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Silver screen symphony

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Empire Film and Media Ensemble performs at Eastman School of Music's Kilbourn Hall. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Empire Film and Media Ensemble performs at Eastman School of Music's Kilbourn Hall.
The movie “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” is a cultural classic at this point, so making the viewing experience a fresh one is a daunting task. That’s where groups like the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, who performed the score live as the film played on a big screen in January at West Herr Auditorium Theatre, come in. It can make the music sound new, and draw attention to visual details that familiarity has made easy to ignore.

Live-to-picture performances of films from the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises are now an indispensable part of orchestral programs throughout the country due to the overwhelming popularity of the concerts. And the RPO isn’t the only group to present such events locally.
Empire Film and Media Ensemble provides Eastman students the opportunity to hone their skills as instrumentalists, composers, and conductors specializing in movies. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Empire Film and Media Ensemble provides Eastman students the opportunity to hone their skills as instrumentalists, composers, and conductors specializing in movies.
The Empire Film and Media Ensemble has worked regularly with Eastman School of Music’s Beal Institute of Film Music and Contemporary Media. Last month, Empire Film performed the world premiere of a score composed by four Beal Institute students for a screening of the classic 1931 film “Frankenstein.” On February 16, the Empire ensemble will play live alongside director Damien Chazelle’s 2016 film “La La Land,” starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, at Eastman Theatre’s Kodak Hall.

The performance will be conducted by Mark Watters, the Beal Institute’s director. “Normally, (when) you watch the movie, you take in all the elements of it, including the music,” Watters said. “But when you do it live in concert, the music is just kind of amped up, like the experience is on steroids.”

The coexistence of film and live music has everything to do with timing and coordination. Brett Miller, the artistic director of Empire Film and Media Ensemble, said there are multiple ways to successfully conduct live with a film screening.

One way is to have the conductor lead the ensemble in front of a small video screen playing the film with visual cues called “punches” and “streamers,” which together act as a kind of visual metronome to help the conductor effectively synchronize with the movie’s action. Another option is to have both the conductor and the musicians perform with a click track keeping time in their ears. In the case of silent films, it’s common for the musicians to play with no outside timing assistance.

The Empire musicians typically play to a click track. Miller said for the live performance of “La La Land,” the combined use of punches and streamers for the conductor, plus click tracks in everyone’s ears, will be the preferred approach, since there are vocalists singing in pre-recorded tracks, rather than utilizing live singers.



PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
Empire Film and Media Ensemble is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization separate from the Eastman School of Music, although they work closely together. By exclusively contracting Eastman students to play in the 30-plus-member ensemble and regularly performing the works of Beal Institute students, Empire provides numerous opportunities for performers and composers alike.

Students enrolled in the Beal Institute pursue a master’s degree in contemporary media and film composition. It was founded in 2016 by Eastman School alumnus and composer Jeff Beal, best known for his scores in the Ed Harris feature film “Pollock,” the documentary “Blackfish,” and the critically acclaimed TV show “House of Cards.”

“Eastman is one of the best music schools in the country, in the world,” said Beal. “I think it's also a very special place because it has this history of film in its DNA. I want (Beal Institute) to be a place where some of the best film composers, the most literate and gifted people, will study and really move this art form forward.”

The Empire Film and Media Ensemble performs “La La Land” on Friday, February 16, at 7:30 p.m., at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. $22-$61. esm.rochester.edu/theatre

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].