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Benedict Mason

Publisher: Chester Music

ChaplinOperas (1988)
commissioned by the Ensemble Modern as part of the Chaplin Centenary
Work Notes
with silent Charlie Chaplin films: Easy Street; The Immigrant; The Adventurer. All players play one percussion instrument and one toy each
Chester Music Ltd
Soloist(s) and Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
1 Hour 15 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
mezzo soprano, bass baritone

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Programme Note
Benedict Mason ChaplinOperas (1988)

Combines three early Chaplin shorts: Easy Street, The Immigrant and The Adventurer. With considerable depth and brilliance, the composer creates accompanying scores for each film that go far beyond the standard musical treatment that is put to silent cinema. The multilayering, including voicing, is not only witty and quicksilver but is also full of literary, historic and cultural allusions that both illustrate and subvert the visual images.


Since making experimental films about film and music, I have thought about and practised the possibilities of a new aesthetic about film and music, and some form of escape from the 9 to 5 approach of film and TV producers. Film, now, is an entertainment industry offering the composer little beyond pocket money, usually at a cost to his spirit.

The freely creative possibilities of combining live music with silent film offer a different field in which to work."The audience in a theatre regulates the performance" (Brecht), and for me the best place for the composer to work now, (outside the concert hall), is in the opera house. These three scores are virtually unseen, or inverted, opera, and have a rich and diverse subplot added by the singers (and the subtitles). One could call the genre a 'semi-operatic filmspiel.'

I wish fervently that today's film-makers would see the potential of silent film and live music. For there is a dichotomy about trying to write music 75 years on, for unchangeable visual material that is fixed in its values and codes of practise. There is also no point in resorting to the usual insipid pastiche, or in trying to recreate the comfortable, anaesthetic, trivialising and condescending effect of Hollywood music. Hollywood film music always seeks to rally everyone round one emotive banner, leaving the audience very little space for their own imagination and individual interpretation. Furthermore Chaplin is so much a myth now, and his comedy routines so well known or predictable, that they have no need of the original type of music his films were used to.

I have written a mimetic/frenetic music closer to the general character of the film activity. This is not tame polite background accompaniment that might as well not be there. It is not musical exhibitionism in competition with the film. And it does not treat the silence of silent film as a shortcoming.

There is a free exchange between screen and pit of 'bad jokes'. The musicians are very vocal, and a good humoured anarchic rumpus is always just around the corner. The music develops the potential for a certain surrealism, often emphasising the asymptotic nightmare, frequently implied but underplayed in the films. I find this also to be a good antidote to the sentimentality and mawkishness that is never far away in Chaplin's films.

Occasional quotations and quasi-quotations are used not simply ironically, but more as a reflection on the whole process and practise of quoting in musical composition. There is no dreaded leitmotivitis here, but some motives doggedly trace their origins and allusions under the idea that all motives seem to tie up with each other eventually, one way or another.

In 'The Adventurer', the Straussy string sextet, despite its latin backing, refers to, but does not quote 'Capriccio' to raise that bizarre old question: 'which is more important, the film or the music?' In 'The Immigrant', the arrival in New York refers to, but does not quote Dvorak à la Steve Reich (peversely juxtaposing two completely different composers, but connected by being both associated with New York).

At the end of 'The Immigrant', it is not simply because it is raining that there is a glimpse of Eisler's 'Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain', - and one recalls Eisler's unfortunate experiences in Hollywood. After this point the music becomes submerged under a brutal sonic sea and weather, underlining the highly dubious shotgun wedding in the story. No wedding tunes and happy ends for me, which would be the usual silent film music approach. However Chaplin remarked how 'The Immigrant' touched him more than any other film he made.

In 'The Immigrant', the Russian poetry I have set for the singers (on the general subject of homesickness) creates a sub-plot, with a deliberate distanciation, concerning the implied offscreen fatalism and unhappiness in the characters' lives. Where have these people come from? Where are they going? and Why? The juxtaposition of the poetry against the film at times makes the characters say unexpected or potentially revealing things. And the strangeness of the Russian language to most of us, also emphasises the language barrier Chaplin and the waiter are confronted with, in for instance the restaurant.

