This Sunday, Cornell Cinema will host a special viewing of Terje Vigen (A Man There Was), presenting a unique live accompaniment by Swedish film composer and musician Matti Bye on amplified piano, glockenspiel and electronic instruments. This 1917 film, directed by Victor Sjöström, marked the beginning of the golden age of Swedish silent film. Based on a poem of the same title by Henrik Ibsen, it tells the story of an indigent sailor who tries to run the English blockade of Norway's southern coast in a small rowboat, desperately attempting to smuggle food back to his starving wife and daughter. Terje Vigen is captured by a British commanding officer, and years later, when this same officer's family finds itself dependent on Terje, he must decide whether to be benevolent or to take bitter revenge.
Matti Bye breathes new life into this film with his original score. Bye’s music is distressing, full of the trepidation that Terje Vigen’s story requires; he captures the colors of anguish in his hair-raising, ghostly melodies. Bye is considered one of Sweden's most important composers of film scores as well as an extraordinary musician and improviser on the piano. He is most popularly known for writing a series of avant-garde scores for such early Swedish silent film classics as he has so masterfully done in this film.
The screening of Terje Vigen will also include the 15-minute film, The Birth of a Moving Image, a tribute to early filmmaking, directed and animated by David Giese. The piece — also featuring live accompaniment by Bye — is a visual re-mastering of the one-minute film Danse Serpentine from 1900 by the Lumière brothers, using only material from the original 35mm reel.
The Sun was lucky to have a chance to hear from the talented Matti Bye himself:
The Sun: You have parents who were highly involved in the visual arts: a mother who was an actress and a father who was a playwright. What got you interested in music as your own medium for art?
Matti Bye: I was a shy child, and perhaps music was a world in which I could be very much alone — a hidden place. But one thing is the same in all of these art forms: the drama! I think a lot of what composing film music is about entails drama and getting the right dramatic curve.
Sun: What made you want to write scores for classic, timeless Swedish silent films such as Phantom Carriage, Häxan and, of course, Terje Vigen? Is there something special about silent films that draws you to them?
M.B.: I love the time of early filmmaking because it was a time to explore and invent the language of storytelling in moving images. Live music was always used to accompany films because there was no dialogue. The story had to be explained through images and music. This bestows a very challenging task onto a musician. You get very involved, having to explain the story as a composer. My first years accompanying silent films, I did only at the piano. My classical background helped me to improvise directly from the films, but later, when they asked me to write music for small ensembles and record the music for DVDs, I became more and more of a film music composer.
Sun: In Terje Vigen, you fill a large void that exists in a movie with no original score. What are some challenges you met with this great responsibility? Do you think that adding music to these films changes their character?
M.B.: The beautiful thing about music for silent films is that you can add psychological levels that you don’t recognize in the images. Maybe this is only my interpretation of the story and the characters in it, but I have the freedom to do this. This is what makes this art form so exciting and vivid.
Sun: Can you describe the composition process for your film scores?
M.B.: I watch the film over and over. I read the novel. I try to empathize with the characters, almost like an actor getting a new role in a play. Instrumentation is also very important, as this is what sets the color.
Sun: It has been said that your work is concerned with the tension, which exists between moving image, sound and music, taking the viewer on a unique and lyrical journey of the world of dreams and illusions through a multi-sensorial experience of storytelling. This is especially perceptible in Terje Vigen. What do you have to say about this special bond of music to the story?
M.B.: Music sometimes embodies the feelings we experience when we react to images, and it can open up the imaginative subconscious. I personally love when I get involved in an artistic experience, an exhibition or a concert, when there is room for me, a space where my creativity can be part of the artist’s work. I want this phenomenon to happen for my audience when I perform my film concerts. I hope I create moods and hidden places where the spectator can be a part of this experience.
Sun: I found the score of Terje Vigen to be powerfully suspenseful and foreboding. How do you choose what feelings to bring out in each moment of the films you score?
M.B.: I want to bring sounds to the story that help the audience to participate in this very special moment we create together. Everyone has their own experience of the film, and in this way you can truly call it a gesamtkunstwerk [German for “an all-embracing art form”].
Sun: You also enjoy performing piano in the form of improvisation. What do you feel is the biggest difference between this type of impromptu performance and composing?
M.B.: When I compose, there is time for reflection. In improvisation, I have the feeling of absolute transience in the moment. I never perform in the same way two times; it is always different depending on the film, audience, place and mood I’m in during this very special event.