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Silent Masterpiece Sunrise Boasts New Score: For a Single Guitar

by Jacob Combs
July 4, 2011 5:26 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

When German director F.W. Murnau subtitled his 1927 silent film Sunrise with the phrase “a song of two humans,” he almost certainly meant those words to be understood figuratively. In a few weeks, though, Paolo Cherchi Usai, an Italian film archivist and director, and Giovanni Spinelli, an Italian-born composer based in New York City, will premiere a project they have been working on for the last two years that will change that subtitle, quite literally, to “a song of one human.”

In 2009, Usai approached Spinelli with a challenge: write a completely new score for the classic expressionist silent film performed entirely on one solo electric guitar. On top of this restriction was another condition. The entire 94-minute score had to played live by one player, a feat of yogic proportions.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is one of the masterpieces of the silent film era. Although Murnau produced the film in the United States (on the invitation of William Fox), its spirit is undeniably of the German expressionist movement, with stylized sets and scarce use of titles. The film’s story is simple enough: a happily married farmer meets a city woman in a slinky black dress and falls for her. She, in turn, tries to convince him to drown his wife.

Spinelli’s restrictive compositional challenge seems a fitting one for a silent film. Just as Murnau had to contend with silence and make it an asset of his movie, Spinelli had to do the same with his single guitar. To do so, he spent 16 months alone experimenting to discover and create new sounds. His experiments ranged from the conventional (trying out different pedals and electronic effects) to the unusual (using electric razors, milk frothers and pivot drivers to manipulate the guitar’s sound).

Usai and Spinelli collaborated in 2006 on a new score for D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie, which Spinelli conducted live at the opening of the 25th International Silent Film Festival in Venice. Usai, who is also the Resident Curator at the Telluride Film Festival and a co-founder of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, is known for his unconventional projects. His last project was a film that collected archival footage to “accompany” Arvo Pärt’s “Passio,” which played at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. Afterwards, Usai had himself filmed destroying the negative.

Spinelli will perform his original score on July 14 at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which runs until July 17. Let's hope this event is not singular and travels to other cities as well.

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