Sunday, April 14, 2019

Helping out my friends at Harvard, then 'Metropolis' at Plymouth's Flying Monkey

Coming on Thursday, April 18: László Moholy-Nagy, American, Still from Lightplay: Black-White-Gray, 1930. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

I sometimes joke that I'm the world's most obscure superhero: SILENT FILM ACCOMPANIMENT GUY, ready to respond at a moment's notice to aid any silent film in need of live music.

(Still waiting for the call from Marvel Comics...)

But something like that actually happened last week when I was contacted by the Harvard Museums at Harvard University, where they're in the midst of an ambitious look at the Bauhaus school of design that flourished in Weimar-era Germany.

The program includes a series of film screenings, and turns out a program of short experimental movies scheduled for Thursday, April 18 turned out to be all silent!

Oh no! What to do?

So the call came in to SILENT FILM ACCOMPANIMENT GUY, who immediately agreed to rush to the rescue and create soundtracks for all the various clips.

And as incentive, I was told "...our resident piano is an ebony Bechstein model C, serial number 177972, from 1985 and approximately 7’4” in length."

Wow! A chance to work with an instrument of that caliber is not to be missed. (And it'll be a reminder that I have to get my own piano tuned once again after a long winter of pounding.)

A view of the Harvard Art Museums, which resulted when several adjacent galleries were renovated a few years back and put under one roof. It's next door to the Harvard Film Archive, where I regularly accompany silent films.

If you're interested in attending, the program is free! It's Thursday, April 18 at 6 p.m. at the Harvard Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. Here's a link to more details.

Just as other superheros must occasionally engage in mind-boggling feats of strength, this particular show prompted SILENT FILM ACCOMPANIMENT GUY to do some heavy lifting, schedule-wise.

To accommodate Harvard, it was necessary to shift a scheduled screening of Metropolis from that night to another date.

And so Metropolis, originally set for Thursday, April 18 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H., is now running one week later, on Thursday, April 25.

(And how appropriate is this "superhero" theme? Superman's city = Metropolis!)

Showtime is 6:30 p.m. for Fritz Lang's epic futuristic quasi-theological cinematic fantasy. I've developed some strong material for this incredible film. It's 2½ hours long and a real workout, but I love scoring it.

Here's the press release with a lot more info. See you there!

An original poster for 'Metropolis,' screening on Thursday, April 25 at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H.

TUESDAY, APRIL 9, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Restored classic film 'Metropolis' to screen at Flying Monkey on Thursday, April 25


Landmark early sci-fi fantasy epic, with half-hour of rediscovered footage, to be shown with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—A silent film hailed as the grandfather of all science fiction fantasy movies will be screened with live music this month at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center.

'Metropolis' (1927), an epic adventure set in a futuristic world, will be shown on Thursday, April 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission is $10.

Original music for 'Metropolis' will be performed live by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer and silent film accompanist who performs at venues around the nation.

(The screening was originally scheduled for Thursday, April 18, but has been moved to Thursday, April 25 due to a scheduling conflict.)

'Metropolis' (1927), regarded as German director Fritz Lang's masterpiece, is set in a society where a privileged elite pursue lives of leisure while the masses toil on vast machines and live in poverty.

From 'Metropolis': Man meets Machine.

The film, with its visions of futuristic factories and underground cities, set new standards for visual design and inspired generations of dystopian fantasies from Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' to Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil.'

In reviving 'Metropolis' and other great films of cinema's early years, the Flying Monkey aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise an original live score for 'Metropolis' on the spot. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life."

In 'Metropolis,' the story centers on an upper class young man who falls in love with a woman who works with the poor. The tale encompasses mad scientists, human-like robots, underground spiritual movements, and industrial espionage, all set in a society divided between haves and have-nots.

The version of 'Metropolis' to be screened at the Flying Monkey is a newly restored edition that includes nearly a half-hour of missing footage cut following the film's premiere in 1927. The lost footage, discovered in 2008 in an archive in Argentina, has since been added to the existing 'Metropolis,' allowing plot threads and characters to be developed more fully.

When first screened in Berlin, Germany on Jan. 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere, the film's distributors (including Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened 'Metropolis' to maximize the film's commercial potential. By the time it debuted in the U.S. later that year, the film was only about 90 minutes long.

A scene from 'Metropolis.

Even in its shortened form, 'Metropolis' became a cornerstone of science fiction cinema. Due to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone numerous restorations in the intervening decades in attempts to recover Lang's original vision.

It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang's film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see. But, in the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative of 'Metropolis' that was considerably longer than any existing print.

It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.

The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, a 2½-hour version that debuted in 2010 to widespread acclaim. It's this fully restored edition that will be screened at the Flying Monkey.

" 'Metropolis' stands as an stunning example of the power of silent film to tell a compelling story without words, and reach across the generations to touch movie-goers from the real future, which means us," said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who provides live music for silent film screenings throughout New England.

