Neustadter Composes Score for Classic Silent Movie

Carolyn Schultz, Staff Writer

Garth Neustadter, a senior double major in violin and voice performance, recently completed an entire orchestral score for the restoration of “The White Sister,” a classic silent film from the 1920s.
“The White Sister,” originally released in 1923, stars Lillian Gish, a renowned silent movie actress. The film is based on a book by the same title written by F. Marion Crawford.
It tells the story of a young woman whose sister forces her into poverty. The heroine’s fiance is a dashing army officer who is captured in an expedition to Africa. The young woman, played by Gish, devotes her life to the memory of her fiance and becomes a nun.
However, her fiance escapes his captors and returns to Italy. For the riveting climax you’ll have to watch the re-released movie, complete with new original score.
The film is being converted into digital format as part of an ongoing restoration project by Warner Brothers. Neustadter was chosen to compose the music for the film — which had only been shown accompanied by live music in a theater — on behalf of Turner Classic Movies. This is the first score TCM has ever recorded outside of Hollywood.
Neustadter was selected to compose the score after he earned first-prize honors in the 2007 Young Film Composers Competition. For this competition, he had to score a 90-second clip from the silent movie “Beau Brummel.”
“The White Sister” project forced him to step up his game, composing, recording and revising 134 minutes of score during Fall Term 2008. Neustadter worked 10-12 hours per day, wrote 2-3 minutes of music each day, and put his other studies in the conservatory on hold.
Neustadter had done little composition before he turned to film scores.
“[Film scores] don’t seem as serious as writing concert or classical music,” Neustadter said. He enjoyed being “free to break the rules of normal composition.”
Reflecting on this recent film project, he said, “It always feels a little bit different, because you’re not always completely in control. There are a few situations where actors’ feelings on screen were ambiguous and it is up to you, as the composer, to interpret and tell the audience what they might be feeling or how to interpret a scene.”
There are scenes in “The White Sister” that called for unique musical interpretations. Neustadter specifically mentioned the scene where the main character takes the veil to become a nun. “This is a special scene,” said Neustadter. “It is very ritualistic in that it follows a really strict protocol according to Catholic tradition.”
He decided to use Gregorian chants during this scene; mixed with orchestral instruments, the music evokes “a feeling of two different worlds going on at the same time,” said Neustadter.
Most challenging to Neustadter were instances in the film when he had to compose source music to match the gypsy folk musicians playing on the screen. It was not easy to synchronize the written music with what was going on in the film. Reflecting on this aspect of composing, Neustadter said, “It was a challenge to do it backwards.”
Helping and supporting Neustadter through this project was his mentor, LU Professor Fred Sturm. Sturm has many years of experience with composition and was a resource for Neustadter, one not typically available at the university level to work with students on projects of this caliber one-on-one.
“It was great to ask him anything because he could provide feedback on not only composition, but the whole production and recording process,” said Neustadter.
“[The project] forced me to do a lot of writing in a very short amount of time,” reflected Neustadter. “It forced me to love it or hate it. Luckily, I loved it.