Review: William Perry's Music for Great Films of the Silent Era –  Six Title Themes in Search of a Movie

by L. Chrystal Dmitrovic

Empress Books
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The tracks in this next section, I reviewed keeping in mind that, as William Perry says, "There are some visual moments in the Six Title Themes in Search of a Movie as well."

It's a turning of the tables here, with the music composed first, ready and waiting in search of the perfect film. Not a usual scenario where you'll find the composer in front of a screen contemplating visuals and what audio treatment might best accompany them. In this case the music is anticipating the movie, also encouraging the listener to imagine their own visuals.

William Perry, CD liner notes: “… in maintaining a backlog of potential themes...I wrote some thematic material that I hoped would one day find a home....As it turns out, home for this music is the present suite, and I have indulged in the luxury of inventing whimsical film titles and plot suggestions.”

William takes the opportunity to expand on his original liner notes, saying, “For example, the imaginary film in the second movement, The Raincoats of Dijon, is a take-off on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There is a march movement I call The Bridge on the River Platte which is my salute to The Bridge on the River Kwai. The River Platte, however, is in Nebraska.

For the movement about Wild Nights, I asked my friends to name a city that was unlikely to have had many wild nights. My Canadian colleagues won the day . . .they said that Toronto had never had a wild night ever! The final movement is a Sirius Finale from the Film, Voyage to the Dog Star. The sub-title reads: “A space mission is launched from Labrador to retrieve information about the Dog Star. This may be the most important expedition since Darwin’s Beagle.”

Soloist and Irish-born soprano Helen Kearns, who has already sung in numerous international venues, fondly views her participation in the making of CD One. 

Says Helen, “I remember receiving an email from William back in 2009. We had never met, and he wrote to me saying that he was aware that I had recently sung Canteloube's "Songs from the Auvergne" a piece that was a favorite of his. I had been hired to sing these songs with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra that same year, and he happened to be searching for a soloist for the last movement, “Six Title Themes in Search of a Movie.” I was immediately intrigued, and after hearing some of William's music, I jumped at the chance to record for him in my home town of Dublin, and with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra which I love dearly.

Helen Kearns

Soloist Soprano Helen Kearns, 2014 (Photo: Jean-baptiste Millot)

"William and I exchanged many lovely emails and he explained to me what pieces would be recorded and what my solo entailed. It would be a short musical passage of eleven bars or so, and he went on to describe the orchestration before I had received the score and told me about the tessiture. The direction that William gave me for this piece was that it should sound ethereal, pure and fairly free of vibrato, he likened the approach to a piece that he knew I had recently performed, Lucia de Lammermoor, I was now able to imagine what kind of color he was looking for in the short passage.

"I arrived in Dublin the day before to rehearse. It went so smoothly, and I was very impressed by his composition when I finally heard it live with orchestra,  with the soaring beautiful sounds and the descriptive richness. There was a great buzz about the place, a kind of magic, and even a few happy giggles from the orchestra as they rehearsed their vocal countdown. I was truly delighted to sing William's music and be a part of this recording. The music inspired me greatly. I had only wished to be able to sing more. It was such a wonderful experience - the collaboration between orchestra, soloist, and conductor - but here we had the added luxury of having William accompanying us all the way through the recording. These are precious moments I will not forget, and I feel privileged to have been a part of this recording."

Track 10: The first title in this section, Dance Overture from the film Wild Nights in Toronto has the train pulling into a Cotton Club milieu. It was once said that the best whiskey smuggled into the US during prohibition came from Ontario, and in this Toronto after-midnight speakeasy, swinging it up to horn, percussion and chimes, the legal whiskey on the rocks is sitting on the tables and fits right in. The sounds of the era encompass it.

