How do you improve on one of the greatest films ever made? If you’re the UVIc Jazz Ensemble, you “comprovise” a new score to be played alongside a screening of the 1925 Russian silent classic Battleship Potemkin.
For jazz ensemble leader and School of Music professor Patrick Boyle, updating silent films with improvised scores is nothing new: he’s been doing it for over a decade now, jazzing up the likes of classic cartoons, Charlie Chaplin shorts and Buster Keaton’s The General. And while the choice of film matters, it’s the idea of “comprovisation” that really grabs his attention.
“Of everything I do professionally, playing live music for silent film is my absolutely favourite thing,” he says. “A lot of it involves going back to the idea behind the earliest type of silent film performance: a person composing and improvising — comprovising — at a piano or organ. We just embody that for the 21st century with a band.”
“I love how what we play can completely transform a scene: changing the music completely warps the interpretation for an audience,” he explains. “It’s especially effective with sentimental moments, which you can make more humorous, and vice-versa. Because part of it is composed and part improvised, it’s different every time we perform it.”
Best known for its iconic “Odessa steps” sequence — which has been echoed by directors ranging from Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola to Brian De Palma, Woody Allen and George Lucas in films like The Godfather, The Untouchables, Brazil, Star Wars: Episode III and the Naked Gun (to name just a few) — Battleship Potemkin has long outlived director Sergei Eisenstein’s original propagandistic intentions to become an undeniable cinematic classic.
Ironically, Eisenstein hoped Edmund Meisel’s original score would be updated every 20 years, in order to keep the film current with future audiences. While Potemkin is often screened with orchestral selections from Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, new scores have also been written by composers Michael Nyman, Chris Jarrett (brother of famed jazz pianist Keith Jarrett), and Neil Tennant & Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys.
“Traditionally, the scores are more of a pastiche—they’ll play long sections of Shostakovich symphonies then change to another one, but not necessarily in time or balance with the narrative,” says Boyle. “We do that too sometimes, but there’s a whole bunch of different styles beyond jazz music to play with.”
But Boyle stresses that while he may be the band leader, it’s his “extremely excited and motivated” students who are in the spotlight with this concert. “I’m the main guide, but it’s their music: when the students bring their own compositions, they’re out front.”
As for why Potemkin, Boyle just offers a sly smile. “Considering everything that’s going on in the world, I thought showing something with a Russian theme would be appropriate,” he says. “I wanted to see if we could make silent films great again.”