APPLETON, WIS – Thanks to Garth Neustadter’s musical talents, the classic silent film “The White Sister” will be silent no more.
For the second time in a year, the Lawrence University senior has put his composer’s pen to work on behalf of Turner Classic Movies, writing a 134-minute musical score for the 1923 movie starring silent screen legend Lillian Gish.
As part of an ongoing restoration of silent films, Warner Brothers has been converting the original “The White Sister” into digital format. When the studio went looking for someone to write a musical score for it — most silent films were originally shown with live music performed in the theatre — it turned to newcomer Neustadter rather than the usual carde of composers in Hollywood, where union regulations have made it increasingly expensive to produce film scores.
Neustandter was on TCM’s radar screen after earning first-prize honors (second place behind the grand prize winner) in the 2007 Young Film Composers Competition. Sponsored by the cable television network, the 8th annual international competition drew more than 800 participants, each of whom had to score a 90-second clip from the 1924 silent movie “Beau Brummel.”
“This is the first score Turner Classic Movies has recorded outside of Hollywood,” said Neustadter. “I’m trying to match the quality of sound they’re used to getting for these projects.”
“The White Sister,” the first American movie to be filmed overseas (Italy), was originally scheduled to be the film project for the 2008 TCM composer’s competition, but the writer’s strike earlier this year put the annual event on hold. Some gentle lobbying by Neustadter with contacts he had made the previous year resulted in an August request asking if he would like to tackle the entire film, not just a short clip.
“I was totally surprised,” said Neustadter, who is pursuing a double major in violin and voice performance, not composition. “I never anticipated it would work out the way it did. It turned into a great opportunity.”
And a time-consuming one, too. Since early September when he received a copy of the film, Neustadter has been devoting 10 hours a day to the score to meet his end-of-December deadline. He took a reduced class load this fall.
“I knew I would need all the time available to finish this,” said Neustadter, 22, of Manitowoc, who conservatively estimates he has logged 1,000 hours on the project.
Before writing a single note, he prepared for the project by reading the book on which the film is based, researched the history of the film’s settings and time period, read several books on film scoring, architecture and composition and studied numerous professional orchestral scores.
Neustadter’s previous composition experience involved writing 1-2 minutes of music a week. For this project, he was forced to compose 2-3 minutes a day.
“To write more than two hours of music is a daunting task. I couldn’t afford to have any bouts of writer’s block,” said Neustadter, who won two Down Beat magazine awards for composition while in high school. “The difficult part of writing for film is that all the music has to synch with the exact part of the film so that it clicks with every nuance. When you watch these silent films, it’s amazing just how silent they really are. You really need the right music to tell the story and pull the film along.”
Adding to the overall challenge of the project were several scenes in the film involving musicians. Neustadter had to write what he felt they were playing, including composing an up-tempo waltz in a gypsy style.
“I had to convince the audience that the music they heard is what the musicians on the screen were actually playing,” he explained.
“The size and scope of this project would challenge any professional film composer, let alone a heavily engaged college student like Garth,” said Fred Sturm, director of jazz studies at Lawrence and an award-winning composer himself, who has served as a mentor to Neustader on the project. “Professionals strive to compose about two minutes of film music per day, and most contemporary feature films typically use about 45 minutes of music. Garth has written almost three times that amount.
Sturm, who taught film scoring for 10 years while at the Eastman School of Music, says Neustadter “is right there with the best young writers I’ve taught. He’s got the talent and discipline to be a superb film composer. Folks are going to be amazed by the beauty and quality of his work.”
The restoration team originally wanted only a piano score for the “The White Sister,” which, at two hours and 14 minutes, is nearly twice the length of most silent movies, but told Neustadter he could add additional instrumentation if he wanted to. He quickly took them up on their offer, soliciting the musical talents of nearly 20 Lawrence conservatory faculty and students to perform.
“I wanted to do as much with it as I could,” said Neustadter. “I felt the film really needed a full orchestral score.”
With his deadline fast approaching, Neustadter has been laying down his own violin tracks in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel the past several weeks, sometimes from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. to accommodate the building’s heavy use. He’s also been scrambling to schedule more sane-time recording sessions with his collaborating musicians.
He plans to ship off his finished soundtrack by the end of the year and with TCM’s blessing, is hoping to present the score on campus in a recital format as a “night at the movies” early next year. The film is tentatively scheduled to air on TCM sometime in February.
“It’s been an enormous challenge to tackle this project from start to finish in the time frame I had,” said Neustadter. “Along the way, I’ve learned it’s good not to encounter writer’s block, that I truly enjoy film score writing, that professional writers employ assistants for good reason and that there are never enough hours in the day.”
“I was very fortunate to get to do something on this scale,” he added. “As a young composer, it’s so tough to find these kinds of opportunities. It’s a great start for me.”