Contag’s chamber orchestra score for The Crowd marks the composer’s return to live cinema following his collaborative film music experiments with Cloudboy in the early 2000s. Commissioned by the New Zealand International Film Festival and co-funded by Creative New Zealand, the score was premiered at the festival in 2013 by Wellington’s SMP Ensemble. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928), a forgotten highlight of Hollywood’s silent era, traces the aspirations and setbacks of an everyman and his wife in pre-Depression N.Y.C. The film stands alone with its boldly realist aesthetic, which is devoid of heroics and villainry alike.
Responding to the Roaring-Twenties setting, Contag’s 94-minute score is infused with elements of ragtime and the Charleston, offering proto-jazz expressivity within an otherwise orchestral setting. While the piano is the solo instrument of choice, all the main orchestral colours are present also (woodwind quartet, string quintet, percussion), with sporadic flourishes of ukulele added for visual continuity. At an ensemble size of twelve players, the instrumentation offers excellent stylistic agility, effortlessly switching from e.g. a piano-clarinet-bass-drums jazz combo to the gravitas of a sweeping orchestral tutti.
As with his subsequent film score for Varieté, Contag chose not to reframe the film for today’s audiences but rather to represent its original context as faithfully as possible, carefully and with great sympathy focusing on the character dynamics and narrative direction that have made The Crowd the masterpiece that it is known as today.
“An incredible achievement… adding enormously to the experience while not
intruding.” (John Psathas)