To accompany a silent film, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. The score is created live in real time as the movie is screened. Rather than focus exclusively on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

Other upcoming silent film/live music presentations at the Flying Monkey include:

• Thursday, May 9, 6:30 p.m.: 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) starring William Gillette. Recently discovered in France after being lost for nearly a century, see this original 1916 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes stories as performed by William Gillette, the actor who created the role on stage and performed it more than 1,000 times. With the blessing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette's play combines elements of four classic short stories into a memorable battle with arch-nemesis, Prof. Moriarty.

• Thursday, June 20, 6:30 p.m.: 'Safety Last' (1923) starring Harold Lloyd. The iconic image of comedian Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a downtown clock is only one small piece of a remarkable thrill comedy that has lost none of its power over audiences. See it for yourself on the big screen and with an audience.

The restored 'Metropolis' will be shown on Thursday, April 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth. General admission is $10. For more info, visit www.flyingmonkeynh.co or call (603) 536-2551.

For more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

CRITIC'S COMMENTS on ‘METROPOLIS’

“'Metropolis' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world.”
—Roger Ebert, 2010, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If it comes anywhere near your town, go see it and thank the movie Gods that it even exists. There’s no star rating high enough.”
—Brian Tallerico, Movieretriever.com

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tonight: 'Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927)
at Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass.

A scene from the climax of 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower.

Happy Eiffel Tower Day!

Yes, on this day in 1889, Gustav Eiffel's eponymous tower was declared open to the public!

And what better way to celebrate the 130th birthday of this iconic landmark than with a movie that features it in a starring role?

"Mr. Eiffel, I'm ready for my close-up!"

So that's what we'll do tonight at 7:30 p.m., when we'll screen 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927) at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St. in Somerville, Mass.

Admission to this event, the first "volume" of the Aeronaut's new Silent Film Club, is $10 per person.

More info about this remarkable early thriller is in the press release tacked onto the end of this post. Hope to see you there!

For now, let me share a few pictures of Friday's night's excursion to Winchester, N.H., where I accompanied a screening of Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last' (1923) sponsored by the local Grange chapter and the historical society.

The venue was Winchester Town Hall, which is a surprisingly imposing structure built in the style of a Gothic fortress.

Welcome to my castle!

Set-up was fairly straightforward, with the local folks providing a snazzy movie screen cleverly engineered out of a Queen-sized sheet from Wal-Mart.

.Ready for the show.

I think the key to the screen was the use of sturdy plastic zip ties to keep the sheet stretched out tight as a drum:

I improvise the music, so why not improvise the screen?

Alas, turnout was a bit light. But that might be due to how much else seems to be going on in town lately. In the picture below, try to find our poster:


But the good news was that even with just a handful of people, Harold's work produced a good amount of strong laughter. That's quite an achievement for a film made nearly a century ago!

And I had to be careful with the music, because the Winchester Town Hall is one of those venues with extremely lively acoustics. It would be really easy for music to overwhelm the comedy, which in turn would prevent people from hearing each other laughing.

But a good time was had by all, and I hope that will be the case with 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' down at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. this evening.

Here's the press release. Hope to see you there!

* * *

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Celebrate 'Eiffel Tower Day' on Sunday, March 31 at Aeronaut Brewing Co.


Vintage silent thriller 'Mystery of the Eiffel Tower’ to be screened with live music on iconic structure's 130th birthday

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—When you turn 130, it's time to party.

That's the thinking behind 'Eiffel Tower Day,' celebrated every year on March 31 in honor of the iconic Paris structure, which was completed on March 31, 1889.

The Aeronaut Brewing Co. will celebrate this year's 'Eiffel Tower Day' on Sunday, March 31 with the screening of a rare silent adventure movie with a thrilling climax actually filmed on the tower.

'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927), directed by Julien Duvivier, will be screened on Sunday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St. (near Union Square), Somerville, Mass.

Admission is $10 per person and seating is limited; for tickets and information, visit www.aeronautbrewing.com, or www.eventbrite.com at this address:

www.eventbrite.com/e/aeronaut-silent-film-club-vol-1-well-always-have-paris-tickets-58304749074

The event is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/619207078520181/

The screening will feature live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

Duvivier’s late-silent adventure served as an inspiration for the original Tintin comics, and delivers much of the same charm, inventiveness, and visual delight.

Set in France of the 1920s, 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' follows a carnival performer who is half of The Mironton Brothers, a supposed Siamese twin act.

The performer sees a chance to claim a massive inheritance by pretending to be a missing heir.

The scheme makes him fabulously wealthy. He leaves the circus, but also crosses a secretive cabal which has its own plans for the fortune.

Harried by mysterious threats, the imposter uses his identical partner from the old carnival act to suffer in his place.

Lots of laughs and exciting close calls follow as the unsuspecting double is drawn into a struggle with the secret organization.

The climax is a death-defying chase up through the skeleton of the Eiffel Tower that anticipates the later work of director Alfred Hitchcock.

"This is an astounding film with sequences shot high up on the Eiffel Tower and without trick photography," said Rapsis, a silent film accompanist who will improvise a musical score for the movie.

