Music Interview: The Art of Storm ‘n’ Twang — Writing Music for Buster Keaton Silents

By Bill Marx

Steamboat Bill Jr. is my personal favorite among Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedies, and the image (above) of Buster holding an upturned umbrella (this is a publicity still—in the movie he wields the useless brolly during a rampaging storm) is one of the movie’s greatest sight gags, an indelible image of the delusion of protection.

A chance to see the film on a large screen with a new score, played live by the composer, is a treat in itself. Thus the upcoming screening of Steamboat Bill Jr. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on September 27 is indispensable for fans of the pratfall sublime. But it is also welcome because the musical accompaniment will be provided by acclaimed guitarist Peter Blanchette, who is garnering a lot of attention lately for his scoring of silent comedies.

Blanchette’s efforts on two other Keaton movies The General and The Navigator have generated plenty of admiring buzz, especially for his precise dovetailing of complex musical rhythms with Keaton’s comic timing. In my interview Blanchette, the inventor of the 11-string archguitar, makes a number of perceptive comments about writing music for Keaton silents. His disdain for the sentimental ‘Americana’ sound is particularly encouraging—earlier scores for Steamboat Bill Jr. have bogged down in two-ton folksiness.

AF: Why have you become become interested in writing music for silent films?

Peter Blanchete: Silent films offer a meaningful, large-form vehicle for composing. Keaton’s films are so masterfully directed, acted, and edited; they have a beautiful rhythm to them; and, of course, they are really funny. I like to write thematically obsessive music, especially in longer pieces (longer than, say 10 minutes). Keaton’s character is always in a sort of thematically obsessive environment—he never gets relief until the very last minute. It’s also a great way to write music that people will listen to!

AF: You have composed the score for two other Buster Keaton silent comedies (The General and The Navigator). Why does his work appeal to you as a movie lover? And why does it appeal to you as a musician?

PB: As I said above, his films have an obsessive, relentless quality to them and a beautiful mix of this frustrated existentialism and sweet, romantic struggle. I think you really end up caring about the guy he portrays in his films, which is funny, because he has that stone face and he’s actually kind of stubborn and he’s an outsider, but that investment in character which he provokes, that’s a big reason. The General, The Navigator, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. are such well-told stories with great, multi-layered scenes one after another. They just scream out for good music.

AF: Are there particular challenges posed by Steamboat Bill Jr.? The final storm scene, for instance, would seem to raise some interesting musical opportunities.

PB: Yes, the big challenge in Steamboat Bill, Jr. was not the storm scene, for me that was one of the most delightful parts. I got to combine a whole set of themes inside one of Bach’s great fugues—the Fugue No. 20 from the Well-Tempered Clavier (the only true, 2-voice fugue Bach wrote!). It’s a very nerdy, cleverness thing I am proud of, but I consider it quite an achievement. I took my themes and put them all together in one musical passage 4 minutes long and separated them by transposing passages from the fugue as a kind of glue holding the pieces together. It doesn’t sound like Bach; I think it just sounds like “tornado and flood music.” Sort of like Storm ‘n’ Twang, I like to call it, because it uses the Telecaster sound, a real country twang sound.

AF: What is the instrumentation for the Steamboat Bill Jr. score? Is there a particular combination of sounds that are good for silent comedy?

The Keaton comedy is part of a “Sounds of Silents” series at the Coolidge Corner Theatre that includes a restoration print of the F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (December 6) and a surprise entry—Clara Bow’s sex comedy It (May 2). Music for the last two films will be supplied by “stellar students in the Department of Film Scoring at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music, with the participation of professors and industry professionals, Sheldon Mirowitz and Dan Carlin.”

PB: I don’t think there’s any one combination that works better than others. I just think you pick what you can use and go with it. For this one, I wanted to have the banjo, especially in reference to the Riverboat age, the Mississippi. But then I like to play with anachronism in the music, so I asked myself, what’s the modern riverboat instrument? And I came up with the fender Telecaster. So my band on this score consists of banjo, Telecaster electric guitar, string bass, piano, and drums played with brushes, like a country-music drummer would play. The style is a concept I played with: what if some Sun Records studio session guys got together to play Shostakovitch? A kind of atonal Johnny Cash backup band. “I Walk The Line” played with the wrong damned notes!

