Artfully Edmonds: Edmonds composer earns accolades for silent film score

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As The Earth Turns movie poster

A soundtrack is a critical component of any film. Try watching your favorite movie muted with close captioning, and you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve always marveled at the magicians who weave music into each scene, seemingly knowing just how to raise the level of intensity, frighten us, or yank at our heartstrings.

Last fall — after years of providing music to films, television and video presentations — Edmonds musician, composer and educator Ed Hartman took on his most ambitious project to date: scoring the music to a previously unreleased feature silent picture originally shot in Seattle in 1938. “Scoring to picture,” as it’s known, requires the composer to write music appropriate to each shot and — in the case of a silent film — the music is the entire soundtrack. No Murphy artist, no dialogue — the film is entirely dependent on the score.

The film is As The Earth Turns. It’s a science fiction adventure written, directed and filmed by a then-20-year-old prodigy by the name of Richard H. Lyford.

Lyford went on to have a long and illustrious career in the film industry, working on Disney classics like Dumbo, Fantasia and Bambi. His film The Titian: Story of Michelangelo won the best documentary feature Oscar in 1950.

One of his more impressive achievements was the impact of his documentary that raised awareness about the tsetse fly/sleeping sickness. Thousands of lives likely were saved through efforts sparked by this documentary.

At 20, Lyford had already written over 50 plays and produced nine movies. As The Earth Turns was his crowning achievement before moving to Hollywood. It’s an impressive accomplishment. As many as 100 people helped Lyford put it together. It’s as fascinating for its views of Seattle in the 1930s — including Seattle neighborhoods, Boeing Field and the still-operating Gas Works (where, rumor has it, the film crew was chased out while shooting) — as for its depiction of the fashions, habits, idiom and sensibilities of the times.

A mad scientist “Pax,” played by Lyford, is fed up with war and sets about trying to end all hostilities on the planet. The camera work is amazingly good and the miniature models are very elaborate.

I’m guessing that the music Hartman composed to accompany each scene would have pleased Lyford. It’s very much in keeping with the style of its time. In one scene, where the president is pounding his fist dramatically on the table, a percussive musical refrain is inserted. There’s martial music for the war scenes and heart-racing music for the tense moments. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.

As of this date, showings of the film locally are not available. To receive information about future showings, go to Hartman’s website and sign up for his newsletter.

Composer, performer, educator and film producer
Ed Hartman

Hartman was introduced to Lyford’s work by one of his music students. She had cans of the 80-year-old 16 millimeter film in her basement. Miraculously, she was studying hand drum with Hartman, one of the few people around who could create a score for it. Together, they set out to produce the film.

Hartman had strong interest in both music composition and film from an early age. Raised in Evanston, Illinois, he studied music privately and had a Super 8 camera that he shot film with. There were opportunities for him in music and film. He took the path of music, achieving a percussion performance degree from the University of Indiana. He moved to Puget Sound in 1979. He immediately set out putting together Opus One – a concert series that showcased local composers, culminating with concerts at the Broadway Performance Center. He’s a former board member and an active member of the Seattle Composer’s Alliance to this day.

For many years, Hartman could be found running The Drum Exchange with his wife in Fremont. A little over 10 years ago, they settled in Edmonds.

He’s amassed an impressive array of credits on IMDb for compositions used in film and television, but he’s also an accomplished percussionist, marimba player and keyboardist and he continues to teach privately. In addition, he teaches classes and workshops on composition and setting music to film. Busy guy.

As the awards roll in for his work on As The Earth Turns, I asked him for his impression. “Honestly, it’s a little embarrassing,” he said. So far, independent film festivals around the world have bestowed in the neighborhood of 46 accolades to the film this year, including 12 “best score” awards.

I asked Hartman which were the most meaningful. “I guess it’s great to be recognized by the L.A. festivals,” he said. “We might go down to the Myrtle Beach ceremony. Most of the Northwest Festivals haven’t announced yet. We may go down to the Browns Point (Tacoma) Film Festival.

“Probably the most enjoyable award I’ve received was for a short film I entered for the Tulalip Film Festival, everyone was wonderful up there,” he continued. “It was as great as anything.” Using his droid camera on a beach walk in Edmonds, he chanced upon a man making giant bubbles. The product of this encounter was the award-winning Thought Dream. (Watch it at m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=JqScyItgm6o)  

Richard Lyford as Pax in As The Earth Turns

As The Earth Turns is also Hartman’s first co-producer credit for a feature film. “This film is really teaching me how to be a producer,” Hartman said. At one point, they found 12 minutes of film that they were able to work back into the picture, providing more continuity to the plot line. They’ve had a lot of help along the way, including technical assistance from Clatter & Din, Seattle’s leading post-production studio. The finished product is impressive. Although, as Hartman pointed out, there’s an adage in the industry — “No film is ever done.” They may continue polishing it, and there’s even talk of developing a documentary on Lyford.

I guess the irony here is that after having chosen a musical path in life, Hartman has found his way back to film as well. Why choose one when you can have both?

— By James Spangler

When not actively scheming about ways to promote the arts in Edmonds, James Spangler can be found (highly caffeinated) behind the counter of his bookstore on 4th Avenue.

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