"This vintage film, like a fine champagne, is a great way to celebrate the 130th birthday of this landmark, one of the world's most recognizable structures," Rapsis said.

The Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1889 for the International Exhibition of Paris, during the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and was named after the principal engineer, Gustave Eiffel.

‘The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower’ (1927) will be shown on Sunday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St. (near Union Square), Somerville, Mass. Admission is $10 per person and seating is limited; for tickets and information, visit www.aeronautbrewing.com or www.eventbrite.com at this address:

www.eventbrite.com/e/aeronaut-silent-film-club-vol-1-well-always-have-paris-tickets-58304749074

The event is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/619207078520181/

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Accompaniment from small town to big city: it's a 'Safety Last' kind of silent film weekend


In Harold Lloyd's thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923), the story follows our hero from small town to big city as he pursues success and fulfillment.

This weekend, I'll follow a similar path.

On Friday, March 29, I'll accompany a silent film (in this case, 'Safety Last') in the town hall of Winchester, N.H.

The screening is at 7 p.m. and sponsored by the Arlington Grange No. 139, and you don't get much more small town than that.

Then, on Sunday, March 31, it's down to the big city (in this case Boston, or actually Somerville, Mass.) for a screening at the Aeronaut Brewing Co.

The film is 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927), which we're showing in honor of the 130th birthday of the iconic Parisian landmark.

And in the spirit of Harold Lloyd's high altitude stunting, the film climaxes with a chase among the tower's upper beams and girders.

Thus my journey from small town to big city, all in service of silent cinema.

Will I find film scoring success in my own journey this weekend?

Come and find out. Below is a press release about Friday night's screening of 'Safety Last' in Winchester. Hope to see you there.

And I'll be back with info about 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' in a soon-to-follow post.

* * *

TImeless comedy: Lloyd in 'Safety Last.'

TUESDAY, MARCH 19, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film classic 'Safety Last' on Friday, March 29 in Winchester, N.H.


Thrill comedy climaxed by Harold Lloyd's iconic building climb; with live music at Town Hall

WINCHESTER, N.H.—It's an image that's so powerful, people who've never seen the movie it came from still instantly recognize it.

The vision of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above downtown Los Angeles, from the climax of his silent comedy 'Safety Last,' (1923), has emerged as a symbol of the "anything goes" spirit of early Hollywood and the magic of the movies.

See how Harold gets into his high-altitude predicament in a screening of 'Safety Last,' one of Lloyd's most popular films, on Friday, March 29 at 7 p.m. at Winchester Town Hall, 1 Richmond Road, Winchester, N.H.

The program, sponsored by Arlington Grange #139 of Winchester, will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. The show is open to the public, with $7 per person donation requested to help defray costs.

The program aims to recreate the experience of movie-going when motion pictures were a brand new art form.

"Put the whole experience back together, and you can see why people first fell in love with the movies," said Rapsis, one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.

Lloyd and feathered friend.

The story of 'Safety Last' follows young go-getter Lloyd to the big city, where he hopes to make his mark in business and send for his smalltown sweetheart. His career at a downtown department store stalls, however, until he gets a chance to pitch a surefire publicity idea—hire a human fly to climb the building's exterior.

However, when the human fly has a last-minute run-in with the law, Harold is forced to make the climb himself, floor by floor, with his sweetheart looking on. The result is an extended sequence blending comedy and terror designed to hold viewers spellbound.

"Seeing 'Safety Last' with an audience is one of the great thrill rides of the cinema of any era, silent or sound," Rapsis said. "Harold's iconic building climb, filmed without trick photography, continues to provoke audience responses nearly 100 years after film was first released."

Tributes to the clock-hanging scene have appeared in several contemporary films, most recently in Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo' (2011), which includes clips from 'Safety Last.'

Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is regarded as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Lloyd's character, a young go-getter ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s. While Chaplin and Keaton were always favored by the critics, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.

However, Lloyd's public image faded after his retirement in the 1930s, as Lloyd turned his energies to charitable causes such as the Shriners. He retained control over his films, refusing to release them for television and only rarely allowing them to be screened at revivals, fearing modern audiences wouldn't know how to respond to his work or to silent films in general. Lloyd died in 1971.

In recent years, Lloyd's family has taken steps to restore Harold's reputation and public image. They've released his work on DVD, and arranged for more frequent screenings of his films in the environment for which they were made: in theaters with live music and a large audience.

Despite Lloyd's fears, audiences continue to respond just as strongly to his work as when the films were new, with features such as 'Safety Last' embraced as timeless achievements from the golden era of silent film comedy.

Critics review 'Safety Last':

"Impossible to watch without undergoing visitations of vertigo, Safety Last's climactic sequence is all it's reputed to be.”
—TV Guide

"Harold Lloyd manages to make the characters sympathetic enough to carry the audience's concern on his journey of crazy stunts and mishaps. One of the best of this era."
—David Parkinson, Empire Magazine

"The climb has both comic and dramatic weight because it is both a thrilling exercise in physical humor and a thematically rich evocation of the pressures men feel to succeed, lest they be viewed as less than a man."
—James Kendrick, Q Network Film Desk

See Harold Lloyd's iconic thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923), to be shown on Friday, March 29 at 7 p.m. at the Winchester Town Hall, 1 Richmond Road, Winchester, N.H. Sponsored by Arlington Grange #139, the program is open to the public; a donation of $7 per person is requested to defray expenses.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Dashing across the pond tonight to accompany 'Cat and the Canary' in London tomorrow

What? I have to travel basic economy?!