Everything in the musical setting unfolds after the opening fanfare – a pre-code dirty '30s-style dance that can be seen in 42nd Street (1933) with Ruby Keeler hoofing it as a star-in-waiting, then two-stepping into a bluesy shake of maracas and xylophone rumba, on to a bolero (with a little quote from Ravel in the oboes) that dips briefly into the small town tap dance din of maybe a horse-drawn early hour milkman cart. And then, then, it all pulls right back out of the dip to go around the dance floor one more time into a Rockette-kickin' finish. Great fun, so don't resist the urge to get up and dance.
Track 11: With the halcyon romantic style of “Under Paris Skies,” the accordion and orchestra waltz beautifully together, and a wonderful visual is put into live performance.  As explained by Perry, “In The Raincoats of Dijon movement, the bal musette accordionist starts at the back of the house and makes his way down to the stage.”

In the spirit of this delightful escapade, please adorn the cafe tables with checkered tablecloths, uncork the best French dry red, and serve the double cream brie cheese and baguettes!

Track 12: In Serenade from the film Angelus for an Angel as softly struck tubular bells and gentle, undemanding piano keys introduce this tranquil air, Perry begins the tale of the angel who is summoned  to Earth to help when steeple bells in an Italian church steeple ring out. In the Catholic religion, the "Angelus bell" is tolled in the morning, at noon, and in the evening to indicate when an Angelus devotional prayer is to be recited.

The timeless classic nature of the music also makes it easy to recall Greta Garbo in character in the final scene from Queen Christina (1933), unknown thoughts and dreams in her eyes as she stares into an unseen horizon. (As now known, she was directed to "be blank" and "think of nothing.") The impression is also strong that her galleon could be floating on a sheen of unrippled ocean, as Perry's bells rhythmically navigate toward the vanishing point perspective Garbo was focussing on. 

At mid-point, a tambourine and piano tremolos imitating the sound of a mandolin flavour the melody with a different shade of Mediterranean island delight, and the tubular bells sail along and forward with the orchestra. When the bells return with resounding new vigour, yet still gently, an angel is again strongly perceived along its winged way to the subdued repose of the song's conclusion.

Track 13: In the short March from the film The Bridge on the River Platte, all the pomp and perfect military timing of a John Phililp Sousa march is reflected. Creative touches include real whistling mimicking piccolos, with flutes doubling piccolos later on echoing that earlier passage in the orchestral roux.

William Perry, CD liner notes:  "[The piece] derives from a score I wrote for the silent film, What Price Glory (1926)."

Regarding the film What Price Glory, it was chosen as the introductory movie for the PBS series "The Silent Years" hosted by Lillian Gish in 1975. The print and the accompaniment provided by William Perry of his piano score featured on the Paul Killiam Collection, and was released in a 1996 limited time video through Critics Choice Masterpiece Collection.

Track 14: Within a few bars of Nocturne from the film The Black Marigold, one wonders if Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse as the gangster and his moll just stepped onto the giant soundstage – or was that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tuxedoed and gowned under spotlights that follow their every dance move? Classic and cool, with relaxed scale slides and a savoire faire tempo, a minor 7th piano chord acts as the closing period. About the piece in performance adding visual to the music mood, Perry adds, "In The Black Marigold film noir movement, the alto sax player wearing a fedora cradles in the bend of the piano, as he might in a somewhat sleazy bar."

Track 15: In the Sirius Finale from the film Voyage to the Dog Star, lets you know from the first word in the song title – "Sirius" being a play on the word "serious" – that this is an imaginary voyage of musical possibilities. After the countdown, embarking from the Labrador coast, the orchestra hurls the mission onward and springboards from the cymbal clashes out into a zero gravity universe. After encountering a few menacing blips on the radar, the expedition sails on calmly through the reaches of space on a beautiful path into the surrounding infinity.

A lyrical Siren vocal welcomes the interstellar voyagers, imparting a sense of serenity. The orchestra settles in subtly at first for the mystical trek, and re-emerges for the climactic moments, which includes a brief tip of the hat to Speilberg-Lucas star sagas, to take the listener to journey's end. Perry remarks about the visual tactic for this song: “In the final movement of the Voyage to the Dog Star, the soprano sings from the farthest reaches of the balcony.”