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The long-lost art revived in Cairo: Pianist Mohamed Naglah on his music for silent-era films

Ahram Online spoke with composer Mohamed Naglah about the creative process of performing live music for silent films

Soha Elsirgany , Thursday 18 Jan 2018
Views: 5550
Views: 5550

On 13 January, two films from the silent era -- A Trip to The Moon (1902) by science-fiction pioneer George Milies and At Land (1946) directed by and starring Maya Deren -- were screened at the Cairo's Osiris Centre accompanied by a live performance by pianist and composer Mohamed Naglah.

The soundtracks composed by Naglah fused smoothly with the film and extended until after the screenings.

So streamlined was the composer's performance that several audience members later approached him saying that they had forgotten he was there performing live.

Strange as it sounds, to Naglah’s ears this was the finest compliment. His goal was to merge the music seamlessly with the visuals; complementing, but not distracting from them.

The practice of live music during film screenings is a lost art dating back to the birth of film during the 1890s.

A Trip to The Moon by George Millies (1902) was made in the era of silent films, as the technology for synchronized sound was only introduced in 1927. If the film was screened to live music, it would have been different every time and there is no remaining record of early soundtracks.

While Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) was created well after the silent-era, the film never had a soundtrack, yet many musicians have added their own music to it over the years.

Some of Deren’s other films featured music. In others it was added later on by her third husband and collaborator, Teiji Ito.

Ahram Online asked the pianist about his process of providing music to silent films.

Ahram Online (AO): How did you end up choosing these films?

Mohamed Nahlah (MN): I was looking for short silent films, after I had first done Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid which runs for 50 minutes. That is a duration I can manage, but other films I found were 90 minutes long or more, which is a bit too long and physically exhausting for a pianist.

So I delved into short films, and I found there was a large archive of films that ran for under 30 minutes and were more artistic, like these.

The two films are so different from one another; Trip to the Moon is from the genre of fantasy, where you can follow the narrative even though it’s magical and imaginary. At Land is personal and surreal, and leaves you guessing at the meanings. I hoped to make music that is distinctive for each one.

AO: How is it different making music for films like these and for other styles, like feature films?

MN: With feature films, you are tied with the events happening, and the music and sounds are much more minimal.

But with these films there is much more freedom in the interpretation. Every time my performance is slightly different, because I’m always revisiting it, adding something or changing it. I look at certain scenes again and sometimes feel they can be expressed better.

AO: Does it influence you in anyway to hear the soundtracks from other people’s interpretations?

MN: I found soundtracks that are wholly different from what I’ve done, but it doesn’t really affect me. There are some that we could say are 'technically' more suited for a film like At Land, and what I do makes it more commercial. Which I think is suitable for the general audience who come and want to hear nice music, and I play to the listener’s emotions.

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