Over the weekend I finally played the DVD copy I purchased a few years back of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, a film I had read about for many years but had never actually seen. The day before I saw another classic film I had never seen before, René Clair’s 1931 À nous la liberté. I was curious to see them both back to back because I had read that the producers of the Clair film attempted to sue Chaplin for plagiarism and ultimately settled out of court after a decade-long process. There were definitely some striking similarities between the two films, but none that ultimately kept my mind spinning for very long.
What has occupied my thoughts since watching Modern Times, however, is the fact that Chaplin was responsible for so many of its details: not only did he write, direct, and star in it, he composed the soundtrack music which contains an extraordinarily beautiful melody that later became an enormously successful popular song standard, “Smile.” Chaplin’s polymathic approach was quite rare in cinema. Despite the auteur-obsessed cognoscenti, film more than any other art form is a collaborative process; the fact that so many different kinds of skills are needed to make a film almost requires it to be.
In that sense, film is extremely different from musical composition. There have been very few examples in music history of significant works that involved the decisions of more than one composer. Some Cage projects like Double Music with Lou Harrison or HPSCHD with Lejaren Hiller, the pioneering orchestra plus electronics compositions of Luening and Ussachevsky, or the Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry Symphonie pour un homme seul are rare historic exceptions. And more recently the collaborations between the three artistic directors of Bang on a Can have produced some interesting results—I’m a big fan of Lost Objects. But most collaborations between composers have not fared as well. Even a piece with as illustrious a pedigree as the F-A-E Sonata—for which Brahms and Schumann each composed movements—remains a curiosity that only rarely gets trotted out on recital programs, and sometimes when it does get performed the individual movements (each of which was written by a single composer) get separated. It’s as if presenters of classical music, so fueled by the great man theory, can’t handle a work created by more than one person.
Of course, composers collaborate all the time when they embark on stage works. Although there have been many successful cases of composers writing their own librettos, having the input of another creative mind is often a trigger for inspiration. Aside from the first musical of mine to be staged (a teen effort for which I arrogantly created book, music, and lyrics, and was musical director), I’ve always worked with someone else whenever I have embarked on a stage project even though I am more than comfortable stringing words together. Having someone else involved in the creative process is a way to get outside yourself, and for effective theatrical narratives getting outside yourself is a necessity.
Similarly, in other genres of music, usually ones that involve improvisation, making music that is the product of more than one ego yields results that are frequently more powerful and balanced than anything someone working alone can produce. Of course there have and will always be exceptions. But might more powerful and balanced notated musical compositions result if there were more frequent collaborations between composers?
Modern Times remains an extremely successful motion picture nearly 75 years after it was first released. But would it have been more successful if Chaplin shared more of the creative process with others? Though released nearly a decade after talkies, it is still mostly silent—perhaps a result of Chaplin’s creative unease with the new medium at that time. Would a collaborator have made spoken dialogue work for that film? On the other hand, what if Chaplin was responsible for even more details of the film, like cinematography? Would having even greater creative control have stifled his muse? Although Chaplin composed the music for the film, he did not notate or arrange it. That’s a task he left to Alfred Newman and David Raksin, two of Hollywood’s most masterful orchestrators, and the orchestration of the film soundtrack—Gershwin echoes and all—is particularly extraordinary.