Alicia Svigals, one of the great klezmer violinists working today, had written music for feature films and documentaries before, so she thought she knew what she was getting into when someone suggested she score a silent film. “The Yellow Ticket” is a 1918 German-made drama, restored under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Directed by Eugen Illés and Victor Janson and starring Pola Negri, the film recounts the terrible things that befall Lea (Negri), the daughter of an elderly Jew living in the Pale of Settlement, when she tries to go to medical school. The result, which will be performed live by Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner during the New York Jewish Film Festival, is exemplary, a haunting mixture of klezmer and high modernism, redolent of period in which the film was made.
But it wasn’t easy.
“A silent movie score is 50 minutes of solid music without any silence,” she says, laughing. “It took me two months to write it. I went crazy and did something very, very detailed.”
Svigals knew immediately that she wanted to write the score for a violin-piano duo and always had Lerner in mind as her companion.
“I had been working with Marilyn and we already have a body of work that we’ve performed together,” she says. “I thought it would be fun to come up with something where she could run with her part, and we could improvise together. It ended up being more structured than I had anticipated, but I think it will evolve.”
For Lerner there was never any doubt that she would participate. She is a serious film buff.
“I love film so much,” she says. “There’s a flow to it. Turning a visual image into sound is easy for me. [In a silent] there is a lot of room to interpret in musical language what’s being conveyed physically because there’s no dialogue. I think the music substitutes for the dialogue.”
The physical experience of playing live for a silent film is a bit more complicated than what the instrumentalists are used to, Svigals admits.
“Our eyes are glued to the screen,” she explains. “But because right now the music is still pretty new to us, we also have the score in front of us. So we’re facing the screen and looking up and down. It’s weird but we’ll get used to it. I think it will be better when we’ve memorized the score.”
Lerner shrugs it off.
“It’s like driving a car,” she says. “You’re not looking at the road all the time, you’re looking at the rear-view mirror, and so on. You can look down at the score quickly.”
In the meantime, requests for them to perform the score at screenings keep coming in.
“It’s complicated to get the film arranged, there are a lot of moving parts,” Svigals says. But we keep getting calls, so I guess it has legs.”
Will they record a soundtrack for the film eventually?
“I would like to document it that way at some point,” Svigals replies. “For now I want to explore its potential as a live show. I think it has the potential to evolve a lot more artistically.”
“The Yellow Ticket” will be shown with live musical accompaniment by Alicia Svigals and Marilyn Lerner as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 8:30 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information, call (212) 875-5601, or go www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.