Tonight I head off to London, where I'll accompany a screening of the great Paul Leni thriller 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927) tomorrow night at the Kennington Bioscope.

It's one of the most visually spectacular silent features ever made, I think. And I hope the music I have in mind will be worthy of what Leni put on screen.

I'll also do some business in London and Amsterdam before heading back to Boston on Thursday afternoon, arriving less than 48 hours after I left. Quick trip!

And I have to think: what an age we live in when it's possible to transfer yourself across the North Atlantic in less time than it takes for me to get through an issue of the Economist.

(That's how I get to sleep by the way. No drugs for me! Just buy the current issue of the Economist, open up any page, and in 10 minutes I'm dozing off. Works every time!)

What a difference from, say, when John Adams set out to win support from France for the then-new United States, and it took weeks, and then they were chased by actual pirates, and wound up landing in Spain, and then had to ride donkeys over the Pyrenees.

What would Adams make of us jetting at high speed seven miles above the ocean, making a journey so quick that there's not enough time for a decent night's sleep? (Unless you buy the Economist.)

Speaking of which: I've done this before, and I now know that the evening after an overnight trans-Atlantic flight is not the best time to be in top form when creating live music for a demanding feature film.

So I've built in a little down time on Wednesday afternoon to help things come together later that evening. Jeffie needs his nap time!

After all, don't want to disappoint those in the audience, which will include film historian Kevin Brownlow, who's scheduled to introduce the picture. (And they're running his 35mm print of the film, which I can't wait to see.)

When I get back, mud season in New Hampshire can only mean comedy!

And so the film calendar heads into a patch of hilarity in small towns throughout the Granite State.

Buster and friend in 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

On deck: Buster Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923) on Saturday, March 23 in Danbury, N.H., and then 'Seven Chances' (1925) on Sunday, March 24 in Wilton, N.H. And then Harold Lloyd in 'Safety Last' (1923) on Friday, March 29 in Richmond, N.H.

And I'm especially excited about an unusual program coming up Sunday, March 31 at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass.

For this one, we're celebrating the 130th birthday of the Eiffel Tower (really!) with a screening of 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927), a comedy/thriller with a climax filmed high up among the struts and girders of the iconic structure.

The Aeronaut has done a splendid job promoting this event, so I'm pasting in the press release below in an attempt to encourage you to attend.

Unless you'd rather spend time with the Economist!

* * *

In Paris, high above it all.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Celebrate 'Eiffel Tower Day' on Sunday, March 31 at Aeronaut Brewing Co.


Vintage silent thriller 'Mystery of the Eiffel Tower’ to be screened with live music on iconic structure's 130th birthday

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—When you turn 130, it's time to party.

That's the thinking behind 'Eiffel Tower Day,' celebrated every year on March 31 in honor of the iconic Paris structure, which was completed on March 31, 1889.

The Aeronaut Brewing Co. will celebrate this year's 'Eiffel Tower Day' on Sunday, March 31 with the screening of a rare silent adventure movie with a thrilling climax actually filmed on the tower.

'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927), directed by Julien Duvivier, will be screened on Sunday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St. (near Union Square), Somerville, Mass.

Admission is $10 per person and seating is limited; for tickets and information, visit www.aeronautbrewing.com, or www.eventbrite.com at this address:

www.eventbrite.com/e/aeronaut-silent-film-club-vol-1-well-always-have-paris-tickets-58304749074

The event is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/619207078520181/

The screening will feature live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

Duvivier’s late-silent adventure served as an inspiration for the original Tintin comics, and delivers much of the same charm, inventiveness, and visual delight.

Set in France of the 1920s, 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' follows a carnival performer who is half of The Mironton Brothers, a supposed Siamese twin act.

The performer sees a chance to claim a massive inheritance by pretending to be a missing heir.

The scheme makes him fabulously wealthy. He leaves the circus, but also crosses a secretive cabal which has its own plans for the fortune.

Harried by mysterious threats, the imposter uses his identical partner from the old carnival act to suffer in his place.

Lots of laughs and exciting close calls follow as the unsuspecting double is drawn into a struggle with the secret organization.

The climax is a death-defying chase up through the skeleton of the Eiffel Tower that anticipates the later work of director Alfred Hitchcock.

"This is an astounding film with sequences shot high up on the Eiffel Tower and without trick photography," said Rapsis, a silent film accompanist who will improvise a musical score for the movie.

"This vintage film, like a fine champagne, is a great way to celebrate the 130th birthday of this landmark, one of the world's most recognizable structures," Rapsis said.

The Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1889 for the International Exhibition of Paris, during the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and was named after the principal engineer, Gustave Eiffel.

