Jeff Beal Crosses Borders With Los Angeles Master Chorale And F.W. Murneau For ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’

Emmy winning composer Jeff Beal has crafted a new score for the F.W. Murneau silent film classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The event takes place January 26 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. During our lengthy discussion, Beal elaborated on his creative process, collaboration with the celebrated Los Angeles Master Chorale, and immersive journey into the world of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.”

When did you discover silent films?

My first introduction to silent film came 15 to 20 years ago. I did a score for Buster Keaton’s film The General. One of the things I realize and love about this sphere is within the absence of sound and whizbang technology, just the way in which filmmakers were forced to be so creative visually and really use the more limited resources to create these really beautiful stories. 

The ones that have stood the test of time like Sunrise have enormous amount of value artistically, not only in their time but to us now as more modern viewers. You can see all the ways in which some of these great silent films influenced many filmmakers after them. You can see this playing right into film noir and psychological drama and romantic comedy and all of these sort of things that they were just discovering for the first time.

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.”

I really enjoyed your discussion of the “Easter Egg Hunt” when it comes to uncovering layers to your music. What type of investigative work did you learn from Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans?

I’m a process person. I discover as I write. So for me, aside from looking at the film and discussing it with my wife Joan who did this wonderful libretto (for the score) which is kind of another layer it’s not really meant to supercede the story or the text. As I write for the picture, I start to discover the film, and it speaks to me and I see things that I might not have noticed before so the more I write and the more I start to see the film through my own personal vision, I start to see things in there.

I think one of the things that strike me is the way in which the school of filmmaking and art really, the German expressionist school, was really heavily into myth and dreams. For me, it really ties into Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. And the more I worked on this film, I really started to discover it on one level as the waking dream of the psyche. There’s a lot of wonderful references to dreams and inebriation and almost an other worldliness to the way Murneau constructed this story.

The main Easter Egg of this for me is the way in which you can see this film as a complete allegory of one person where all of the characters in the movie are maybe the same side of a single psyche. This whole explanation of darkness and light, for example. The way that the husband contains this possibility for absolute evil but somehow the wife has the ability to somehow forgive him. This idea of spiritual completion was really fascinating to me.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is obviously more than just a surface level silent film. Did you personally connect to the film’s exploration of relationships?

I think one of the things that really initially drew me into the story was I just had my 35th year anniversary last year so I think – the idea of togetherness in a couple is so incredibly beautiful. But sort of baked into the seeds of that whole equation are the possibilities for it to go awry. I think everybody that has been in a relationship sees that unbelievable power of that love and friendship, but also that possibility for darkness.

I think that was something that I was really fascinated with; the way in which romance and sexuality were really explored the best that they could through these three characters and the way in which we sort of wrestle today with those same sides of ourselves. The woman from the city is fascinating to me because she is the femme fatale, but on another level she represents this newfound freedom that women were feeling at the time. They could vote. They could dress as they want. So she represents the sort of unbridled freedom of sexuality in a way. 

I love the second act of the film after they (the wife and the man) have this horrible confrontation on the boat and this terror that the wife feels. They rediscover their love, but I don’t think they ever go back to something they had before. I think it’s a whole new relationship at this point. They become equal partners and have rediscovered what a healthy relationship with each other could be, if that makes any sense. 

Jeff Beal at Work.

Can you talk about the challenge of collaborating with so many musicians. What is the key to a unique and successful collaboration with the LA Master Chorale?

I think in this case the fact that this is the second time I have written for this group is extremely helpful because I feel like my first piece which I for them about for our five years ago called The Salvage Men really got me inside to what they can do. They are really one of the premier performing organizations of the world. My wife, being a singer and had sung with the Master Chorale many years ago – I had always loved this medium and I feel like – it was two levels.

On one level, it was storytelling. It was trying to give a voice to the film that I felt could speak to a modern day audience. On the second level, it really is a performance work. I wanted to write in a way that the chorus is really used in a way that I thought could be most effective. I was thinking about the performance aspect of the piece and the emotion that the choir could bring. 

Part of what inspired this choice was really – with my day job I’m constantly writing for instrumental groups for film scores. That works great for films with a lot of spoken dialogue and I think part of the reason you don’t see a complete film driven by the human voice is for obvious reasons – it’s hard to be watching dialogue and there is a lot of singing in the background, your ears automatically go to that.

