Composing the Score for The Brilliant Biograph

“It felt a bit like the films were a coloring page, and I had an enormous choice of crayons”: An interview with Daan van den Hurk by Kate Saccone

By Kate Saccone19 July 2021

Daan van den Hurk works on his score for The Brilliant Biograph
Daan van den Hurk works on his score for The Brilliant Biograph

In June 2021, The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902) (2020) won the FOCAL Award for Best Archive Restoration & Preservation Project. Curated by Frank Roumen, Director of Collections at Eye, and Elif Rongen, Silent Film Curator at Eye, this 50-minute digital compilation film is comprised of approximately 50 titles from Eye’s Mutoscope & Biograph Collection of 68mm films made between 1897-1902. These Biograph films, along with a handful of titles from the British Film Institute, are presented in five thematic sections (Daily Life, Riding the Waves, Greetings from…, Moving Forward, and Body in Movement), and offer a tour of European life and locales at the turn of the twentieth century. Given that the individual Biograph films vary in theme and tone—and run approximately 30 seconds to one minute in length—the musical accompaniment had to, as Rongen put it in the festival catalogue of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, “[hold] the compilation together…while also recognizing the intrinsic value of each individual film.”

Dutch silent film accompanist and composer Daan van den Hurk was up for the challenge, and, ultimately, composed a lyrical score that enhances and playfully supports the varied and visually stunning images.

In this interview, Daan shares his approach to the project and his process for composing the score for The Brilliant Biograph.

How long did you have to work on the score for The Brilliant Biograph?

I had about two months to write and record the entire score, which is not very long to compose 52 minutes of music. I also had to notate it and make sure I could perform and record it at the same time. I wanted to write the music that I thought it needed, so some passages that needed a lot of energy were quite difficult to perform. As a result, I was still looking for better ways to play certain passages when I was already in the recording studio. In fact, I remember composing the last bits the night before I met with Frank and Elif to present them with what I had written so far.

Daan van den Hurk works on his score for The Brilliant Biograph
Daan van den Hurk works on his score for The Brilliant Biograph
sheet music for Daan van den Hurk's score for The Brilliant Biograph
sheet music for Daan van den Hurk's score for The Brilliant Biograph

Did you have any discussions with Frank and Elif about their curatorial vision for the compilation before or while composing the score?

I was, of course, given some information, but, in general, I think curators do not want to influence the musicians so they do not tell us too much. But, actually, I wish I knew more before I began to compose the score because it can change your entire idea. I remember making some last-minute changes when I found out what the story was behind the compilation [a snapshot of the transition between the 19th and 20th centuries] or when Frank, for instance, told me what his idea was for a certain film. I remember thinking “Yes, that IS better than what I did.” I think as a silent film musician, you need to be a bit of a film historian as well.

How did you approach the composition process? What were the important or necessary elements for you?

I thought the images were stunningly beautiful; I was really enchanted by them, so I wanted the music to enhance the images but never obscure them. In a way, I wanted to be invisible. If I did too little, you would feel the images were silent, but if I did too much, it felt noisy. So I looked at the movement in each film—the energy of the people that were in it, for example—and I tried to follow and color the images rather than “accompanying” them. It felt a bit like the films were a coloring page, and I had an enormous choice of crayons. I like the example of the film featuring the launch of an enormous boat [Launch of the ‘Oceanic’ (GB 1899)]. With the music, I tried to follow the weight of the boat, let the engines start, feel the turning point in the film as the boat wavers in the air for a moment before it hits the sea. I think there are many examples like that one.

still from The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902): Oceanic Launch
still from The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902): Oceanic Launch

I also felt the music should really be in the style of the time in which the films were made. Too modern did not work, but nor did too old-fashioned. I had a very nice calm piece that reminded me of Robert Schumann, and that I was actually quite happy with, but I threw it out because it felt too old-fashioned. It lacked the freshness and excitement of this brand new medium that was film.

Although I, of course, did not want to copy anything, I did study the music of some of the greatest composers of that era. I studied their compositional techniques and the musical experiments they were doing. So instead of trying to copy the style, I tried to experiment in the spirit of the music from the turn of the century. Luckily for me, it was a time of many musical inventions, and I feel that there is still a lot to musically discover about the period using their compositional techniques.

Can you speak a little about your overall process from the composing to the recording of the score? Did you compose music for each individual film and then work to connect them cohesively or did you think more at the level of the thematic chapter?

I did both. Composing the score for this project presented me with a number of challenges. For example, there is no singular narrative; every film has its own character, and every chapter had a tension bow, or an arc, as does the entire film. In other words, every chapter feels like a rounded story with a beginning, middle, and end, and the entire film does too.

First, I tried out many things to see how they would work. That resulted in the numerous versions that I threw out, not because it was bad music per se (some of it was maybe...), but because it did not work for the compilation. For example, my first attempt for the first chapter [Daily Life] had continuous music, slowly morphing into the character of the next film. But it felt like the audience would not be able to breathe anymore, so I wrote a new version, one piece of music per film. And it started to feel so fragmented that it became tiring to watch (again a new film, again a new film, again a new film, etc.).

So what I did, in the end, to solve this was two things: first, I combined films that I felt like had the same idea or character and made longer pieces with longer tension bows, or arcs, so it would not be fragmented. Secondly, I made recurring themes to glue the chapters together. Chapter One has a recurring theme for every film that had a crowd, for example. Chapter Two [Riding the Waves] starts and finishes with the same piece, but the second time it builds to a climax. Chapter Three [Greetings from…] has longer pieces to glue films together. Chapter Four [Moving Forward] has one piece for every film, but since there is so much more movement and energy in the films in this section, it works.

Chapter Five [Body in Movement] is divided into two halves. This last chapter has the most energy, so I wanted the energy to keep flowing and I composed a score for the first set of films. There is an intermission-like break in the Island Marken film [Een Kinderfeest op ‘T Eiland Marken (NL 1899)] and then the energy comes back, and I composed for the films after as a group again and the score ends with the same tune that started the chapter, but built more towards a climax.

still from The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902): Een Kinderfeest op t eiland Marken
still from The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902): Een Kinderfeest op t eiland Marken

What other challenges did you keep running into?

A big challenge was the opening prelude. The opening music sets the tone for the rest of the film, and I was struggling with it how it should sound. Because I had to deliver music for the trailer, I had an earlier deadline for when the prelude needed to be finished, and sometimes the pressure helps. I remember I laid down for a moment to empty my mind and an idea popped in. I rushed to the piano and the prelude just came out in almost one breath.

In my first version, I had a different “main theme” to accompany the opening text for every chapter, but after having the prelude, I decided to have every chapter open with a fragment of the prelude. The first three chapters actually open with consecutive sections of the prelude. Only for the fifth chapter did I keep the idea of having a main theme for the chapter itself because I wanted it to feel like the finale.

sheet music for Daan van den Hurk's Prelude (The Brilliant Biograph score)
sheet music for Daan van den Hurk's Prelude (The Brilliant Biograph score)