‘The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower’ (1927) will be shown on Sunday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St. (near Union Square), Somerville, Mass. Admission is $10 per person and seating is limited; for tickets and information, visit www.aeronautbrewing.com or www.eventbrite.com at this address:

www.eventbrite.com/e/aeronaut-silent-film-club-vol-1-well-always-have-paris-tickets-58304749074

The event is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/619207078520181/











Wednesday, March 6, 2019

What if Disney's songwriting duo the Sherman brothers had been born in Beijing, not NYC?


I've been remiss in updating my silent film adventures due to a big grant-writing deadline.

But now, before heading off to London to accompany a screening of 'The Cat and the Canary' at the Kennington Bioscope next week, it's time to catch up.

Since returning from the Kansas Silent Film Festival, I've had the pleasure of doing live music for two very different motion pictures: one a familiar warhorse, and the other completely unknown to me.

The former: 'Wings' (1927), the grand epic of the skies that won Best Picture at the very first Academy Awards.

The latter: 'The Stormy Night' (1925), a Chinese silent comedy/drama that was considered lost until just recently.

With 'Wings,' I was on familiar ground. (Har!)

Booked by the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass. for an afternoon screening on Sunday, Feb. 24, it was intended as a warm-up for that evening's Oscars ceremony.

For me, the circumstances were hard to beat. That morning, I had flown from Kansas City through Detroit and then into Manchester, N.H., arriving in plenty of time to swing down to Natick and load in my gear for the 4 p.m. show.

So what better prep for 'Wings' than flying not one but two commercial flights right before the screening?

We enjoyed a healthy turnout, and a pre-show poll found most people new not only to 'Wings' but also the silent film experience. (And the theater, managed by Josh Valentine and Nicola Anderson, always does such a great job promoting the screenings, putting up vintage posters to build excitement.)

Located in a beautifully refurbished firehouse, the Center for the Arts boasts a gleaming Yamaha grand piano in its upstairs performance space, where movies are shown.

It's been beckoning me since I started performing in Natick. One of these days I'll use it, but so far all the films in Natick have been better served by digital synthesizer, I think.

This time around I found the piano up on the risers that constitute the "stage." And even though I wasn't going to use it, I couldn't resist opening the lid and playing a bit...and then realized that it was at the perfect height for me to use while standing up!

Now there's an idea! It's sitting down at a desk bad for you? Isn't the human body designed to function most efficiently in a standing position?

So why do people sit at a piano to play it? Wouldn't it make more sense for the player to stand?

We have stand-up comedians. Why not stand-up pianists?

Quick, get me a patent lawyer so I can protect my innovative new "pedal extendeder," which allows you to easily convert an old-fashioned sit-down piano into a modern, up-to-date, ergonomically superior STAND UP PIANO!

Order before midnight tonight and we'll throw in a VHS bootleg tape of Buster Keaton's 'The General'!

And then...

Last Saturday I had the privilege (and the challenge) of creating music for a newly rediscovered Chinese silent film that's been making the rounds of elite film venues.

In this case, it was for a screening of 'The Stormy Night' (1925) at the Harvard Film Archive.

The film, a light-hearted comedy/drama about the upper classes in pre-Maoist China, had been missing since its release.

This was par for the course. As the Harvard Film Archive notes tell us:
More than 650 films were reportedly made in China between 1921 and 1931, yet no more than twenty have survived the wars that followed. The serendipitous rediscovery of Zhu Shouju’s 1925 film 'The Stormy Night' gives us a rare opportunity to learn about this significant yet forgotten era of Chinese silent cinema.
That's a pretty rotten record, even for silent film!

But yes, a nearly complete print of 'The Stormy Night' was discovered some years back in a Japanese archive. After repatriation to China, it was restored by Shi Chuan, a Shanghai-based film scholar. It's now available for screening for the first time in nearly a century.

A special treat for this screening was an introduction by Shi Chuan himself, with translation by Jie Li of Harvard's Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

A scene from 'The Stormy Night' (1925).

Unsurprisingly, the audience was packed with Chinese students. Surprisingly, the accompanist was an occidental of Irish-Lithuanian-French-Canadian extraction with no cultural connection to the film's milieu short of an appetite for General Tso's chicken.

But I looked at it as a challenge: how could I create appropriate music for a film made in a completely different cultural context compared to my own?

This, after all, was not the Chinatown riot sequence from Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928). Nor was it the seedy faux Chinese opium den depicted in Raymond Griffith's 'Paths to Paradise' (1925).

With cultural references like those in his head, what's an accompanist to do?

My approach was to back off and keep it light. It was a comedy, after all. And it seems to me no matter what the cultural context, with comedy, less is more.

Also, I tried to use a musical language that was separate from the familiar Western/classical harmonies and chord progressions.

Melody, yes. But not the way you'd encounter it in Mozart or Beethoven. More like a modal sound,

My overriding attitude was this question: "What would it sound like if Disney songwriters Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman had been born in Beijing instead of New York?" That's what I was going for.