Obviously in a film like Sunrise we don’t have the burden of that sound. But I also think part of what drew me to this film is there is a way in which choral music connects the sort of primordial – it really is sort of the ultimate first instrument so the way in which it connects to our mythic past as humans around the campfire, telling stories. For me, choral music has a timeless, spiritual quality to it. So I felt like the fact that Murneau’s film deals with these existential questions of forgiveness and love and danger and seduction, I felt like the choral universe was a beautiful pairing with this film. It just feels almost classically operatic in that sense. It almost feels like it could be like an opera. It’s got that sort of grand arc to it.

I interviewed Harry Connick Jr. several years ago and he remarked at how jazz had a profound influence on his music. Has jazz also played an integral part in your work?

That’s a great question. I would really put it front and center as the key driver of my whole creative life. I was so young when I started playing jazz trumpet and it’s really that moment that unlocked the world of music making and creativity to me.

That’s why I said earlier that I am a process person. For me, that idea of improvisation ties you into the subconscious mind and obviously like Harry said there is a lot you have to learn intellectually to play jazz well. He’s a great example of that. Me specializing in that early in my career, I went through that whole thing. 

There is a facility you get and an immediacy to music making that comes after you master that skill. Not only does it make you a fast writer; I love doing films but I’ve done TV too. Part of the reason why I’ve done TV well is I’m a fast writer. That’s how it is for me. It doesn’t get any better if I slow it down ten times.

The other thing that is fascinating about jazz and improvisation in general is that ties right back into Murneau, it’s sort of unlocking the power to the unconscious vs. the conscious mind in terms of a creative act. So much of storytelling and composing for me is instinct and unconscious. Sometimes people will ask ‘where does the inspiration come from’ and the older I get, the less I know about that question and the more I revel in the mystery of it. And the way in which you start to write something you sort of put one brick down and another brick down. A shape starts to emerge and it becomes something – you had an idea about what you were going to do but 9 times out of 10 the most interesting parts are the parts that surprise you or kind of come out to you in a way that you maybe hadn’t expected to in the past. 

(In Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) there is a long boat ride that the couple take and it’s a very slow scene and one of the tricks of silent films is that it opens at a very leisurely piece which is obviously a gift for a concert piece because it needs some space. But I had written a lot of music leading up to that and the music of the boat ride changes into this very simple, choral kind of almost fugue and it almost builds incessantly. It created for me this sense of terror that didn’t feel melodramatic, but it got to the heart of an emotional core which I thought was really interesting. At that point, the woman figures out that (things) are not well, so it’s more of this sense of dread and foreboding that you feel in your gut. It just felt like it colored that scene in a way that I was surprised and pleased to find.

Can you pick one of your favorite films and why does it continue to speak to you today?

It’s hard to narrow it down to one. When I first job for doing a film score, the filmmakers mentioned to me Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota and I do remember watchinging Fellini’s Amarcord. That just completely blew me away. I think it was probably because of the age in which I was seeing it, but it was also this beautiful sense of memory and fantasy and story and myth and that beautiful score by Nino Rota. That one has a special place in my heart and my memory of it. I think it relates to Sunrise in some interesting ways. It just feels like it sort of speaks to that time.

“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (20th Century Fox)

While you were doing your research on Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, did it ever cross your mind about the work F.W. Murneau could have done if he didn’t die at an early age?

It did. And it was sort of a random, tragic death. It was a car accident if I remember correctly. 

It would have been really interesting to see. Sunrise was really also – they actually had synchronized sound for this movie. It might have been after the fact, but I think part of the interesting thing would have been to see how he could transition to talkies and how he would have made that transition.I don’t speak very well as a Murneau expert but I think there is a preciousness to life and Murneau’s gift crossed the oceans from Germany to America.

When you look at the history of Hollywood, there are so many immigrants from Europe and Eastern Europe really helped define what we know of as the Hollywood school and for most lovers of film it’s not hard to put Murneau front and center of a big part of that important, early days.

I discovered when I was doing The General that my grandmother on my father’s side – she played piano. I knew she was a great musician, she gave me Miles Davis records and all of this stuff, I found out she played piano in the Silent Movie theater in Boise, Idaho. I got a kick out of that just because what I’ve found my life doing and the improvisatory of who she was and who I am as a musician. I don’t know if you’re based in LA, I’m assuming you are, I’m talking from our loft Downtown that we bought four years ago right down the street from Disney Hall and we come in here a lot for long weekends for concerts and we just love spending time down here. Los Angeles is in the early innings of this amazing renaissance. I really look at LA as the Vienna of the modern world.

Part of us sort of gaining our competence as a city is realizing this amazing history we have in the past and the birthplace really of American storytelling in the city and really Downtown. What makes me super excited about this project is the coming together of this film world and the live performance world. The more we feel free to cross those borders, the more interesting the work coming out of LA becomes.

For tickets to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans: