Silent film accompaniment: Contemporary Mediums Resurrecting Ancient Shadows

Written in 2004. I attended the 2004 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a film festival celebrating the silent films and us Fellows had to each produce an essay about our experience. I wrote about silent film accompaniment. With deep appreciation to David Robinson who shepherded this piece into being. This piece was published in 2005 as a collection of essays by the Fellows in that programme

“Contemporary Mediums Resurrecting Ancient Shadows”

“I was chatting an archivist I met from the Hong Kong Film Archive at the Giornate and I asked him who accompanied the Silents they periodically screen in that part of the world. He said, “In Hong Kong, we only have one silent film pianist, and he plays the same tunes for every film. It’s a bit boring but he’s our only one. That statement said as much about the isolation of silent film accompanists, as about the need for good of silent film accompanists who can shape our viewing experience and they indirectly help preserve and save these films. Perhaps that lone ranger musician would be glad to know of an annual gathering of kindred spirits at the Giornate every year.

The Giornate in 2004 brought about half of the known silent film musicians together. They had a “same time next year” pleasure at seeing each other, I found them together at the café beside the Zancanaro imbibing good spirits both before and after each performance. On the afternoon I was there with them, I eavesdropped upon a discussion between two musicians who were talking about a performance where they would be playing together. One was plumbing the other who had seen the film before for information about the film. The exchange went something like this

“Is it a happy or sad film?”
“It’s a love story.”
“Does it have a happy ending?”
“I have the lovers’ theme written out, take a look.”
“Nice melody.”

The most salient points established (happy film about love, with love tune established), they left to play a duet. At least these musicians have some information about the film. Often, the musician plays cold, knowing less than the audience. He has to come up with a love theme on the spot and must modulate and expand the themes for the duration of the film. He must summon up his musical vocabulary to tap into the audiences’ collective musical memory. Like a simultaneous interpreter, this requires sensitivity to the curves of the storyline, a sizeable musical repertoire and a good sense of when to apply it for maximum benefit of the film. He is processing four strains of information in real time.

They had come from as far as Germany, Chicago, even New Zealand, with backgrounds equally diverse. One started out as an actor, another is a film historian, and another a filmmaker. If there was only one strand that drew them together, I sensed a deep appreciation of the Silents and their roles as contemporary mediums that resurrect forgotten masterpieces. As Gunter Buchwald said of his role, “ We influence you how to see”. Using a spiritual metaphor is appropriate. More than once did I see the pianist in the pit making a sign of the cross before laying his hands on the key board, just before flicker started, as if to say, “Please help me use all my gifts to help them appreciate this masterpiece”. They take their roles seriously.

What I had always found surprising in my research on silent film music practices was that Silents always had accompaniment. They were never silent. I was also shocked that it was industry practice for directors or distributors to leave the choice of accompaniment to the player(s) in the cinema. I was surprised that the director/producer could surrender control of such a vital component of the viewing experience. There were cases of directors, like Vertov, who specially composed scores to accompany films, but this was an exception.

Some screenings afforded rehearsals for the accompanists, others had to play on sight, interpreting the screen goings-on cold. Musicians evolved different ways of coping with having to produce so much music so often. There were songbooks with tunes that they could call upon so if you needed a tune for “stormy night”, or a “Persian bazaar” (Albert Kettlebay?), you could seek it out in the index. Under tight deadlines, they evolved a bag of tricks and used clichés freely to enhance the film going experience. Needless to say, few recordings of these performances remain.

For a contemporary musician interested in accompanying the Silents, with such a checkered and not particularly well-documented lineage, it is liberating yet frustrating. Liberating because it means that more often than not, he had free rein of what and how he wanted to perform. Yet frustrating because there is not so much as a primer to teach one how to play for the Silents. Reverting to the songbooks that were used is hardly inspiring. Besides, what was practiced in the past need not necessarily still apply since using original scores or instruments would be interesting insofar as it shed light on what the early audiences were exposed to. It still left a blank slate as to how the musician should play if the same film is to be enjoyed by contemporary audiences.

The musicians in the 2004 edition of the Giornate took up the challenge presented by the lack of clear direction from history. We saw a wide range of musical practices beyond the traditional piano set up. There was a specially commissioned score for the Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927) featuring the Theremin. The performance of Home Sweet Home featured an ensemble with two voices. There were also attempts at playing on a prepared piano (where nails and sticks are inserted on the strings inside the piano). I also heard a pianist sing alongside what was on the screen during a screening of Vertov. Some of these attempts were more successful than others.

Of the films I attended, the one most memorable was “A Cottage on Dartmoor” (1929, Anthony Asquith) accompanied by Stephen Horne, There was a collective buzz that night borne of us having experienced a triumphal moment together. It was a beautiful film elevated by skillful and emotive accompaniment. What marked the performance was interestingly enough, silence. Cottage is a tale of a jealous man stalking his ex-lover, who is now happily married and living at a cottage in Dartmoor. I remember in particular two moments when silence was used to great effect, one, when the two protagonists were on a date at the cinema to watch a talkie. What we saw were expectant audiences waiting for the film and to start. When the film started we saw close ups of the delighted faces who heard voices for the first time. Horne stopped playing. This sleight of hand immediately highlighted the fact that we were two different audiences watching the same film 70 years apart. Our shock at hearing silence was matched the audience’s shock at hearing sound for the first time. I felt suspended in time. Horne called attention to his role in the viewing experience by this paradoxical move. And it was enlightening. The other moment was a simple domestic scene, the jealous lover, a barber, shaves a client who happens to be the woman’s husband. The moment is fraught, will he slit his nemesis’ throat? He very deliberately sharpens the razor. As he takes the razor up to his neck, there was suddenly silence. When I later asked Horne about how that inspired decision not to play came to be, he said that it was that was suggested to him by a colleague. He had a few rehearsals before he got the rhythm right. When he did play it that way, he found it very effective.

