In an effort to demonstrate the vast
degree to which music affects the mood of a movie, especially one with
no audible dialogue, J.C. Sanford, Le Moyne College’s director
of jazz studies, composed an astounding score that stretched through
the duration of the epic flick’s 143-minute running time. Select
members of the Central New York Jazz Orchestra performed the
music live with seemingly flawless finesse, accompanied by bandleader
Sanford on trombone. Sanford called out urgent cues to the group
throughout the performance in order to hold the performers together for
the nerve-wracking accomplishment.
Ben-Hur’s plot follows Judah
Ben-Hur (played by Ramon Novarro), a Jewish prince who lives during the
time when Jesus Christ was campaigning among the hippies of the first
century to promote love and introspection among the downtrodden,
oppressed Jews under Roman rule. Ben-Hur embarks upon an epic struggle
between himself and Messala (Francis X. Bushman), a Roman soldier and
former friend. An epic chariot race between Messala and Ben-Hur forms
the climax of the movie.
Sanford’s score provided a wide variety
of musical elements that sometimes commented on the movie itself, while
at other times elaborated on a perspective in light of modern
predicaments. For example, Sanford composed a psychotic, foreboding,
free-jazz vignette during a scene in which Messala recites a key line
of dialogue (displayed as text in typical silent film fashion): “To be
a Roman is to rule the world.” The pointed bit of music suggested that
Sanford found the line particularly significant, perhaps as a metaphor
to the United States’ often unbridled patriotism and view of its
position in the global community.
Even the score:
Trombonist and composer J.C. Sanford (left) and members of the Central
New York Jazz Orchestra performed an original score to the silent movie
Ben-Hur during the Syracuse International Film Festival.
Other musical statements were more
aesthetic in nature, such as themes that introduced each character and
often provided a foreshadowing of the tragedy and struggle to ensue. A
bit of Arabian-meets-jazz music that sounded surprisingly like a song
from Super Mario Bros. 2 (remember the desert levels?) matched with Ben-Hur’s trek across the sandy Middle Eastern landscape toward his doom.
At times Sanford’s score served as sound
effects, such as when the orchestra’s brass coincided with Roman
trumpets, and when drummer Larry Luttinger played along to the
ship galley’s slave-drive beats that kept the Jewish gaggle and Ben-Hur
paddling. Quick tempos and fast-paced licks often lent musical scenery
to scenes in which director Fred Niblo attempted to visually describe the mobs of Roman cities.
The famous chariot scene featured a
funky drum line that shared a style with the so-called “Amen Break,” as
Sanford himself took a turn in a circle of solos that formed a musical
companion to the laps the Roman charioteers made around the circus.
Messala’s manic facial expression seemed nearly psychedelic in the
context of the highly contemporary score, as Sanford timed the lines of
the musical solos to tangle up during the point in which the chariots
ultimately collide, leaving Ben-Hur the victor.
Pianist Rick Montalbano employed
some synthesizer sounds to accentuate eeriness. While the effort to
create a bit of tonal counterpoint to the score’s largely traditional
jazz instrumentation was clear, ultimately Montalbano’s synth samples
came across as a bit dated and more in line with Weather Report’s worst
moments than Herbie Hancock’s tasteful use of electronic
instrumentation on Head Hunters.
As a series of short but dense musical
quips strung together into a collage of musical statements, Sanford’s
score was a remarkable work of art in its own regard. While the several
hundred film fans in attendance might have been more impressed by
checking out the timeless film, those who are a bit more inclined to
musical art than the silver screen would have been flabbergasted by the
sheer breadth of Sanford’s work.
Toga party: Costumed warriors greet moviegoers for Ben-Hur.MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS