The Contemporary Audiovisual Week of Oviedo (SACO – Semana del Audiovisual Contemporáneo de Oviedo), which brings together various artistic disciplines related to film, has celebrated its 7th edition from March 19-28, 2021 in Oviedo, Asturias, having a very special movie-concert: ‘City Lights (1931)’, performed live by the Oviedo Filarmonía conducted by Óliver Díaz.
Here is the special article about this concert written by the composer Pablo Laspra exclusively for SoundTrackFest.
Among the activities programmed for the new edition of SACO (Contemporary Audiovisual Week of Oviedo), which includes several screenings with live music performed by renowned ensembles in the local music scene, we find at the finale of the main week, the screening of Charles Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ (1931) at the Campoamor Theater in Oviedo (venue of the Princess of Asturias Awards ceremony), with live music performed by the “Oviedo Filarmonía” symphony orchestra, masterfully conducted by the Asturian Óliver Díaz (chief conductor of the Oviedo FilmMusic Live! festival).
And the fact is that producing quality cultural shows is an arduous task in times of pandemic: capacity limitations, security measures both at the entrance and exit (which in this case were exceptionally well-executed), space limitations for the orchestra that has to play with the musicians separated and protected (with the problems of sound matching that this produces), make it very justly profitable (in economic and quality terms) to execute major projects such as the one SACO has taken forward. And there are no complaints about the programming or its quality. Not at all: a wide and varied presentation of events, especially those corresponding to the musical audiovisual field, which, as we are accustomed to, have met all expectations and more.
Under the auspices of the Fundación Municipal de Cultura del Ayto de Oviedo, SACO returns to the cultural billboard with a program that continues to deepen the link between the audiovisual and the rest of the arts, betting on innovative artistic proposals that the public of Oviedo will be the first to enjoy, encouraging artistic creation in the city with the commissioning of audiovisual, sound, and musical pieces. The seventh edition of SACO focuses on such transcendental figures in the history of cinema such as Charles Chaplin and Wong Kar-Wai. From March 19 to 28, the event hosted six movie-concerts, ten films, an interactive exhibition, two video installations, and an online workshop for children, all of them designed with extreme care to be developed under the safety standards recommended by the health authorities.
The projection of “City Lights” had two screenings on Saturday, March 27, one at 12:00 noon and the other at 19:00h. This helped to the feasibility of the concert, and approached more public than the capacity limitations allowed in a single session, a model that is becoming quite common.
After a brief but interesting and enriching presentation by Diana Díaz, musicologist, university professor, and expert in audiovisual music, we enjoyed almost two hours of laughter and tears, in equal parts. And, in Diana’s words, what we saw was nothing more than the well-known story of the tramp who pretends to be a good man, in order to fall in love with a hapless girl (the classic damsel in distress) who first lives the deception, but finally ends up discovering the truth, and it is where true love triumphs (apparently), overcoming clichés and superficialities.
The soundtrack is signed by Charles Chaplin himself, who despite not knowing music, hummed the melodies and sketched the themes in his own way for his “assistant” the musician Arthur Johnson to put them on paper. And there was also the part of arranger/orchestrator of the great Alfred Newman (composer, among other great soundtracks, of the Fox fanfare), who had much to do in the style and sonority of this and other great films signed by Chaplin.
We can see that it is in these orchestrations and stylistic managements that the wonderful American sound that his nephew, Randy Newman, has used in most of his films (Toy Story, Monsters S.A., Maverick, Bugs, The Best, Ragtime…) is born. It is a fresh style, which draws from Aaron Copland‘s musical nationalism but also from George Gershwin‘s popular and carefree style, making ragtime, the sound of early soul and jazz, its main seed. Non-syncopated rhythms, the inclusion of the saxophone in the orchestration (three, for lack of one, for the Big Band style), and the placement of the orchestra’s brass players on the stage in the manner of a jazz band on each side of the screen, further enriched the musical part of the event, which was full of quality-enhancing details.
When Charles Chaplin produced this audiovisual film, talkies already existed, however he preferred to continue with his traditional silent film canon, making the music play during almost 100% of the film. There are only a few occasions in which there is no music: the transit passages (few seconds between certain scenes), and the longest one happens during the scene in which The Tramp swallows a whistle, and he wants to focus on the comedy of the situation. The rest is music; good music. It is therefore a tremendous task to make it all fit together, but no one better than the expert hands of the Asturian conductor Óliver Díaz, who has done a conscientious job of execution and synchronization of the whole piece.
