Resonating Notes: Silent Film Restoration and the Power of Music

University of Minnesota | May 2023

Il Cinema Ritrovato, held annually in Bologna, Italy, stands as the world’s foremost film restoration festival, dedicated to showcasing a wide range of films spanning from the early years of cinema to the 1960s. At this year’s touring exhibition in Minnesota, composer Cong Liu had the esteemed privilege of composing and performing the musical score for the 1920s Chinese silent film, “Laborer’s Love.” Liu’s exceptional talent allowed him to captivate audiences in Minnesota and beyond, effectively showcasing the enchanting allure of Chinese music.

Crafting a score for silent films poses a unique and formidable challenge, distinct from conventional film scoring. However, Cong Liu drew upon his upbringing in a family deeply rooted in Chinese traditional music and his experience within a dance drama troupe, coupled with his profound understanding of Chinese musical traditions. After conducting meticulous research into the film’s narrative and historical context, Cong Liu ingeniously incorporated the musical themes of “尺调嚣板过门” from Yue Opera and the resonant segments found in Shanghai shadow puppetry. This masterful selection allowed him to artfully convey the film’s humor, wit, and silent actions through the language of music. Liu’s instrument of choice, the guzheng (Chinese zither), proved instrumental in his performance, as he skillfully intertwined techniques such as glissando with the film’s narrative, heightening the emotional impact. Furthermore, the inclusion of live performances and improvisation during the film screening enriched the audience’s experience, enabling them to savor the beauty of Chinese traditional music alongside the film’s imagery.

Cong Liu’s composition and performance garnered widespread acclaim from the live audience at the esteemed Il Cinema Ritrovato festival tour in Minnesota. Through this remarkable collaboration, Cong Liu succeeded in sharing the richness of Chinese traditional music and culture with American viewers, fostering a meaningful cultural exchange that bridged the gap between the two nations. His talent and unique approach created a harmonious convergence of Chinese and American cultures, unveiling the universality and power of music as a means of connection and expression.

(Guzheng Performers Zimu Ma and Cong Liu)


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