If you were checking out perennial cable home for vintage films Turner Classic Movies last Sunday at midnight in search of holiday movie comfort food, you might have left a little confused. Or enchanted, intrigued and delightfully weirded out. That’s all depending on your reaction to the network’s airing of a collection of turn-of-the-century (the 20th century) silent holiday shorts from the years 1901-25. 

Alan Kryszak.  Photo by John Guinane

In the mix of nine shorts, ranging in length from 5 to 29 minutes (a 1910 Edison Film Manufacturing Corp. adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” clocks in at a brisk 10), late-night viewers seeking some untrodden holiday film fare also heard something unusual. Over the flickering images of wildly eclectic Christmas drama from more than a century ago, the nine films feature a decidedly uncharacteristic score for holiday movies. A complex mix of violin, harp and handbell, the soundtrack interwoven among all nine shorts is by Maine-based composer and filmmaker Alan Kryszak, all original compositions written by Kryszak for the films’ DVD release (titled “A Christmas Past”) for the esteemed Kino Lorber imprint. 

“They were the strangest things I had ever seen,” Kryszak said of the short films. “Most of them were made some 40 years before movies like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ so there’s no established Christmas style yet.” Kryszak points to elements of the films like a father in urban New York deciding to rob a store to get medicine to keep his sick kids alive, exclaiming, “This is one of the Christmas stories! They were very dark and gritty, and weren’t copying Victorian Christmas style as much as they were actually being filmed in the Victorian era.” 

For a modern-day composer (Kryszak was tasked with creating his score by film executive and historian Sandra Birnhak back in 2001), crafting original music for silent films was nothing new. In his career, Kryszak has done the same for classic films as varied as “Broken Blossoms” and “Nosferatu” and has performed his “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” score live at Lincoln Center, but the added expectations involved in scoring a slate of long-forgotten Christmas movies offered up unique creative obstacles. 

“On the one hand, my bosses had been dead for 80 years,” joked Kryszak. “But I was not just going to do an imitation of silent film music.” Instead, what Kryszak – currently on the creative arts faculty at the University of Maine at Machias – did was take inspiration from the films’ pre-dating of our modern notions of Christmas entertainment styles to free his mind from preconceptions about what a holiday score should be. 

“Strings and harp were kind of a universal turn-of-the-century medium,” said Kryszak, explaining his thought process, “and I knew I wanted to avoid electronics entirely.” The handbells sound Christmassy in theory, but, as Kryszak notes, the employment of his daughter’s handbell choir served as something of “a trick” to bring echoes of the season just familiar enough to make his eventual score all the more striking. (That the Apple Music-available album of Kryszak’s score is titled “Having an Atonal Christmas” should give a sense of what the composer was going for.) “These aren’t your father’s handbells,” Kryszak said, laughing, and added that he views his creation as Christmas music “with a little Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant on the side.”

For Kryszak (most recently profiled in this column for his documentary “When The Chevy Breaks [How Small Towns Fix Big Problems]”), rethinking musical forms isn’t just a holiday thing. “Igor Stravinsky said that the most terrifying thing is to have no limits,” Kryszak said. “Watching these films with a pencil and paper, noting the seconds of changes, working off the video, I found myself sketching out almost like you’re in a sort of trance.” Grounding his creative process in the long-ago images of Christmas on the screen, Kryszak said, “sets you free to work in that language. You can kind of dream it up so you don’t feel like you’re just lost in space.”

So what if Kryszak’s scores aren’t the chipper, endlessly replayed fodder of carolers and old soundtracks? How many times can you listen to Gene Autry happily croon “Here Comes Santa Claus?” each December before losing your mind? Plus, as holiday music enthusiast Kryszak stresses, some of our most beloved holiday staples are “incredibly dark and terrifying – and they’re considered Christmas classics.” Think George Bailey’s plan to jump off that bridge, or Judy Garland pleading with the fates to allow, just this once, a merry little Christmas. Or the long-lost echoes of the very first Christmas films, set to one man’s ruminative music from a century in the future.

Alan Kryszak’s score for the nine short Christmas films making up “A Christmas Past” can be seen on the Turner Classic Movies app, through a TCM subscription or on DVD through Kino Lorber. Kryszak’s “Having an Atonal Christmas” is available through Apple Music, while his most recent recording, “Lux Internum” (performed by pianist Svetlana Belsky), is available on Amazon.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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