Songwriting brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman with their patron, Walt Disney.

(I think the Sherman brothers were among the best songwriters of all time, and I'll fight anyone who disagrees.)

But back to pre-Maoist China. To help get my mind in the right place for this, I opted for a synthesizer texture that was light and airy and heavy on the strings and harp.

Just by hitting a single note, you could hear we were in a different place. But it wasn't the plinkety-plink of xylophones or the tired and not-very-exotic crash of a gong. It was more of clean sweep, giving me implicit license to work in a fresh style.

That's what I was going for. And from the reaction to the film, I think I wasn't too far off.

I mean, people actually laughed at this formerly lost comedy from a lost world. It engaged them, drew them in, and they enjoyed it.

Thus I'm really glad I didn't go with my original plan, which was to play variations on 'Chopsticks' for 90 minutes.

Thanks to Haden Guest and Karin Kolb of the Harvard Film Archive for continuing to program a wide variety of silents with live music.

And special thanks to Shi Chuan for rescuing this rare film from oblivion, and for coming all the way to Boston to share it with us!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Ben and Ken and Marvin and Bob and Bill
and me and the Talking Heads, too:
Music at this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival

Ken and Ben: The Alloy Orchestra's Ken Winokur and silent film accompanist Ben Model embrace backstage at this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival.

This year's Kansas Silent Film Festival was highlighted by some great films, special guests, and also a personal milestone.

For me, the 2019 gathering marked 20 consecutive years of attending this event, which is held each February at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

Twenty years? Other than being married, and breathing, I haven't done anything for 20 years. Heck, it's a run nearly as long as the silent film era itself.

More below. But about this year's festival..

Ben Model and festival music director Marvin Faulwell at the organ console at Washburn University's White Concert Hall.

It was a special privilege to hear and collaborate with fellow silent film musicians, including regulars Marvin Faulwell, Bob Keckeisen, and Bill Beningfield, and guests Ben Model and members of the Alloy Orchestra: Ken Winokur, Terry Donahue, and Roger Miller.

Highlights included the Alloy Orchestra's pounding accompaniment for 'Metropolis' (1927); Marvin and Bob's controlled and evocative score for 'The Daughter of the Dawn' (1920); and Ben Model doing his music for 'When Knighthood was in Flower' (1922), a film he reissued on DVD on his Undercrank label.

Ben also gave a slightly abbreviated edition of his talk on undercranking and film speeds in use during the silent era. Below is an underexposed photo of his uncranking talk, but I liked it because of how Ben's pose mirrors the action on screen.


Film speed is just one of many issues that can prove troublesome when presenting films from the silent era to modern audiences. It's hard for people to grasp that in early cinema, for many years there was no standard film speed, either for photographing action (called "taking speed") or projecting it in a theater.

But Ben's presentation shows this aspect of silent cinema was well-known by filmmakers, who would deliberately incorporate various taking speeds into what they did.

I remember reading about this practice in books such as Walter Kerr's 'The Silent Clowns.' But Ben has really gone into the archives and sussed out hard evidence of how extensive the practice was, how filmmakers made use of it, and what a difference it made.

Most amazing are statements from silent-era stars such as Milton Sills, who wrote in detail how an actor had to gauge his or her movements to allow for the way they would appear on screen, which was almost always at a slightly brisker pace than reality.

So film speed, and specifically undercranking, is one of the foundations of early filmmaking technique. Bravo to Ben for helping us all understand its impact!

As the festival's utility musician (I'm listed in the program as "staff pianist"), this time around I was asked to provide scores for five movies: three short films and two features.

All went well, generally. I was most pleased with an unusual film, 'Venus of the South Seas' (1924) starring Australian swimming champion Annette Kellerman in her only surviving film.

For this very lightweight drama, percussionist Bob Keckeisen and I collaborated on a score that tried to stay on the shimmery side, just like the sparkling water that appears throughout the film.

So I developed material that mirrored early minimalism that first started being heard in the 1970s. I was running through some of it in a practice room, and I'm told someone on the piano faculty wanted to know who was playing the Philip Glass music!

Not to get too technical, but this was very much a "sharped 4th" score: one in which all melodies are built on a scale in which the fourth note is the one between "fa" and "so". I guess you could say it's "fo."

But that one little note makes all the difference, as it lends a shimmering quality to any run of notes. So that's what I played with throughout the film, while Bob contributed sounds ranging from the sawing of a metal file to calls on an underwater horn.

It all fell together quite effectively, I thought, considering that Bob and I spoke about 'Venus of the South Seas' for all of about a half-hour the day before.


But it was enough to work in some good cues. Most impressive was a quick scene in London, which saw Bob ringing out the "Big Ben" chimes in C major. (A tribute to Ben Model, too!) It worked and sounded pretty good, I thought.

For any water or swimming scenes, I had a riff of repeated notes that I'd play for as long as it made sense to do so. Occasionally I'd vary the harmony, but mostly it was a nice steady tapping that fit the on-screen action and helped it move along.

