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Sounds of silence

This Thursday, you get to walk into Liberty Cinema to not just watch a movie but also to witness live music. Two for the price of none, thanks to a ciné-concert organised by the Alliance Française that will be screening the 1929 film Cagliostro, a copy of which has been restored by Paris-based archive La Cinémathèque Française. The Richard Oswald silent movie will be accompanied by live music from French pianist and composer, Mathieu Regnault, who specialises in composing music for movies.


A still from the film

“Watching a ciné-concert is not just about going to the movies; there is an alchemy that develops between the musician who is playing and the film,” says Regnault, in an email interview. “It is in effect a live performance. Each scene that I play for is unique and involves a lot of improvisation.”

Cagliostro, a black-and-white silent film directed by an Austrian and performed by German actors, tells the story of a magician, alchemist and adventurer during the times of the French monarchs, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The film survives only in an abridged form, which is why its continuity is affected.

Though its images and sequences have kept audiences riveted, it was a challenge for Regnault to take up this film. “Composing for the film was a little difficult because it is incomplete. So, the music had to fill in the blanks,” he says. “Here, the music acts as the main thread. I usually follow the same methods when I compose music for a cine-concert. I first compose the music for the principal actors.

Their emotions translated into music results in giving a musical identity to the film. Beyond that, I allow myself to improvise.” Improvisation means that the pianist is playing to the emotions of the on-screen characters as well as the audience. The music often provides vital emotional cues. Says Regnault, “In today’s films, music is used to punctuate or highlight various scenes. In silent films however, it is present throughout the film.

It is the main character of the film. A ciné-concert is a live performance, it’s alive…I always experience a rush of adrenaline when I play.” Regnault was in the city last year to lend live music to another silent film, Le Lion des Mogols, that was screened at the NCPA.

Before the ‘talkies’ became commonplace, silent films transmitted dialogue through muted gestures, mime and title cards, often with live music as accompaniment to intensify the drama on screen. “Though they fell out of fashion after the 1960s, they are back in fashion in France and the rest of Europe in the past 10 years,” maintains Anne Dubourg, director of Alliance Française de Bombay.

“You are not just passively watching a movie or listening to music. It all comes together, and your emotions mingle with what the pianist is trying to convey. This is a reinvention of tradition, but some pianists even do pop music accompaniments to classic films.”

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