For over a year film historian Richard Bossons has been collaborating with the composer Leo Geyer on a project to recreate the only known score for Dziga Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera. In 1995, film scholar Yuri Tsivian published his translation of a set of hand-written notes by Vertov detailing the accompaniment he wanted for his film. Tsivian also translated typewritten cue sheets, thought to have been based on Vertov’s notes, created by three composers–A Grin, N Vaisbain, and V. Jenczijevsky–commissioned by the state cinema organisation Sovkino to create a Conspectus–or cue sheet–for the 1929 premiere. Like cue sheets used in the West, this one contained small snippets of music from the ballet, symphonic, and opera repertoire, and it differs from Vertov’s notes considerably. Nonetheless, the cue sheets offer an important glimpse into Soviet silent film scoring practices, and Bossons’ and Geyer’s score will be a great contribution to the scholarship of silent film music.
Bossons and I have corresponded quite a bit about his project, and has given me permission to share what what he and Geyer have done so far. Bossons writes:
In 1995, Yuri Tsivian published his translation of two documents discovered in the Dziga Vertov archive in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow, in Griffithiana No. 54 (October). Document 1 consists of hand- written notes by Vertov of a ‘Music Scenario’ for the accompaniment of his film.
The second document comprises typewritten cue sheets by three composers seemingly based on Vertov’s notes. Sovkino approved this ‘Musical Conspectus’ a week before the first screening of the film in Moscow so it was presumably intended for the orchestras in the two cinemas used for the premiere on April 9, 1929.
There have been many attempts to provide a score for Man with a Movie Camera, but this is the only documented accompaniment to the film. Surprisingly, it has not been recreated before now. Composer Leo Geyer and film historian Richard Bossons have collaborated to turn the cue sheets into a score to mark the 95th anniversary of the premiere in 2024.
Bossons wrote a comparison between the musical cues suggested by the official composers and what Vertov wanted. One example:
Silent orchestra, the booth, the projectionist is ready, the film starts running.
SEQUENCE LENGTH: 35s
MUSICAL CHARACTER (movement, dynamics)
Silence, pause for the piano player, who must depict rhythmically the striking of a clock.
VERTOV’S NOTES FOR SEQUENCE 2 (his Sequence 3)
- The silent orchestra. No music is heard. Only the tick-tock of a clock.
Vertov doesn’t specify what should be used to create the clock sound. The Conspectus calls for a piano, which isn’t a suitable instrument to make this sound. As the Goskino #1 orchestra does not include a piano (not visible in the film) the clock is depicted by the sound of two different size wooden blocks.
The conductor waves his baton, the orchestra starts playing.
SEQUENCE LENGTH: 17s
MUSICAL CHARACTER (movement, dynamics)
Continue the last 6/8 from the Overture to ‘Giralda’.
VERTOV’S NOTES FOR SEQUENCE 3 (his sequence 4)
- [From the moment] the orchestra starts playing – up to [the end of the shot showing] the figure ‘1’ rising. Cheerful music welcomes the entrance of the figure ‘1’.
The Conspectus ends the music before the ‘1’ starts rising. The beginning and end of this excerpt from ‘Giralda’ was arranged to suit the action of the conductor (though the timing is different to the unknown music being played by the orchestra).
Bossons wrote me recently to say that they had “managed to track down all the pieces except the Miceli and an unknown composer Dorsini.” For the missing works, they are using similar materials for the reconstruction.
We are following the Conspectus closely, but inevitably most of the suggested pieces are either too short (needing additional music ‘in the style of’), or too long (needing an appropriate excerpt to suit the film sequence, and a modified beginning and end). Even the Bodleian has been unable to source some of the more obscure pieces so Leo is having to compose music based on other scores by the composer (eg the Miceli at the end of Reel 1). Additionally, the Massenet, for example, had to be re-arranged to suit the action on screen as it was unsuitable otherwise.
“To avoid copyright on recordings,” Bossons writes, “we are scanning sheet music to get the notation electronically which is reflected in the sound quality (best to listen through headphones or via good speakers!). This means that we can readily obtain the scores for live performance and recording, which is our intention.”
We have completed Reel 1 and half of Reel 2 and I thought you might like to hear what we have done so far. Some of the timing needs to be adjusted, and the sound quality is due to the files being compressed for easier uploading. There is a possibility that we can record the score with an live orchestra in due course. So far, to our surprise, this attempt by three official composers (largely ignoring Vertov’s instructions) works quite well, and adds a period charm to the film. I hope you enjoy it, and I would welcome any comments!
You can listen to the reconstructed score here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8Lv4gQWpUM.
Bossons writes, “Please note that This is a ‘working model’ based on the Lobster Films restoration of the film, and is not intended to be released. The score will be recorded by an orchestra and published with a new restoration of the film by Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam.”
I can’t wait to hear it!