The Sound for Silents: SF Silent Film Festival Composer Matti Bye on Music and Love of Film

by Victoria Haggblom

When the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screens at the Castro Theatre in late May, Swedish composer and pianist Matti Bye will perform with his ensemble for the sixth time.
Considered one of Scandinavia’s most important composers of film scores and an extraordinary performer on his own, Bye began his career 25 years ago and is widely recognized for innovative contemporary work for such early Swedish silent film classics as The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjöström, The Witch by Benjamin Christensen, and Gösta Berling’s Saga by Mauritz Stiller. Last year, Bye wrote the score for Academy Award nominee Jan Troell’s latest feature, Everlasting Moments , and Stig Björkman’s Scenes From a Playhouse , a documentary about Ingmar Bergman.



Bye has won numerous prestigious awards for his music. In 2014, he received the Guldbagge prize for the score to the movie Faro and also won the Nordic film music prize, Harpa. and has performed at events as diverse as the Bergman Festival on Fårö, an island in the Baltic Ocean; the CinemArctic film festival at Svalbard in the middle of the Polar Sea; Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy; and the To Save and Project festival at the MoMa in New York City.





Tall, thoughtful, and with a quietly intense presence, Bye talked, in Swedish, to EatDrinkFilms about his life as a composer of film music. Here is the translated conversation:

EatDrinkFilms: What is it like to perform at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival?

Matti Bye: The festival organizers are amazing people: passionate about silent film, warm and interesting. We’ve become good friends over the years. This festival, along with Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy, is my favorite to perform at. The audience is so engaged and enthusiastic. The atmosphere in the movie theatre and at the festival parties is just wonderful. This year, I’ll be playing with my ensemble to the Swedish film Norrtullsligan (The North Side Gang ), and one of my favorite films, Flesh and the Devil , with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.

Still from Norrtullsligan .

Still from Norrtullsligan .

EDF: You grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. Which love came first in your life, music or film?

MB: It was a passion that began simultaneously. I loved escaping from reality into different worlds as a child. I began playing the piano at age 7, and practiced like crazy, six to eight hours a day. The first movie that had a real impact on me was Tarzan and the Amazons ; I must have been about 11. When I left the theatre, I felt like I had become Tarzan in that black-and-white jungle!

1926:  John Gilbert, Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson star in the romantic melodrama 'Flesh and the Devil', directed by Clarence Brown and based on the novel 'The Undying Past' by Hermann Sudermann.  (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

1926: John Gilbert, Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson star in the romantic melodrama ‘Flesh and the Devil’, directed by Clarence Brown and based on the novel ‘The Undying Past’ by Hermann Sudermann. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

In my later teens, my favorite movie was Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan . The magical realism in that movie is amazing and I was deeply moved by the film’s compassionate, positive protagonist, Toto, who transforms misery into magic.

EDF: From an early age, you had the desire to be transported into different worlds. Why was this, you think?

MB: My single mother was an established actress who worked all the time. I didn’t have a lot of friends. It sounds sad, but I didn’t experience it that way. I played the piano, biked around on the Stockholm streets, listened to classical music, and went to the movies. My father, a writer who also played the piano, said to me: “If you have the music, you’ll never be alone.”

EDF: You began playing to silent films in the early ‘90s in Stockholm, at the Cinematheque, the Swedish Film Institute’s alternative film series; how did this come about?

MB: It was a bit of a fluke. I was running around there all the time and they knew I was a pianist. One day, they realized they needed accompaniment for their silent movies and asked me to come and play. The first time was disastrous; I had no idea what to perform. I tried a few classical pieces, but it didn’t work. With time, I began improvising and writing my own music instead.

To be a silent film pianist was the perfect job for a young romantic like me. I could experiment and explore musical structures freely, develop my own style and voice. To sit there in the darkness with other nostalgic individuals felt very romantic and fit me perfectly. Unless I’m performing with my ensemble, I still mostly improvise when I play to a silent film because often it’s the first time I’m watching it.

Matti Bye at Café OTO in London. Credit: Dawid Laskowski

Matti Bye at Café OTO in London. Credit: Dawid Laskowski

EDF: Do you still consider yourself a romantic?

MB: Yes, I think I still am, although daily life, and the world we live in, certainly doesn’t always facilitate it. Our cell phones, which really are more like minicomputers, keep most people busy during all those “boring” moments in life, like when you’re waiting for the bus. But I think those “boring” moments can be really important; they create the opportunity to reflect and to process things we’ve experienced. That’s why I go to Berlin as often as I can. It’s a city where people still read books in the cafes, a place where surprising encounters can occur.

EDF: What inspires you as a composer?

MB: I read a lot of poetry: the Swedish poets Gunnar Björling, Bruno K. Öijer, and Edith Södergran. Also, Paul Celan (via Amazon or Indiebound), Allen Ginsberg (via Amazon or Indiebound), John Ashbery (via Amazon or Indiebound), and Wislawa Szymborska (via Amazon or Indiebound). I also get inspired by composers like Shostakovich, Morricone, Schubert, Radiohead, Sofia Gubajdulina, Satie, Schönberg, Lennie Tristano, Miles Davis, Beethoven, Kraftwerk, Debussy, Mulatu Astatke, Alice Coltrane, Rachmaninov, Nico, John Cage, Francoise de Roubaix, and many others.

Photographs from the early 1900s are another huge source of inspiration: watching them, I get lost in dreams and fantasies … It’s not that I think things were better in the past, but I kind of always want to be somewhere else, and then that type of nostalgia is perfect. I’m simply enamored with the esthetic of that era: fashion, design, and architecture. I also get ideas for my music through travel, meeting people, and seeing new places.