The experience with The Cottage on Dartmoor made me appreciate the live performance aspect of the screenings. How is my appreciation of film heightened by the fact that the music is played before me? Would my experience be different if the music was pre-recorded and played alongside the film? In the case of Cottage, my experience of the film was heightened because, there was a person who was watching the film and reacting to it in the same way as I. His presence helped me along, corroborated with my experience of the film. This is important, especially with material that is far removed from my what I am normally familiar with. I found his guidance helpful and vital.

In the footsteps of the masters, four young musicians were chosen to attend music accompaniment master class at the Giornate. The four are multi-talented, hailing from Vienna, Germany, Italy and USA. Two of them play more than one instrument. All had a gift of improvisation and had played for Silents before in their home countries. The School of Music and Image was held every morning from 11-12.30 for the duration of the Giornate. It is conducted by Neil Brand with input from other musicians making guest appearances. I attended the classes as an observer because I was curious if musical accompaniment could really be taught. I found myself learning a lot about filmmaking and film watching. Brand showed fragments of films and he had the students play to it, cold as they would in an actual performance. The examples are carefully chosen to illustrate tricky situations that a silent film pianist may encounter. He taught them how to roll with the punches and gave practical tips on how to deal with difficult scenarios. The main point he made was, they had to be alert and react to a scene quickly. Is he the villain (He wears white shoes!)? Does the sequence look like it will be a long one? Familiarity with the codes and filmic idioms come with experience he said. The important thing was, once that split second impression is registered, the musician could not dither, but had to commit to it and to play out that impression.

One of the topics covered was how to play a long drawn out scene without running out of musical ideas, especially a scene whose length cannot be determined before hand. Brand showed a film where a storm is in full force and in this tornado, a girl us about to be raped and a train about to crash (events that take place in a storm at night). The scene went on at length without reaching a climax. He suggested that the musicians modulate to a lower key, rather than play in the same key all the time. This gives the audience a sense of change and at the same time it gives the pianist room to maneuver higher if the climax comes along later.

In another earlier scene where the villain is first appears (we know because he is too suave, too well dressed for this little town, and the white), Brand suggested that rather than announce his appearance in a marked way, to take the soft approach. All the scene needed was a slight turn of the cog to suggest that something was out of joint. Meting out information a little at a time allows the musician to save his musical reserves for the climax. It also heightens the excitement for the audience, because less is more. Restraint was key.

In another session, Brand showed Keaton’s the Three Ages (Buster Keaton, 1923), a comedy which saw Keaton vying for a girl against Wallace Beery a much stronger man. The same story line is repeated in three different epochs, Keaton is a club bearing cave man, a roman soldier and a dandy in the contemporary swinging 20’s. Brand suggested that a musician would quickly run out of tricks to sustain a feature if he took the comic route wholly. He suggested that the musician play the tussle for the girl as a drama. Playing a comedy straight made it funnier. He added that Keaton takes sad music better than Chaplin because Keaton had the face to carry it and sad music could be used ironically in Keaton’s case. The students discussed the notion of Mickey Mousing (where every gag, whimper or door slam is mirrored in the music, as in cartoons) and they arrived at the conclusion that it is not necessary that they reflect every bang in their music if it detracts from the direction of their playing.

Brand touched on the awkward situations where the musician is unsure where the action is heading. To illustrate this point, he showed Fred Zinneman’s silent masterpiece, People on Sunday (1930). The film is about four young people and their relationships to each other, which shifts quietly over the course of a picnic outing. There are moments in the film where nothing seems to happen (four chatting amicably on a hillside). Brand suggests that in this situation, it would be all right for the musician not to know and to play it “unresolved” because it reflected the confusion on the screen. The point was that the musician had to commit to a tone (even if it was an “unresolved” one) and see it through, or the audience would be confused even further.

Brand touched on the uncomfortable situation where the film was a dud. He says that while he “plays each film as a masterpiece”, giving his best until it is proven otherwise, if it is a dud, he helps out where he can and when he can no longer help, treads water until the end of the film.

One aspect of musicianship that was not covered in much detail was the choice of music for a film. Donald Susan showed a clip of a western and threw it open to the students, asking them what kind of music they would pick for that scene. One played a Bonanza theme, another, fiddle-like music, and yet another suggested Aaron Copland. Is one choice better than the other? By the end of the master class, I realised that one could take up any of those suggestions as a starting point, it depended on his personal preference. The craft lay in whether the musician could develop and extrapolate on the theme he had chosen, colouring it with his interpretation of the scene to serve the dramatic needs of the film. This takes practice, great skill and sensitivity.

Tama Karena from New Zealand said that when he plays to a film, he relates his whole self to the film. The sounds that emanate from him are his unmediated response to the film, and he cannot divorce his personality from his playing. Brand adds that his playing is a purely emotive response to the film, part of his effort to “play it like a masterpiece”. Philip Carli, after a rigorous performance of Three Songs of Lenin (Dziga Vertov, 1935), proclaimed that while he did not share Vertov’s politics, he played it so that the audience would rush out to become Socialists as Vertov would have wanted. All three acknowledge their roles as mediums for the films, conjuring the messages to light for an audience far removed from their making.”