AF: How much room is there for improvisation? Musicians playing with silent films will sometimes react to the mood of the crowd, even provide their own musical jokes.

PB: Almost no improvisation at all. I don’t like musical improvisation. I like listening to great Jazz musicians improvise and, of course, the guitar solo improvisation that happens 2/3 of the way through a pop song is often thrilling, but I don’t like to make music that way myself. I can write music so much better than I can make it up on the spot. I play the music very spontaneously, and I interpret it in the moment, but Keaton’s movie is the result of planning, performing, and editing, and so I make music the same way. I improvise when I am writing, but only very little, then I find the musical idea with legs, and I develop it.

Composer/guitarist Peter Blanchette with Buster in Steamboat Bill Jr. in the Background.Photo: Paul Shoul

AF: Over the past few years musical scores for silent films have become increasingly percussive—you seem to depart from that trend. Or am I wrong?

PB: I don’t know. You’ve probably seen more than I have. I find the cliché piano accompaniments on DVD releases and Ragtime-era sound a bit underwhelming. They so often assume that a sweet, Ol’-timey Americana is the voice of that period. It’s silly! Let’s not forget, 1928 was long after all kinds of outrageously adventurous music had been composed all over the world. I have no prejudice against percussion, but percussion has a tough time doing what a lonely, solo flute can do. Come to think if it, an 11-string guitar has a tough time doing what a lonely, solo flute can do too!

AF: Your CD Cinema Italiano features music composed for film by Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone. How has European film music influenced your scores for a director as American as Buster Keaton?

PB: I never thought of that. I suppose European film music has influenced me very significantly. I hold the work of so many European film makers in such high esteem, but I suppose Keaton is essentially American. I want to say that his films are so great they come up to that level of humanity found in great film makers like Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, etc., but really American cinema, and in particular American comic cinema, is a kind of grandfather to it all. I’m not a snob, not anti-Hollywood, either—I look at how Coppola gave Nino Rota the perfect film to make cinematic music, The Godfather, as the best marriage of music, montage, and characters I’ve ever seen. Rota and Morricone did so much to make music a central part of a great movie; their work has a special place in my heart.

AF: One of the admirers of your Steamboat Bill Jr. score talks about your “mathematical precision”—in what ways does musical timing work with Keaton’s comic rhythms?

PB: Ooh, this is the fun stuff. I could write a book! There are so many different ways, and so many ways they don’t work together! OK, an example: You accompany a gag such as Buster hiding something that would embarrass him behind his back. The girl, or someone else, comes up to shake his hand, and he has to carefully hide the thing behind his back while shaking hands and not appearing unfriendly. So you write the scene to a 12-bar blues, in a tempo such that the 12th bar will occur right at the payoff moment of the scene, when the embarrassing moment finally occurs. But what you do is better if you re-write it to be at the 11th bar—the one just before the trademark “turnaround” that occurs in a blues song. It’s like making up a version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” that goes like this:

Row, Row, Row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily:
Life is but a …

And now that you know “dream” is coming. I have you and I can either play that moment to match the comic rhythm, which gives one effect, or I can put it in the wrong place, which gives another kind of effect, or I can hold the tension and never even deliver the expected “dream.” This is one of a million little tricks you can play with the music and a Keaton film. Anywhere the audience has an expectation and it is paying attention, you can be in on the gag, or hopelessly out of it, and enhance the movie.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. […] paying attention, you can either be in on the gag, or hopelessly out of it, and enhance the movie. Add comments Sep142010 Share Tweet This entry was posted in Film scoring, Uncategorized, general posts, […]

  2. Stephen soitos on September 22, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Wonderful interview. Excellent questions, and Peter makes fantastic music for this film, which I’ve seen with his accompaniment. His music adds a great touch to a great film. I really appreciate the way Peter is so clear and precise about his composition methods. He is a great composer and conductor. Please continue your coverage of his terrific work. Best, Steve.

  3. Rebecca Stein on October 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    A film is being made about Peter Blanchette- appears very promising!

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