Classical Q&A with Viola Dana’s Kathy Corecig

Three years ago, Australian folk-jazz quartet Viola Dana premiered their original soundtrack for the Buster Keaton comedy The General at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival to a standing ovation.

This month, the ensemble – which combines cello, viola, guitar, banjo, drums and percussion – brings their live silent film sound track to Aeolian Hall as part of a six-show North American tour that includes stops at the Toronto Silent Film Festival and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York City.

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, The Beat recently caught up with the group’s leader, violist/composer Kathy Corecig to find out more about this unique project.

As a string player, how did you become interested in composition?

I think I became interested in composition as part of my adolescent need to express emotions and ideas. I'm quite sure that throughout high school my growing desire to write - especially for my instrument the violin - went hand in hand with my ever growing interest in jazz and its style of improvisation.

Back then I used to write very melodic little pieces, often inspired by the composers of the Romantic period. I think the more time I spent as a violist from the age of 18, and of course the more I listened to or studied a wider range of music, I began to feel more confident exploring different styles and instrumentation.

What inspired you to compose a soundtrack for The General?

Many years ago, I was involved in the organisation of concerts and programming for the fledgling Juniper Chamber Orchestra in Perth, Western Australia. I was pursuing the idea of creating a soundtrack for The General using pieces of chamber music. However, there was always going to be a compromise artistically: pieces would either have to be 'cut' to make them fit with the film, or the music wouldn't quite suit what was happening in the film at times.

I could see that creating something new as a soundtrack would be so much more rewarding musically, for both the audience and the musicians. I very quickly began to get ideas for the music for this very inspiring film, and I was fortunate enough to be joined by some of my favourite local musicians to perform it!

How does writing a sound track for a silent film differ from writing a sound track for a 'talkie'?

Although I haven't composed for a 'talkie' myself, I would definitely say that the main difference would be the fact that in a silent film the music is heard consistently throughout the film, whereas in a 'talkie' the music usually ebbs and flows throughout, being used to enhance, foreshadow or punctuate (and more!). Therefore the sheer volume of music required from the composer in a silent film is greater than for a 'talkie'. Because of the different role of music in these two types of films, I think the viewer also experiences the music in a different way for each, and therefore the composer would need to be aware of how this would affect the soundtrack that they write. I think one could definitely spend a lot of time discussing that premise....!

Having live musicians perform during a film screening is a novelty for modern movie audiences - and for modern musicians. What is the experience like for you as a musician, and how is it different from playing a standard concert?

You are playing a lot of the time with a few breaks to catch your breath if the composer wants to create some variety in the instrumentation. (I didn't give our poor cellist many breaks...sorry Tristen!). Also, we're often responding to things that are happening on-screen, which is a different experience than playing purely concert music - this experience is more akin to that of playing with dancers.

Were you surprised by how well Viola Dana's The General project was received in Australia, and why do you think it was such a hit?

To an extent, yes - especially as it was my first composition on a large scale! I think that audiences really connected - and still do - to the way our music has dual purposes and motivations: it was written to convey, musically, the Civil War setting of the film, but still has modern and in some cases post modern elements, which I think makes the viewers feel very connected to what's going on and allows us to express more musically than simply providing something to fill the silence. I also think it's been so well received in Australia because it's such a great, enduring film...that and the fact that Buster Keaton's character would resonate with the inner 'Aussie battler'!

Do you hope to compose other sound tracks for silent films - and if so, what would be your dream projects?

We certainly would like to write more for silent films - I've already written a new soundtrack for Keaton's Sherlock Jr for the band, and our drummer has also composed a new soundtrack for Keaton's The High Sign. I have been discussing a project involving expanding the orchestration of the soundtrack for Sherlock Jr to include band playing together with one of our local symphony orchestras, but until that looks like it's going ahead I can't really elaborate about that! We're also hoping to work on some non-Keaton silent films, and are very keen to also work on some non-silent film soundtracks for new films.
If You Go:
What: Viola Dana, The General
When: April 10 @ 8 pm
Where: Aeolian Hall (795 Dundas St. E) /

Nicole Laidler is editor of The Beat Magazine and a local freelance writer and business communicator. Visit her at

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