The music to 'The Immigrant' is also very distanced from the film. The only objective connections between music and image are the frequent changes of tempo, which are designed to always happen at a crucially dramatic moment. These moments of course can sometimes happen in mid scene. There is a deliberate knife-edge strategy in this tempo changing, i.e. to go faster and slower to empathise with the action, or conversely to stand back from the action. The music never allows a fixed viewpoint to get established which is important to the way I feel these films should be represented to a present day audience.

This anti-realistic music is deliberately and unbearably extreme, and takes little account of the emotional and physical realities of the story. This adds another dimension - the documentary reality of people being filmed, and the grainy, ghostly aspect of these people coming back to life in the 'material' of projected light. I find this approach interesting. It goes to the heart of the silent film experience and its strange dream-like qualities. This approach also allows me to use the potential silence of silent film as a musico-dramatic parameter, crucial to the story. This A-effekt reflects the alienation of alien people in a foreign country, and makes a commonplace location like a restaurant, strange and unfamiliar as seen through the eyes of deracienated strangers.

If 'The Immigrant' is minimal, 'The Adventurer' is maximal and extrovert, almost to the point of manic saturation. Chaplin is also doing about ten things at once, and the whole piece amounts to a kind of 'happening'. In my music I have incorporated a wide range of texts relating simultaneously on all sorts of different levels. For example, obsessive themes in the film are reflected in quotations from Stravinsky's letters to Dushkin, about trying endlessly to get a reply to a letter he wrote to Chaplin. I also quote letters written to me from film historians complaining about my music.

The choice of texts reflects my fascination with documentary texts to be treated as such, or at the other extreme, treated in the opposite way with a camp baroque musical lyricism. Some documentary texts in 'Easy Street' evoke contemporary Britain, the Britain of Mrs Thatcher at the time when I wrote the music, but they stand up just as well now, unchanged as a reflection of Blair's Britain. The set Chaplin built for the film was supposed to be reminiscent of the South London where he grew up. These documentary texts are taken from contemporaneous TV and radio journalism and advertising - for example, a metropolitan police recruitment poster. Other texts exhibit another obsession - my fascination with puns, riddles, paradoxes, catchphrases, proverbs and literary quotes. All these elements are strung together to form a conversational commentary on a wide range of related subjects.

Sound effects form the final element. But with the use of a sampler, they can be used more ironically. And I can turn this process round, just in the opposite way, to make music imitate sound effects in a tongue-in-cheek manner. We must remember Jacques Tati's suggestion advocating the creative use of sound in film - "like putting sound in a painting - whoooooosh!!". Furthermore I could never have imagined such a music as this, without the inspired example of such a uniquely adventurous and original use of the relationship between sound and image as in the work of Godard.

© Benedict Mason 1998

  • 15 NOV 2014
    Essen, Germany
    Ensemble Modern
    Eva Resch, Holger Falk; Frank Ollu, conductor
  • 26 MAY 2012
    International Festival "The Diaghilev Seasons (Perm-Petersburg-Paris)"
    Perm, Russia
    Ensemble Modern
    Franck Ollu, conductor
  • 29 SEP 2011
    Cité de la Musique et de la Danse, Strasbourg, FRANCE
    Ensemble Modern
    Tora Augestad (mezzo-soprano) Michael Leibundgut (bass); Franck Ollu, conductor
  • 23 MAR 2010
    Baden-Baden, Germany
    Ensemble Modern
    Tora Augestad, Mezzosopran; I. Ludlow, Barriton; Jonathan Nott, conductor
  • 16 MAR 2010
    Trondheim, Norway
    Trondheim Sinfonietta
    Magnus Loddgard, conductor
  • 04 OCT 2008
    22. Dresdner Tage der zeitgenössischen Musik
    Dresden, Germany
    Ensemble Modern
    Martyn Brabbins, conductor
  • 15 MAR 2008
    New Zealand International Arts Festival
    Wellington, New Zealand
    New Zealand Stroma Ensemble
    Hamish McKeich, conductor
  • 02 MAR 2007
    Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
    London Sinfonietta
    Hilary Summers, mezzo; Omar Ebrahim, baritone; Franck Ollu, conductor
  • 24 FEB 2007
    The Dome, Brighton
    London Sinfonietta

