Dan Langa ’18 is a music major. For his thesis he composed an original score for the film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” His thesis was performed at the Buckley Recital Hall on Feb. 2. His advisor is Lecturer in Music Ryan Vigil from the University of New Hampshire.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: I wrote my own original film score for the 1928 film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which is a silent black-and-white film that recounts the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. My thesis was a look into the process of what it is like to write from film. From budgeting the project, writing the music and finding the performers, everything was similar to how it would be in the real word except for I didn’t have to work with a director. The absence of a director was good for me because it meant I didn’t have to get approval for the music I was writing. The film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” is famous because it is one of the first films to use close-ups, so there are lots of long shots of characters’ faces throughout. This makes it easier to draw emotion from the film and add music to it. I actually saw it in a film class I took with Professor Timothy Van Compernolle called “Knowing Cinema,” … during my freshman fall. I didn’t have emotional connection to the film, but I liked it, and now it is cool to see my Amherst career come full circle.
Q: Where did you get the idea for your thesis?
A: I knew I wanted to write a music composition thesis, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to write. I spent the summers before junior and senior year in Los Angeles, and that helped me realize music composition was my main interest. The summer before junior year, I took a class at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] and worked at a music prep company where we did a lot of the busy work that goes into preparing for a recording session. The summer before my senior year, I continued to work with the same music prep company and also worked as an assistant to an individual composer. I got inspiration from seeing two films performed with live music: “The Triplets of Belleville” and “Birdman.” I first saw “The Triplets of Belleville” when I was in about third grade, and then I saw it performed with a live film score about five years ago. I also saw the movie “Birdman” at UMass Amherst where drummer Antonio Sanchez performed a live version of the film score. Seeing how these two performances integrated live performance with a film inspired my own music composition thesis.
Q: What was the timeline for this project?
A: I loosely started working on it the last week of my junior year. During that time, I mainly worked on creating a timeline and putting together a budget. I started writing the music in June and wrote a little less of a quarter of it during the summer in Los Angeles. The rest of the music was written between the end of August and the first week of December. After I finished writing the score, I had to split it up into parts because I wrote it all on one sheet, so then I then had to go and split it up into the sheets that each performer with a different instrument will see, which is a tedious process. My goal was to give the performers the music so that they could look over it during winter break, and then rehearsals started the last week of interterm and continued until the performance on Feb. 2.
Q: How long did it take for you to put it all together?
A: I always wanted to be writing music and working on my project, but there were other obligations I had that prevented me from working on it all the time. However, there was usually one day a week when I worked on it from the time I woke up until it was time to go to dinner, and those were the best days. On other days, there would be two to four hours when I would be working on it in some way.
Q: What was the creative process like?
A: I wrote the music at a piano and I would listen to two to three minutes of the movie at a time to try and see what was going on at that moment in the film. After watching I would have some idea of what I wanted to happen during that time, and then I would get to work writing and try and make it happen. As I was writing, there was a software I used that mimics the sounds of instruments, but it’s not good to get in the habit of listening to that because it is often not what the instruments actually sound like. If I was lucky to be writing the music with a performer present they would help me with what it would sound like and [what] was and wasn’t possible.
Q: What was the hardest part?
A: Well, there was a lot of music to write so it was exhausting in that way. I also conducted, and I had never done any conducting, so learning what goes into that was challenging. In learning conducting, I didn’t realize all the different places your brain needs to be at one. It was hard to be both the composer and the conductor because at times I would want to write a certain thing, but then think to myself, ‘Oh, that would be hard to conduct.’ Mark Swanson, who helped me learn to conduct, also helped me understand that you can’t compromise what you write in order to make it easier to compose.
Q: Did you experience anything unexpected during the process?
A: It was difficult to sync the music to the film, so in order to help I used a click track, which was something I put in my ear to have the tempo of the music in my ear while I was conducting. I initially thought the click track was going to be helpful, but it wasn’t at all, so I ended up doing the tempo from memory so that when I was conducting the music matched the film. Other than that, sometimes in rehearsals we would change small things, but nothing major.
Q: What’s the most valuable lesson you learned from writing a thesis?
A: I think the most important thing was learning the value of thinking ahead and really planning something out. The project never would have come together if I hadn’t planned it out, and I had to have a full vision for what was going to happen before I even wrote the first note.
Q: What was your favorite part of the process?
A: My favorite part was probably picking it up from the printing press and holding this huge thing in my hand that I had worked on for so long. It was also cool to hear it played live for the first time because for so long it was only ink on a page.