Klezmatics founder Alicia Svigals is considered one of the foremost Klezmer violinists in the world, and her work on a new score for the 1918 silent film “Yellow Ticket” has allowed her to immerse herself in the world her music evokes.
“Yellow Ticket” will screen at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m., with live music by Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner.
The film, which stars Pola Negri, follows the story of Lea, a Jewish girl hiding her real identity so she can go to medical school in Russia.
Svigals was approached by the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center to write a new score for the film “Yellow Ticket,” to be part of their regular film program. She signed on after watching the film, which struck personal chords with her, as well as creative ones.
“It’s like looking at photos of my great-grandparents come to life,” Svigals said. “It’s very old, and it’s rare footage of the Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw, which became the Warsaw ghetto later, with the people there. I had seen some of those scenes, but to actually see these people and children laughing and talking, it was very eerie. The film is multi-layered and surprising — surprising to contemporary audiences, — and serious, so it was intriguing.”
Svigals was particularly taken by revelations of progressive aspects in society regarding women, such as scenes in a medical school class being 50 percent women — as research revealed, this was pretty much the norm in early 20th-century Europe.
“Here, we think we invented every bit of social progress, but it wasn’t true — one step forward and two steps back,” said Svigals. “And it was surprising to see that prostitution was legal, and regulated, and involved paper work.”
Svigals was also intrigued by signs that Jewish communities weren’t quite so cut off from others as she feels is the tendency to believe nowadays.
“I think there’s a certain mythology of the shtetl, where it’s a kind of hermetically sealed world that you would find in a fairy tale or a folk tale,” she said, “but actually it was a cosmopolitan world. In the movie, you see the Jewish family hires a non-Jewish scholar to be a tutor. There’s a lot of mixing it up going on that was surprising.”
Svigals’ challenge in creating a score around the film was to walk a delicate balance that would evoke what was on the screen without marginalizing it as a time piece in order to help the audience immerse themselves in it and connect with it.
“I had a couple general ideas that I wanted to do once I saw the movie,” said Svigals. “One was that I wanted to do something that would help bridge the gap for the audience, the gap created by unrealness of old black-and-white movies that makes you emotionally distant. It’s something very old, you have to get used to it.”
“Also, some of the assumptions that audiences at the time would have already had about the social world, things they would have known about — what things were permitted, what weren’t, what was scandalous, what was shameful, what was okay. Those are things that aren’t part of our natural knowledge from our lives, so I thought I could help bridge that gap and make it a more immediate experience by leading the viewers through the emotions that would come easily to viewers at the time.”
Svigals was also careful not to compose music that sounded like an imitation of the movie music of the time. She wanted to bring a very modern counterpoint to the visuals, while still using her interest in that era in the mix.
“I wanted to write something that would sound like it was written today,” she said. “At the same time, I drew on the musical vocabulary that you might imagine for a movie like that. There was a reason that they gave me a call to do it to begin with, because that’s my area- Klezmer music, eastern European Jewish and non-Jewish folk music, European cafe music, and I veer off into Bartok like modernism — modernism of 100 years ago, the dissonances of 1918 — but it’s always clearly contemporary. We improvise a lot in there and we’re not trying to do something else, we’re doing something new.”
Scoring a silent film, though, is different from scoring a regular one, where space is shared other sounds. In a silent film, the music almost becomes a character in the action.
“It’s a much bigger project,” said Zvigals. “First of all, this was 66 solid uninterrupted minutes of music, whereas I’ve done the score of a documentary and feature films and stuff, and that’s like 30 seconds here, a minute there, and most of it’s underscore that you hear subliminally. But this, depending on how you do it, can be an equal partner with the image, and you can completely change how it’s viewed, and you won’t have the actors’ lines contradicting you. It’s fun for that reason, you have a lot of leeway.”
Zvigals also had a lot of control in the interpretation of the film, as the composer begins to guide the emotional content through the music.
“It kind of becomes your film, in a way,” she said, “and especially these old films, you don’t have to interface with the director, they’re long dead. Whereas, if you’re trying to do something now, you’re really trying to serve the vision of the film people you’re working with and that’s your job, to try to translate their creative energies into music. This is like, you can do whatever the heck you want.”
The film became Svigals’ own in other ways, as well. Working on the film, and researching it, brought on another aspect of the project that she did not expect and had no experience with — attempting to track down watchable versions of the film and procuring grants for creating a new digital restoration of it.
“There’s actually nothing that’s watchable anymore,” said Zvigals. “Like many silent films, this one is almost lost.”
Svigals looked to film scholar Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of the film, done in the 1990s, but found even that difficult to get hold of.
“Brownlow created a restoration of the film from a couple prints, like a damaged print found in an attic in Holland and another one in a Russian archive, nothing complete,” she said. “He put it together and made a new 35mm print of it. There were only a couple of those. There was one in Amsterdam that was useable 20 years ago, but it’s not useable anymore, and so the only one left was the one in Berlin.”
Svigals was able to get the print sent from Berlin, but that, too, had problems that needed correcting before it could be screened for an audience.
“The inter-titles were poorly translated from the original German, to the point of making the plot confusing,” said Zvigals. “We wanted to use that print to play to, but it’s practically impossible because it’s at some crazy old speed standard. When you see silent films where everybody’s running around like chipmunks, very fast, it’s because they are being played back at the wrong speed, so that’s the problem. I got a grant to make a new digital restoration of this at the right speed, the original speed where people are walking and talking at a normal speed, and I did a new translation of the inter-titles. This is actually the only one in the world that you can see that really reflects the original.”
Right now, if you want to see this crisp print of “Yellow Ticket,” the only way to do so is with Svigals performing it.
“I have no more planned,” she said. “I’m just trying to get through the day, get to each show. I’ll think about it later. At some point, when we want to move onto other projects and are ready to stop touring it, at that point we’ll probably go into the studio and record and maybe we can release it and make it commercially available.”