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Music students recreate the live music accompanying ‘20s film

 Photo by Mico Mazza

The silent film made a comeback at the University of Ottawa with a fourth-year music seminar recreating the 1927 film The Cat and the Canary. With the movie playing in the background, Professor Paul Merkley and 11 students formed a small orchestra to perform the score to the film in front of more than 100 people at Freiman Hall in Perez Hall.

“We were given a collection of silent film music from the National Gallery when they couldn’t handle it and knew that I was interested,” said Merkley. He made a seminar project out of cataloguing the music and researching information about its owners and creation.

Merkley undertook the project with the help of third- and fourth-year undergraduate students, along with a few graduate students, all of whom were in his seminar class.  Instead of having a final exam or research project, the class decided to recreate The Cat and The Canary.

“I’d proposed it to them, when we got partway along in the course, but they really jumped on the bandwagon and they really did it,” Merkley said.

Third-year music student Brandon Renelli, who doubled as the orchestra’s conductor, was pleased with how the event turned out. With only a month to prepare for the performance, things were made even tougher by the fact that the group was rarely able to practice together due to scheduling issues.

“This performance was one of the few times that we had everyone together playing, which was kind of panicky,” he said.

The biggest hurdle the class had to overcome was getting cue sheets together for the film. The orchestra and conductor use cue sheets to show the score for the film, the tone with which to play the music, and what time, in relation to the film, the music should be played at. However, what they received from the National Gallery didn’t fill the whole film.

“We had to supplement it with our own musical choices and we kind of pieced it together,” said Renelli.

The event also had other small touches to bring the attendees back in time. Ushers in late ‘20s costume greeted patrons with programs that included fake ads for future silent films and a ticket for the event, on which the price was listed as five cents. The performers and some audience members dressed in period outfits. Music supervisor Jonathan Hales wore a top hat and suit, and Renelli looked the part of a ‘20s conductor wearing a tailcoat jacket.

Both Renelli and Merkley hope the students in attendance were able to learn something about silent films.

“I think it’s a different kind of experience to see images with live music then it is to see sound on film,” said Merkley. “It gives you an idea of where film came from, what it was like in 1929, before they could do the talkies.”

“I hope people walked away with a little personal experience behind silent film,” Renelli added. “It’s not just something that your grandmother watched that was boring and not artful at all.”


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