EDF: Silent film is such an interesting genre, especially today, when most of us spend a lot of time with technology in our daily lives to communicate with words and images. In silent films, so much is left out without the sound of human voices; the silence creates a kind of mystery. What does that silence mean to you?

MB: What I love about silent film is that the pictures have to say it all. Sure, there are signs with text in between the different frames, but they are usually not that important. The actors’ eyes and facial expressions tell the story. And of course the music has to interpret and express a lot. The music gives voice to the narrative. I also think it gives the audience more room come up with their own associations. It’s a dream to make music to silent film because there’s no right or wrong, merely various interpretations, as long as you stay connected to the images and follow the storyline. I usually say that the film itself is the sheet music; everything is contained in it: the dynamics between the characters, the timing. As musicians, we simply try to embody the essence of the film, almost like the actors. We want to make the images come alive again. It’s wonderful when that happens, when you notice the audience being swept away by the experience. That’s when the silent film is no longer silent; it becomes an internal voice that speaks to us.

Matti Bye and This Forgotten Land (Joel Danell & John Henriksson) at Café OTO in London. Credit: Dawid Laskowski

Matti Bye and This Forgotten Land (Joel Danell & John Henriksson) at Café OTO in London. Credit: Dawid Laskowski

EDF: You and many of the musicians you play with dress uniquely; I would call it “Early 20th century farm chic meets 1920s dandy.” Where do you find all your beautiful clothes?

MB: I’ve always dressed like this. I shop in vintage stores and also search for new clothes with a retro look. I love American vintage, everything from cowboy fashion to the 1940s. They’re beginning to recognize me in the vintage stores in the Haight-Ashbury! There’s a store on the corner of Vallejo and Grant that sells handmade clothes and shoes that are wonderful.

EDF: What’s your favorite drink?

MB: I love the local micro-brewed ales here in California.

EDF: Favorite San Francisco restaurant?

MB: Magnolia in the Haight for its beers and hamburgers, but I have yet to discover so many more. Still hoping to be introduced to the best Mexican place in the Mission.

EDF: Is there a possibility you might start working with American filmmakers?

MB: I did visit Los Angeles last year and was completely enchanted by the city! It was so different from what I had imagined. The light where the desert meets the great ocean, the realization that this was the place where the very first movies were filmed … It all made sense, and made me feel euphoric. I have a Swedish friend who lives and works with film in LA and we’ve done some work together. I also met with Samantha Fuller, daughter to the director Samuel Fuller, and we might collaborate on her next film project. So we’ll see.

EDF: Which contemporary movie have you seen recently that moved you?

BethanienMB: Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako. Unfortunately, I rarely have time to see movies in the theatre these days unless I’m performing to a silent film or attending the premiere of a movie I’ve composed the soundtrack to. I have three sons to take care of and I work a lot. Right now, I’m composing the music to a new Swedish feature film called The Serious Game ; I also make music for documentaries and television. Luckily, I’m a member of the European Film Academy, which gives me access to an archive of new quality films; that’s my salvation!

Whatever time I have left, I spend recording music with one of my many band constellations, like Matti Bye & This Forgotten Land, Maailma, Winter, and Walrus. My records are issued in limited release on vinyl, on small record companies of friends. My first solo record was called Dreamt and the most recent, Bethanien .

EDF: Bethanien has such an evocative, beautiful, melancholy, and unique soundscape. Sometimes you use out-of-tune old pianos in your music. I know that you also like playing on them inside the junk stores that sell them. What attracts you to old pianos and how do you make that sound work in your compositions?

MB: There are several reasons for my fascination with old pianos. First, there’s the tragic history of all those trees from the rainforests and all the elephants that were sacrificed so that every early 20th century bourgeois home in Europe could have this piece of “furniture” in their living room. Now all these pianos are shipped to the dump because no one wants them anymore.

Also, I wanted to rescue something of these old instruments before they were gone, so I began recording on these broken, decrepit pianos that were on their way to their final destination, their deaths. I made melodies working entirely within their capacity. What I could actually play on these disintegrating pianos became the framework for the music. That’s how I got the idea for creating my album Bethanien . One night, I had a dream about a piano lashed to the mast of a great, abandoned ship out at sea. The wind rocked the piano’s strings so it began playing. This was the inspiration for the piece “The Piano Ship.”

I’m always searching for a piano with character in its timbre, an instrument with life experience, a sound that isn’t perfect but a little skewed. Maybe because I feel like the music you record gets more human that way. I also use quite a lot of electronic equipment in my work, modules, guitar amplifiers that I use with the piano, and finally, I perform it using speakers and an old guitar amplifier from the 1930s.

EDF: Can music change the world?

MB: I think all art can change people, but it’s a slow process, not an instant solution to anything. It can alert our senses and make us feel more compassionate, which really ought to be a very natural impulse to us as human beings. Art can bring us closer to these emotions, make us feel interconnected and part of a community. I really think this is such an important sensation, remembering that we’re all living together on this planet and that at our core we’re all really quite similar.Horizontal RuleSAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL

May 28-June 1, 2015. Flesh and the Devil screens with live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 30. Norrtullsligan screens with live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 31. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF.

Horizontal RuleVictoriaHaggblomVictoria Häggblom is a writer and translator from Stockholm, Sweden now residing in Berkeley. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and her short fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines. She is currently at work on a screenplay set in the high desert of California.

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