So it was most satisfying when I landed on just the right moment near the end to start this up again and slowly build to a nice finish. And Bob K. caught this wave as well, hitting the suspended cymbal softly at first but then growing as I pushed the volume on my repeating chord.

And we both built to a nice level as 'The End' appeared on screen, and kept it there for what felt just the right amount of time before going out on one final bump up.

Wow! Few accompaniment experiences have been as satisfying as that!

So thanks to Bill Shaffer and everyone (too numerous to name, but you know who you are) who make this festival work.

And by work, I mean they work year-round, and thus make it easy for an out-of-towner like me to just show up on the big weekend and do my thing.

It's been enough to keep me coming back for 20 years, and was a big influence in getting me to start pursuing silent film accompaniment myself.

And after 20 years, I find myself thinking about the Talking Heads, one of the few pop music groups I know anything about.

"You may find yourself at the Kansas Silent Film Festival for the 20th year in a row. And you may yourself, how did I get here?"
How? It wasn't letting the days go by. It was getting placed on leave from a job teaching middle school English. (Yes, I washed out in my attempt to teach middle school kids.)

This led to a plan to write a book about silent film, and this led to the idea of going somewhere so I could recover the magic of this art form.

Recover? Yes! As a teenager, I had a passionate interest in the silent film era. But it faded due to a misguided attempt to behave and act like an adult. (Big mistake!)

In March 2000, I wanted to reconnect and see if anything was there. So I used this new thing called the Internet to see if any festivals were happening soon.

There was: something called the Kansas Silent Film Festival. And a pair of Delta Airlines 'Friends and Family' passes would get me there and back.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the White Concert Hall at Washburn University, with the Mont Alto orchestra doing live music to Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928).

The distinctive "bio-hazard" design of the White Concert Hall's carpeting, which last year I was told would be replaced. Returning this year, I was thrilled to see it still there.

I was reminded of what I loved about silent film. But as I watched that magical "dolly back" in 'The Cameraman' that reveals the monkey to be cranking the newsreel camera, I immediately sensed something was going on that would be a big part of my future.

(I had seen the picture before, but not since college. Seeing it again, I recall feeling excited at how much fresh creative energy Keaton was finding in the silent cinema even as it was ending. It was as if he was saying, "Look at what we can still do with this!")

It took awhile for me to figure out that silent film would lead not to a book, but to silent film accompaniment, would eventually become the main outlet for my creative energy.

But back at that first-for-me Kansas Silent Film Festival, I found more than just silent film. Visiting from the far-off East, I found myself welcomed by friendly people who by rights I never should have met. But I'm glad I did.

Next thing I knew, I was putting 16mm prints in the trunk of my rental car and getting directions to the afterglow at the old Holidome on Fairlawn Boulevard. And there we were, enjoying drinks and eating Doritos as Rodney Sauer of Mont Alto played ragtime on the lounge piano while a few bemused barflies looked on.

I came to that festival uncertain of what was next for me. Unexpectedly, I came away with a renewed sense that anything was still possible: that I could start a business (which I did), that I could find a creative outlet (I have), that I still had a lot to do and give and experience in this life.

So I returned the next year, and the year after, and every year since. Each time, I'm reminded of that same feeling I got the first time: that life continues to offer possibilities as rich as those shown by Keaton in 'The Cameraman.'

And so, at last night's 'Cinema Dinner,' when festival director Bill Shaffer asked if anyone had attended 20 years in a row, I thought to myself: "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Shaffer!"

But I didn't say anything. Instead, I just stood and took a bow.

Thanks to everyone at the Kansas Silent Film Festival for keeping it going all these years.

Only 52 weeks and five days until the next one. Next year's festival, already on the calendar, is Feb. 28-29.

So get ready to celebrate Leap Day in Topeka.

And the burning question is: will they program the Fatty Arbuckle feature 'Leap Year' (1920)?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

How playing tuba in a youth orchestra
led to some unconventional sci-fi music

Prof. Georg Manfeldt: what music goes with this guy?

So there I was, in the middle of creating live music to the nearly three-hour-long silent sci-fi epic 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), when I became inspired by a tuba part I'd played several weeks ago.

Which tuba part? That of the 'Academic Festival Overture' by Johannes Brahms, which was on the program of a Feb. 2 concert at the Manchester (N.H.) Community Music School, where I sometimes help out when competent tuba players aren't available.

How did this aid me in scoring a 90-year-old German movie about mankind's first voyage to the moon? Let me explain, as I think it's a good example of how improv-based music can surprise even the person doing it.

Here's the deal: one of the first characters we meet in 'Woman in the Moon' is an impoverished old professor, bounced out of the academic fraternity long ago for his outrageous ideas about mountains of gold on the lunar surface and the space travel required to retrieve it.

For this character, Prof. Georg Manfeldt, I've developed a skittering chromatic theme that I feel captures his prolonged isolation, and also his roots in science and pedantry. It serves as his "leitmotif" for the entire picture.

