On the occasion of ManiFeste-2024, Argentinian composer Martin Matalon transforms the screening of Charlie Chaplin’s films into a memorable show with live music, which he titled Chaplin Factory.


Composing music for the moving image


Martin Matalon is not new to the exercise of composing music for film in concerts – far from it. Already in 1995, commissioned by IRCAM, he wrote for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (a piece he will go back to 26 years later), which turned him into one of the pioneers of the genre. Then came a trilogy for Buñuel, one piece for Lubitsch, three for Keaton, and one for Chaplin. His latest work led to the creation of Chaplin Factory, a film in concert performed by Trio K/D/M. For this piece, Matalon chose to focus on three short movies, each emblematic of a specific facet of the famous British filmmaker’s work. The Vagabond (1916) is a perfect example of Charlot’s colorful and romantic side. Like its title suggests, The Immigrant (1917) explores Chaplin’s social awareness, whereas Behind the Screen (1916) takes us behind the scenes of the then booming silent film industry, in a delightful production reminiscent of the Commedia dell-Arte. 


nullMartin Matalon conducts Trio K/D/M © Quentin Chevrier


Since his first works with Fritz Lang, Martin Matalon set himself a guideline he does not stray away from: his refusal to replicate in his music exactly what is happening on the screen. He explains: “That is the easy way out, which reduces music to a rather uninteresting, purely utilitarian function. Moreover, a film in concert needs to remain first and foremost a concert, that is, a live show. The most important thing is to entertain a good relationship with the film, while preserving your independence.”


Nevertheless, refusing this approach does not imply completely ignoring the film. The composition process starts necessarily with analyzing the film, and most importantly the editing. Once it is done, Matalon looks for one or several elements that could trigger the music in each scene: “the composition of a shot, the use of chiaroscuro in certain sequences, or even the intervention of a character which sets the tone or the rhythm of a scene. All of it feels very intuitive.” 


In silent burlesque films, these triggers can also reside in the pacing of a joke, the energy produced by a wild chase or a running gag, or even in a melodramatic moment that Chaplin suddenly disrupts with a comical situation. Matalon continues, “Once I have found these triggers, I forget about the film to focus only on the musical creation. Then I go back to it and go back and forth between the partition and the film, to synchronize them thanks to these meeting points. The key lies in the editing – both of the music and the film. Without needing to always stick to the image, making them connect at certain times is enough to give the illusion the music is perfectly synchronized with the movie all the time, while preserving the liberty to build a standalone musical dramaturgy.”


The art of editing


Composing for Chaplin’s silent films poses a rather singular challenge. In fact, because all the scenes have approximately the same duration – between 2’30 and 3’30 minutes, the risk, if one strictly follows the editing of the movie, is to write music that is too predictable in its structure. Always true to his guideline, Matalon therefore breaks the rhythm of his ‘musical scenes’, sometimes in a completely arbitrary manner. 


The general structure takes shape and builds from this succession of short sections: “I use and emphasize elements from each scene separately but also in opposition or in tandem with elements from other scenes through an internal weave. We can for instance suggest the same idea or get the same dramatic result with different musical tools. Take for example Chaplin’s many wild chase scenes: I can accompany one scene with a very lively but muffled – almost silent – musical piece and another with a frenzied mix of glissando and pirouettes. These two very different materials, I can use them for two scenes that follow each other. It allows me to give a new interpretation to the same idea within each short section and to keep bringing fresh musical ideas while avoiding the risk of creating leitmotiv that would weigh the musical discourse down.” 


nullClarinettist Nicolas Fargeix during rehearsals © Quentin Chevrier


Even though these three films can all be watched as standalones with their original soundtrack, Martin Matalon imagined his three pieces as a single structure (an arch form) with a common instrumental set. Built around Trio K/D/M (drums and accordion), Matalon adds a soprano, a clarinet, a cello and a trombone to his partition – instruments that he selected for their flexibility. He also adds electronic elements, which he developed at IRCAM with computer music designer Étienne Démoulin and Sylvain Cadars, who worked on the sound diffusion.


“I don’t compose for electronics in a film in concert any differently than I do for other concert pieces. Still, the electronics constitutes an important asset for this genre, as it can help to enhance vocal timbers, boost the spatialization and organize sound layers. In my opinion, that is how we can truly achieve a real polyphony.”  


In many ways, if working on the musical structure shares similarities with the process of film editing, the electronics is where the job of a composer comes the closest to that of a movie director. They frame the material, shape shadow and light, disrupt sound layers to develop a dramaturgy, in a continuous dialogue with the film. The electronics also allows to give space to silence.


“Giving space to silence is fundamental when dealing with music for silent films, even though it is never easy to know exactly where to put it. You need to find suitable moments where there is no risk of breaking the tension. With time, I was able to establish a kind of hierarchy of different types of silences: the functional silence (which accompanies a scenic transition for instance), the expressive silence (which can suggest intimacy or an emotion), the structural silence (a moment of enforced silence in order to deliberately take a break or to ‘reset the ears’), and finally the semantic silence (where the music itself produces the silence).”


Interview conducted by Jérémie Szpirglas

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