 97.5 (not joking). A click track tried in vain to keep me in synch, but I ended up just memorizing the score and the movie and forgoing that awful earpiece. Besides, it was much more fun to watch the movie than to be ruled by an insistent click-click-click-click-click-click-click.

THE TRAMP (1915) with theater organ accompaniment. On July 24th, we'll perform it with Daron Hagen's new score for chamber ensemble.

So, when I learned that 2015 was the centenary of The Tramp, I knew what had to be done. My first thought was to pair the movie with music of Haydn, as he was the great joker of the Classical Era. I called WPA's newly appointed Chair of Composition, Daron Hagen, to get his thoughts. He’s an incredibly creative composer with a ton of film experience. We knocked around some ideas and came up with the concept of creating a score using snippets of Haydn string quartets and piano sonatas.  (VISIT DARON'S WEBSITE HERE)

We hung up on Skype and about one hour later, I received an e-mail. Daron offered to write a piece for us – for Wintergreen Performing Arts! It would be a brand new score for chamber ensemble and would accompany The Tramp. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. To be able to help bring a new piece into this world is a true honor, but to have that collaboration with the venerable Daron Hagen is mind blowing.

Anne Esse, Photographer

Anne Esse, Photographer

Now I have the score in hand. Written for piano, clarinet (who plays B-flat clarinet as well bass clarinet and the higher E-flat clarinet), and string quintet, the piece is stunning. In fact, I still get emotional every time I look at it. It didn’t exist just a few months ago, and now here it is on my desk ready to receive its world premiere with me on the podium, my new colleagues on the stage, Charlie Chaplin on the screen above, and (a hopefully pleased) Daron Hagen in the audience.

What a treat for us all!

-- Erin Freeman, WPA Artistic Director


ERIN AND DARON discuss The Tramp!

After we had our phone call discussing the idea of Haydn as the music, what went through your mind?  In other words, how did you come to the decisions that you wanted to take this project on?

My first thought was: "Lucky Haydn!" My second thought was, "Hey, why not me?" I've long treasured the immense subtlety of Chaplin's work; the character of the Tramp always possess a nutty moral ascendancy that I admire. The little guy is an Everyman worth writing music for. 
Years ago, I heard Morton Gould's lovely  ballet score "I'm Old Fashioned" at City Ballet, and burst into tears of joy at the moment when all the dancers onstage suddenly swept into unison, the film of Astair and Rodgers fired up on the scrim in the background, and they all got to BE Fred and Ginger. I've also enjoyed very much Philip Glass' music for silent movies, and got a real charge out of the idea of a recent opera by a film composer on the west coast that paired live singers with a silent monster thriller to great effect. 

I'm increasingly integrating pre-shot visuals and pre-recorded electro-acoustic and musique concrete into my opera and theatrical projects, too. Spending more time serving as director for those projects as well as composer has made me hungry for opportunities like CHAPLIN'S TRAMP where I can do more with the music than a traditional film score would do. Freed of having a music editor or anyone else calling the shots, I can make the music an equal player on an aesthetic level. In fact, I can make the music itself the POV (point of view) for the audience instead of the visuals!

In other words, my way in to this project was to maker the score a pocket concerto for piano, with string quintet and clarinet. The idea is that the piano is Chaplin (who was, after all, a gifted tunesmith) as an old man, sitting alone in a screening room, watching a print of his film for the first time in many years. The audience listens to Chaplin watch the film. 

All this ran through my head just after your email. So, I shot off an email asking you what you would think about my doing it, and off we went. 

What other projects have you done that marry film and music?

I scored a lot of small commercial industrial shorts during a rather strange, sad period of my life years ago during which I also did a lot of music copying on Broadway. It was fun, but creatively feckless. I learned a lot, though. Now, as I said, I integrate multi-media into my operas in a very matter-of-fact way that befits a creative individual who has enough experience with it to conceal it rather than allow it to be used as a marketing gimmick. 

Can you tell me about how you go about writing music for a film?  How is that different than writing an opera or a piece of chamber music?

Writing for film is like a holiday for me. Can't tell you how much fun it is. On the one hand, you get to use all those "musical adjectives" you can't allow yourself in the theater (because they slow down rather than push the action) because in film the images motivate the action, driven by the narrative, and music is sitting in the back seat asking when we're gonna get there. On he other hand, as a composer, I like to drive. So it's a trade-off. 

Do you see this as being a piece that could stand alone, without the film?

Yes. I set for myself the technical challenge of creating a concerto that could be performed without the film being shown and still be viable. It's formal elements derive from the structure of Chaplin's screenplay, of course; but the postmodern narrative the music conveys also has its own rhyme and reason. 

Can you tell us about the other version of this piece - the piano concerto?  How are you changing this version of it to create the new work, and when and where will it be performed?

The only change is a few simplifications of the seams between sections, so that the concerto can be more easily conducted from the keyboard, if it pleases the soloist to do so. In this case, the concerto is destined for premiere by an extremely gifted pianist / conductor named Scott Dunn, who really understands film. I look forward sometime in the future -- after our intimate dinner and a movie experience at Wintergreen -- to witnessing the piece with Scott playing, someone else conducting a big orchestra, and the film showing, and all the other possible ways it can be done: with Scott conducting from the keyboard and no film; with film and Scott, etc., etc.