Joseph C. Phillips, composer and founder of the ensemble Numinous, had a few minutes to discuss the premiere of his scoring of the silent epic The Loves of Pharaoh, a film by Ernst Lubitsch. Considered lost for many years, it was recently recovered and restored, and will be featured at the BAM Next Wave Festival from Oct 18-20 at 7:30 PM.
CM: Can you talk about your re-scoring of the silent film The Loves of Pharaoh? How did that come about?
Joe: Well there was a bit of serendipity involved. I went to the opening night of my friend Darcy James Argue’s wonderful Brooklyn Babylon at the 2011 Next Wave Festival. I saw another friend there, writer George Grella, and afterward we ‘crashed’ the official after-party. That’s where I happened to meet Joseph Melillo, the Artistic Director of BAM, on my way to the bar for another drink and while our conversation was fairly brief at the time and did not include any talk of performing at BAM, I did contact him about a month later to see if it would be possible to meet to discuss my music. At that subsequent meeting a few weeks later that’s when Pharaoh came up and here we are almost a year later!
As far as my approach to rescoring the film, from the beginning I thought of The Loves of Pharaoh more as an opera without words rather than a typical film score. I wanted to create an integrated work, one that more fully connects the characters’ subconscious thoughts and feelings with their actions; a score that does augment the wonderful images on screen, yet can also stand fully on its own purely musical ideas. To me, the film The Loves of Pharaoh, despite some classic melodramatic moments, is ultimately a tragedy focusing on the Pharaoh and his hope for meaning through love; and approaching the film as a classic tragedy allowed me a freedom to subtly explore a more broad sense of expressivity in the music.
CM: Have you always been a fan of silent films?
Joe: While I have certainly seen and enjoyed my share over the years, I really didn’t have much knowledge about the silent film era going into this project. Previously I had seen some of the classics such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, various films of Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd as well as Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) and other German bergfilme. People at BAMcinématek, co-sponsors of our performance, recommended various books on Lubitsch and silent movies in general including one I’m currently reading, Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture. Through this Peter Kobel book I’m finding that that era was an amazing wild west of creativity and schlock but one well worth exploring more of, which I plan to do after our Pharaoh performances. I am a big fan of film in general, however, and ever since the beginning of Numinous, people have always commented to me, “you should write for the movies.” I do believe I am well suited to writing for film and although I have little interest in being exclusively a film composer, hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to score a feature film someday or another silent film, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Loves of Pharaoh: Promo for the BAM production
CM: Does the original score have any bearing on what you have prepared for the new score?
Joe: My first viewing of Pharaoh was with the original score, however almost all subsequent viewings were without the original score. From the beginning I wanted my own reactions and responses to the film to be uncolored by the musical and dramatic choices made by Eduard Künneke, the original composer of The Loves of Pharaoh; however, in my only nod to the original score, at the beginning of Act 6 “The Judgment of the Dead” I did extract the intervals from Künneke’s ‘Pharaoh’ theme, a melody that is heard constantly in the original, and made it the basis for the opening of that scene.
Frankly I wanted to come at Pharaoh with a fresh, contemporary perspective and by being on this year’s Next Wave Festival, with Einstein on the Beach, Pina Bausch’s dance company, David Lang and all the incredible, creative, and inventive artists featured on the Festival, it was a given that I too would be looking toward bringing a personal, modern sensibility to film.
CM: How does composing for a pre-existing film differ from composing for a new project like To Begin The World Over Again and working with choreography?
Joe: Just as some composers feel liberated in creating a set of variations or an arrangement of a given tune or melody, in my collaborating with choreographer Edisa Weeks in our recently performed dance/music/theater project To Begin the World Over Again there was a sense of freedom in the marriage of artistic visions into one whole. While we were working with the existing words of Thomas Paine as well as our own artistic visions, we felt unbound in how we explored and interpreted them. Similarly, working with the images of Pharaoh I was open to pursue my own creative choices and directions in fusing my musical voice with that of Lubitsch. Both projects however required a modicum of taste in order to balance the competing artistic ideas into a work that is unified. So despite the differing genres there actually was much more that was similar than different in the challenges and joys of working on Pharaoh and To Begin the World Over Again.