When the earliest known example of Asian American cinema, The Oath of the Sword, was first released in 1914, its producers at Japanese American Film Company had difficulty distributing it to a wide audience. Then it spent many decades lost to the archives before visual studies professor Denise Khor rediscovered and helped restore the original film print last year. “I love the idea of this film finally finding its audience in this era, 2023,” Khor told Northeastern Global News
To give this era’s audience an experience authentic to the film’s history, Khor connected with music professor Allen Feinstein to compose a score for the East Coast premiere of the film, this Friday, as part of the Boston Asian American Film Festival.
While the silent-era film doesn’t have any audible dialogue, audiences who did see it in theaters at the time of its release would not have sat in complete quiet; many screenings of the era would have included the accompaniment of an organist or pianist, or, in bigger cities, a theater orchestra. And none of these moviegoers would have had exactly the same experience, says Feinstein. In his research into the period, he learned that companies, instead of scoring entire films separately, would provide interchangeable pieces to fit the mood of scenes in multiple movies: music for romantic scenes, bucolic scenes and chase scenes that could be used at the performers’ discretion.
Feinstein is taking a similar tack in his composition. “I’ve analyzed the movie, broken it down to the scenes,” he says. “I’m assigning and adapting music from the nineteen-teens and ’20s and tailoring it to fit this movie.” He’s created both a piano and theater orchestra score and will conduct a 15-student orchestra in performing it during the film screening. Orchestration for the theatre orchestra was a collaboration with Ben Green, Jasmine Bryant ’23, Amelie Pollack ‘27
and Sofia Stafford ‘28.
Because the project came together quickly, the group has had only a few rehearsals to prepare, fitting into busy back-to-school schedules the time to learn the music — and watch the film, since they won’t be able to do so while performing live. “It’s not unlike what would have happened during the silent era,” says Feinstein. “We are going to be performing with the resources that we have.”
For Feinstein, those resources include a network of colleagues who are experts in the music of this period, whom he consulted throughout the process. “One of the challenges of this scoring has been to create something faithful to the era while being respectful, since music written to depict non-Western settings at that time runs the gamut from artful to tasteless,” he says. But in listening sessions with Japanese music expert Philip Flavin, Feinstein learned that because Japan’s music was beginning to be heavily influenced by the West at the time, the seemingly inaccurate European influences in scores heard by American audiences may have been appropriately indicative of the contemporary moment in Japan.
Relying on research findings like these, his vast conducting and composing experience and a strong belief in the talented group of musicians he’s assembled, Feinstein hopes the film festival experience will be accurate and enjoyable.
“You get a real additional energy from a live orchestra playing,” he says. “It really does bring tremendous dimension to most silent films that would be missing without it. The music provides that emotional component.”