However, an accompanist for 'Woman in the Moon' is challenged early on by a flashback to 30 years earlier, when Prof. Manfredt was a respected academic, so much so that he's seen sharing his controversial ideas to a lecture room filled with distinguished colleagues.
Manfeldt as a much younger man. Actor Klaus Pohl was actually only in his 40s, but was made up to look much older as Prof. Manfeldt for most of 'Woman in the Moon.'

Music can and should (I think) help reinforce the idea that in this flashback, we're suddenly in a different time and place in this character's life. In past 'Woman in the Moon' screenings, I would try and transform the skittering chromatic melody into something bolder and more confident, and it was okay, but it never seemed to feel quite right.

So last Sunday evening, at the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, I decided to take another route. And Brahms came to mind.

You may know the composer's aforementioned 'Academic Festival Overture' is built with student and university tunes popular in the 19th century. One of the most prominent is 'Gaudeamus Igitur,' the still-popular commencement and drinking song that goes like this. Pretty catchy, right?

To me, this music sounds like college in a classic, abstract kind of way. Whether you partied all four years or spent them all in the library or never set foot on a campus, 'Gaudeamus Igitur' conjures up "university" in the same manner as Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance.'

An excerpt of the exciting tuba part for the 'Academic Festival Overture.'

And I had just played it, or at least the tuba part, as orchestrated by Brahms for his overture's big finale. So it was kind of in my head.

Thus, when director Fritz Lang made the flashback leap from the "present" (meaning 1926) back to 1896, I made the snap decision to make Prof. Manfredt's music change to something completely different as well.

And out came 'Gaudeamus Igitur,' played as underscoring to the professor addressing his colleagues. To my mind, it instantly captured both the change in time and situation, but also conveyed an atmosphere of stuffy academia—the milieu that was about to reject the upstart professor and his outlandish notions of spaceships and lunar gold.

Lang's orderly lecture hall quickly gives way to a chaotic (and visual) uproar, with close-ups of a proctor ringing a bell and another blowing a whistle, sound effects both recreated live by me.

So 'Gaudeamus Igitur' gets swallowed up by me ringing my grandmother's school bell and also blowing a referee's whistle, my left hand still working the keyboard, all making a tremendous racket until Lang fades us back into the present, with the professor's original melody just drifting along high and unaccompanied.

And that's the end of the Brahms, right? It served its purpose, but then the film shifted back to the present, and so did I. No more musty 19th century academic anthems, right?

Well, more than two hours later, 'Woman in the Moon' is in the process of reaching its multi-stage climax. Against all odds, Prof. Manfeldt has actually made his long-dreamed-about journey to the lunar surface. (Spoiler alert!) There, while using a diving rod (!) to find water, he stumbles across a huge deposit of gold, proving his theory correct after so much personal suffering and sacrifice.

For the now-joyous and awestruck professor, it's a moment of supreme vindication, even though he's all alone. How to communicate that musically? Without thinking, I found myself shifting back into 'Gaudeamus Igitur,' but now more like Brahms treated it: with a dash of triumph in its simple structure and chords.

And it also felt right, I think because it brought it all back to his original lecture hall humiliation. It's something that Lang didn't depict visually at that point (no flashbacks), but which the music could bring out all on its own.

Alas, the professor's triumph is short-lived, and so is the reprise of 'Gaudeamus Igitur.' But to me, this turned out to be one of the dramatic highlights of the screening. I was delighted how it fell into place: a reprise more than two hours later that effectively book-ended the film, or at least one of the story's major threads.

Afterwards, several people commented about how effective it was—and I hadn't even planned it!

And that's how playing tuba in a youth orchestra can lead to unexpected and wonderful things. So when offered the chance to do so, never turn it down.

As for the screening itself: my long-awaited chance to do music for 'Woman in the Moon' for the Marathon audience earned me a very gratifying standing ovation from the discerning attendees. (These are serious film-goers, folks. Some even carry rayguns!)

And it was a all the more satisfying because the two days leading up to this long-awaited show was a time of close calls and compromises.

A blurry selfie taken while setting up my keyboard prior to 'Woman in the Moon' at this past weekend's annual 24-hour Boston Science Fiction Marathon.

Due to a mix-up, the digital restoration was never sent from Germany. So a last-minute substitute had to be made by way of a standard DVD edition, which looked reasonably okay on the Somerville's giant screen.

And then, in hooking up my digital keyboard to the Somerville's terrific house sound system, a crucial component for one of the lines was discovered missing. So we had to go with a mono output, and although it worked, the whole character of the sound was very different from what I'm used to in that house.

But you know what? Once the lights went down, none of it mattered. The audience was into it: all 169 minutes, which is a long flick by marathon standards.

Funny: one of the reasons 'Woman in the Moon' had never played the 'Thon before was because it was thought of as "too long." I could never understand that, as we're talking about a 24-hour-long-marathon, folks.

But we did it. Thanks to Garen Daly and everyone with the marathon, and Ian Judge and David Kornfeld of the Somerville Theatre, and all those in my entourage, especially Ariana Cohen-Halberstam, for all the help and support.

The ovation was for all of us—and for Fritz Lang and Johannes Brahms, too!