The Music Man
Mark Tipton, a film score composer, masterfully plays the trumpet.
Other than being found on campus giving trumpet lessons, playing in the College Orchestra and coaching the Jazz Band, music faculty member Mark Tipton also uses his creative talent to bring musical depth to silent films by composing new and unique scores.
Tipton, an applied music instructor at the College for three years, also teaches at the University of Southern Maine and the Portland Conservatory of Music. Tipton studied at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and then at the Mannes College of Music in New York City, where he got his Master’s Degree.
In 2007, he formed the group Les Sorciers Perdus, originally under the name “The Tipton Chamber Players.” Tipton felt that the name “sounded pretty dry, and [he] didn’t want [his] name in it.” Since that time, new performers have joined and others have left, but “it’s been basically the same instrumentation,” he said. The group has performed scores written by Tipton to films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Golem (1920).
Tipton tends to favor jazz in his compositions. Much of his musical background involves working with jazz, and he finds that these themes tend to work their way into his music. However, Tipton also works to explore diverse styles of music within this framework.
“The most interesting styles to me are folk styles from around the world; just because it’s very unique music from country to country,” Tipton said. He expressed an interest in “encapsulating the sounds of different ethnic music.”
Tipton’s work often lies within the cinema of the 1890-1929 period—essentially the birth of cinema as an art form. Between watching and re-watching the films involved and the actual composition of the scores, Tipton spends “hundreds of hours” on each new piece.
“My process is, I watch a bunch of films with no sound, and I am going for whatever is most visually striking, whatever I think I can create music to, and then I just start from scratch,” he said.
Tipton writes his music by hand, stating that he is not yet familiar with music-writing programs but has a fondness for graphic notation. By using graphic notation, a composer may indicate unconventional sounds or instruments within a piece by using certain symbols. Because of Tipton’s tendency to use sound effects in his film scores, graphic notation is a useful tool in his composing process.
“I’m watching films now, preparing to start a new score,” Tipton said. “I want to do a drama that isn’t so much a horror film this time for a little variety.” He is currently considering two films for his next project: F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) or Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921).
Speaking to the composition of scores in general, Tipton said, “The interesting thing for me is that John Williams and some other film composers continue to sync their live orchestras up with film in that way, in the large studios in L.A. Now they have computer programs that can do that, but some of the old composers like John Williams will insist on that process, which comes from silent films….It would be pretty awesome if you could still go to the movies and have a live orchestra.”