As we mentioned, Chaplin in his management of the sound style refused to give voice to the characters, and also emphasized it by putting a kind of kazoo (emulating the distorted sound produced by the loudspeakers of the time) for the mayor’s speech that opens the film. All to emphasize the comedy.
One of the main themes, and almost the central theme that brings it all together, is the one of the violet seller (the flower girl in this case). Chaplin heard it from director Xavier Cugat in a Broadway musical in 1923, being an original theme by Jose Padilla, and performed by Rachel Meller, whom Chaplin tried to cast as the blind florist. She refused, and the artist simply kept the music that accompanied the character, an emotional theme that mixes passion, nostalgia, and love. And this stubbornness of the director only led to a big lawsuit by Padilla who claimed the authorship of his theme since Chaplin signed it as his own. Evidently, Padilla won the lawsuit, which did not lessen the quality of the film or its worldwide results.
The theme of the florist is divided into two sub-themes: the one that represents the florist herself (the cuplé, the central theme of the girl) and another sub-theme with the same intentions and similar style, but with a more nostalgic and intimate atmosphere, and that represents rather the couple; The Tramp and her: it evokes the love that they profess to each other, and it always appears when they are together in situations of tenderness.
Chaplin was always, in artistic but mainly musical terms, permeable to the trends of the time. The opening ragtime rhythms of the film, and the general style of the film, remained largely as a model to follow at the time, in terms of film scoring. Of course, the inclusion of the “mickeymousing” style was also necessary, and at the event we could hear it both from the orchestra and from the pre-existing recordings that were played on the theater’s loudspeakers. Sometimes using the loudspeakers and not the orchestra on certain elements (such as crashed cymbals or whistle) was due more to the search for exact synchrony with the visual beats (the audio was launched from the PA control area, located in a box in front of the screen) and not so much because of the availability of the instrument in the orchestra itself: functionality versus purism. Thus we had exact audio hits when, for example, The Tramp swallows the whistle, and it sounds just when he hiccups. It was a success to follow these original patterns, as they gave the event that classic film flavor that was so well done.
Returning to the musical theme of the beginning, a scherzo-ragtime style that has been seen in several subsequent films (especially animation), it manages to mark a before and after in the music of comic-problematic scenes. Copied (stylistically speaking) by Randy Newman many years later, as we mentioned for his entire animation saga, it gives the character/situation more life than it has thanks to its non-syncopated rhythms and its carefree character, which invites to dance and move, analogy of the bustling streets of New York in the 20s.
Later we also see various sources from which other composers have been inspired, such as Bruce Broughton for his mickeymousing saga in “Tiny Toons”, or his “Cartoon Concerto” (which is the same thing): a comic theme for bassoon, a sort of divertimento that alludes in equal parts to the erratic and good-natured wanderings of the protagonist accompanying his drunken friend, who is also represented by trombone glissandi: a classic (now) but not established at the time, and a great cartoonish innovation, much copied a posteriori.
We must also highlight the great mastery of the Oviedo Filarmonía, always well-paced despite the difficulties, and with a beautiful and mellow sound, at a good tempo, and without shrillness or disjointedness, under the good hand of maestro Díaz. Both the Oviedo Filarmonía and the maestro are a clear reference in audiovisual music in Spain, not only in classical concert music or in the operas and zarzuelas they are used to perform (as orchestra and conductor), but also in their ability to successfully carry out different quality cultural projects, being a powerful orchestra, with plenty of strength to run a grand prix, but they know how to masterfully control to offer the public quality events, one after the other. The most nostalgic violin solos also deserve special mention, with great drama and expressiveness.
We are extremely grateful to SACO and its visible heads Graciela Oliveira and Pablo de Maria, head of the production department and general director respectively, for the opportunity to enjoy a quality event as the finale of a week that has brought to the capital of the principality the best of contemporary art, in audiovisual format. Hopefully, many more projects like this will allow culture to continue on its way, because, although it sounds hackneyed, #CultureIsSafe.
Article and pictures by Pablo Laspra Ferrero
Composer and director of FilmMusic Live!