    Other Dates:
    27 February - The Anvil, Basingstoke
    28 February - Coronet Cinema, Elephant and Castle, London
    2 March - Opera Theatre, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
    6 March - City Hall, Sheffield
    4 March - Concert Hall, Perth
  • 10 DEC 2005
    Paris, France
    Ensemble InterContemporain
    Johannes Kalitzke, conductor
  • 18 SEP 2005
    Rakkautta ja Anarkiaa-festivaali, Finland
    Avanti! Chamber Orchestra
  • 24 MAY 2005
    ChaplinOperas US Premiere
    Rose Theater, Lincoln Center
    Ensemble InterContemporain
    Della Jones (mezzo-soprano), Richard Suart (bass-baritone); Jonathan Nott, conductor
  • 07 DEC 2004
    Queen Elizabeth Hall
    London Sinfonietta
    Della Jones (Ms), Omar Ebrahim (Bar); Franck Ollu, conductor
  • 04 JAN 2004
    Contemporary Music Festival
    Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Centre, Taipei, Taiwan
    Ensemble Modern

    Other Dates:
    5-13 January - Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Centre, Taipei, Taiwan
  • 12 APR 2003
    Taipai Contemporary Music Festival
    Taipei, Taiwan
    Ensemble Modern
    Franck Ollu, conductor
  • 05 JUN 2002
    Cité de la Musique, Paris
    Ensemble InterContemporain
    Della Jones, mezzo soprano / Omar Ebrahim, baritone; Jonathan Nott, conductor

    Other Dates:
    7 June - Théâtre des Arts, Clermont-Ferrand

Mason packed the QEH for his ChaplinOperas. Few works are stranger, more experimental than this, or these. It has been performed only once before in London and came with the full shock of the new. To create this "semi-operatic filmspiel", he has taken three short Chaplin comedies - each shown in 35mm prints cherished for their graininess - and not merely written background music to be played live, but added sampled sounds and a Berio-esque textual layer that is continuously sung/spoken by an amplified mezzo and baritone. It was done splendidly… The fantasticated bustle of the music was exhilarating and there were plenty of witty links between the screen and score.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,19/12/2004
Mason uses Chaplin's wonderfully choreographed comic fables as the skeleton around which he constructs his complex web of sounds and words. Two singers, a mezzo and a baritone, deliver a range of texts that tease out the implications of the action. Mason's scores are similarly allusive. There is some directly illustrative writing, tightly coordinated to the images, alongside elaborate textures stuffed with quotations. He makes marvellous use of snatches of Debussy's La Mer and Verdi's Falstaff in The Adventurer, for instance, as well as Ivesian collages of popular tunes, brassy riffs and rhythms. It's virtuoso stuff… The treatment of the third, The Adventurer, is magnificent - as rich, inspiring and funny as Mason intended.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,09/12/2004
Silence is golden on the silver screen. So I thought before I witnessed Benedict Mason's ChaplinOperas. To say his scores for three of Charlie Chaplin's Mutual films counterpoint the silent visual action is something of an understatement. With a hyperactive, multi-layered score, with two singer/speakers, with sound effects from a sampler, and with the live ensemble frequently imitating those sounds, Mason sets up a "mimetic-frenetic" anarchy that both competes with and turns topsy-turvy the mayhem of the films. The Immigrants and The Adventurer were tours de force of imagination and virtuoso performance. Both create a cacophonous cross-etching of musical and verbal allusion. At times, there is so much going on that both singers have to conduct as well: Charles Ives seems to meet Chaplin in a spectral tornado of sound.
Hilary Finch, The Times,09/12/2004
Mason had no intention of providing mere accompaniment to the three Chaplin silents that constitute the visual element in ChaplinOperas. Instead he set out to illustrate, comment on, contradict, undercut and sometimes, indeed, simply accompany the on-screen action, in a musical language incorporating virtually every idiom of 20th-century music, classical and non-classical, all held together by Mason's steely intellect. And because this is opera (or what Mason describes as "semi-operatic filmspiel"), there is a libretto, in more languages than I could recognise and several that Mason has invented. Because singers and players were visible on stage, the eye inevitably wandered between musicians and screen, but far from being a distraction, the extra stimulus added another layer of knockabout. The laughter that repeatedly convulsed the audience (young and old) showed that Mason's musical refurbishment had brought up Chaplin's humour absolutely fresh: a collaborative triumph of a unique kind.
Nick Kimberley, Evening Standard,08/12/2004
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