Composer Phillip Johnston will be redefining the target audience of Vivid Sydney’s New Wave: Sound program with his modern score to 1926 silent silhouette animationThe Adventures Of Prince Achmed. Dedicated primarily to experimental and electronic sound, many labour under the misapprehension that New Wave will have nothing for them, or for young audiences. Johnston breaks down these imagined barriers by bringing silent film into the 21st century.
Johnston has been a lifelong lover of silent films, and a large portion of his career has been dedicated to writing modern scores for them. “Contemporary scores for silent films present a composer with extraordinary opportunities,” he says. “There’s no other sound in the film, no dialogue to worry about overwhelming them. The music is the entire score and sound, so it’s a chance to create a large-scale work.”
The composer also believes there’s much more to the silent film genre than people’s preconceived notions dictate. “It’s an amazing body of work. Silent film is, in a sense, an entirely different art form than sound film. People generally look at it as the early infancy of film, but I look at it as something really different. The acting style, the structure; it’s really a whole art form which developed an incredible body of work in the short 30 years before synchro sound came along. So [for me] it’s partially a love for this art form; the variety, the depth, the inventiveness, the imagination, the resourcefulness and the sheer weirdness of it at times.”
When asked what inspired him to compose for The Adventures Of Prince Achmed, Johnston explains: “In all of my silent film scores I try to do something different in the basic relationship between the music and the film. I was looking for a film that would give me an opportunity to do something unique, and I found The Adventures Of Prince Achmed. About five different things from different directions pointed me towards the film, including the film itself, which is amazing.”
The film’s story is adapted from The Arabian Nights and includes classic fantasy elements such as an evil sorcerer, a flying horse, a beautiful princess, monsters and even Aladdin. One can’t help being seduced by the concept as well as the execution. “It’s a very personal kind of work,” Johnston says. “Lotte Reiniger [the film’s creator] developed this style called silhouette animation, which involves the meticulous cutting out of black paper and photographing it, like stop motion animation. It’s a real stylised kind of work, and she devoted her entire career to working in that medium. She ended up creating many works which were based on fairytale subject matter.”
What makes Johnston’s score for the film a perfect addition to the New Wave program is his decision to go in a different direction to previous work.
“Normally all of my scores are performed by live musicians, and I wanted to create a score in which I use pre-recorded elements and combine them with live elements. I also wanted to use elements of electronic music and sampling, like you see in electronica.
“All at once it’s a cutting-edge piece of new music and it’s fun for the whole family. Kids like it because it has a great story and I like to think that the music, in spite of its weirdness, does serve the film. At the same time, it’s something that has elements it in that are quite avant-garde.”