Sunday, March 2, 2014
Notes from the Kansas Silent Film Festival:
Films, music, people, food, and lots of snow
I'm on the way home from the 2014 Kansas Silent Film Festival, which was a wonderful time as always! But I think the time has come for a name update.
Based on recent experience, it should be the Kansas Silent Film and FOOD Festival, as any time not actually spent watching or accompanying film seems to be devoted to eating. :)
Consider: Arrival on Thursday in Topeka is usually celebrated by a visit that night to the Blind Tiger Brew Pub, followed by lunch the next day at Bobo's, a legendary local drive-in.
Then comes the pre-show pasta buffet at the White Concert Hall, and then after the show it's the all-you-can-eat Indian banquet served at the Best Western hotel. And that's just on Friday!
But the Kansas folks wouldn't have it any other way. My joke this year was in suggesting to festival director Bill Shaffer that things ought to be slimmed down, he thought I meant they should run more 8mm instead of 16mm. Har!
Or it could be renamed the Kansas Silent Film and SLEET AND SNOW Festival, as winter weather has disrupted the schedule in recent years.
Let's see: in 2012, a pre-festival snowstorm forced guests Paul Gierucki and Brittany Valenti off the road somewhere between Michigan and Kansas, causing them to turn back. (They made it the next year.)
And last year was almost wiped out entirely when the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra got stranded in mid-Kansas by a blizzard, forcing them to turn back. (As it was, my flight was cancelled, but I made it there on Friday in time for the evening's program.
And THIS year, the prospect of snow on Saturday night and Sunday prompted the Mont Alto members to hit the road by mid-day Saturday, causing the film program to be readjusted to allow them to skeedaddle.
Also, my flight out on Sunday got cancelled and rebooked for Monday. But I called the airline and found a way out of Kansas City on Sunday after all. (I'm writing this on the way back to New Hampshire.)
This situation prompted another wisecrack at last night's festival dinner: "Because they changed my flight, we can now add Sunday to the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Marvin, if you do 'Wings,' I'll agree to do 'Ben Hur.' And we can all go outside and reenact scenes from 'Nanook of the North.' "
"Marvin" is Marvin Faulwell, a talented organist and accompanist from Kansas City, and the musical mainstay of the Kansas Silent Film Festival since it started in 1996. He's a retired dentist who serves as the festival's music director, and I accompany films out there with his blessing, for which I'm grateful.
And why was I speaking at the Kansas Silent Film Festival's annual cinema dinner? I was there to introduce (and accompany) a screening of 'Their First Misunderstanding' (1911) the recently rediscovered Mary Pickford one-reeler that was found in 2006 in a barn in New Hampshire, of all places.
This was a great honor, but also prompted me to wonder aloud about how my presence at the podium was evidence they must be running out of important vintage film people to invite.
The Pickford film was well received and the accompaniment (on a big Steinway grand) went relatively smoothly, I thought. Not so, alas, for most of the other films I tackled for this year's festival. For some reason, I had a hard time getting comfortable at the piano (another beautiful Steinway) on the White Concert Hall stage, and so felt I was often all over the place.
Specifically, I was hoping to take a simpler approach and not try to play beyond my ability, something that master accompanist Phil Carli has warned about. I tend to do that because of sheer adrenaline, I think—sit down at the keyboard and there's a film playing, and I just get carried away, trying to do too much too soon.
Reining in this habit is especially important in advance of Cinefest later this month, as I'll be playing alongside some great accompanists, and it's important that I do the best job I can with the abilities I have, rather than the abilities I wish I had.
And that requires discipline, and it really went out the window pretty much all at once the first time I sat down to play, which was for Friday night's "surprise" film, 'A Canine Sherlock Holmes' an early British short that's been making the rounds after being recovered from an archive in the Netherlands by archivist David Shepard.
This film got a huge reaction, and several attendees later singled it out as a festival highlight. Any film in which a dog pretends to be injured to gain access into a house to search for clues is bound to be a winner.
And although I had prepared several themes in advance (including "In An English Country Garden" to bookend things) and knew the film pretty well, the accompaniment just didn't jell in the way I hoped it would. Still, the audience reaction was huge, and so what I did may not have actually harmed the film.(An accompanist's first rule is like part of medicine's Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.)
On the other hand, the one feature I did, 'The Devil Horse' (1926) starring Rex the Wonder Horse, was relatively successful, I thought. And in case you haven't had enough of this navel-gazing already, here's what goes through the mind of a silent film accompanist.
And then the subject matter fit my style of keyboard playing. Scraps of melody and repeated notes and modal chord changes work well when a film is filled with horses running and "injuns" dancing and so on. Afterwards, I told people afterwards that my goal was to explore the limits of the piano as a percussion instrument.
A special treat for me was working with Bob Keckeisen, head percussionist for the Topeka Symphony Orchestra and frequent collaborator with Marvin Faulwell in local silent film screenings. Bob doing percussion was an impromptu happening made possible by a last-minute schedule change that saw 'Devil Horse' swapped from morning to afternoon, enabling Bob to join in after fulfilling a teaching gig.
Rehearse together? Heck, we didn't even have a chance to discuss the film before we went up onto opposite ends of the stage! But sometimes that lack of advance coordination leads to a wonderful spontaneity in a performance, and I definitely felt that as Bob and I launched into the film. I hope we get a chance to collaborate again!
One nice surprise was seeing pianist Greg Foreman and his wife Melodie on Saturday. Greg has contributed some spectacular scores on piano and organ to the festival, but has suffered some medical issues that prevented him from joining in on stage this time around. I do hope he has a quick and full recovery.
The same goes for Phil Figgs, the festival's volunteer coordinator and also a pianist for some of the films. Phil wasn't able to make it to this year's edition, but hope to see him next time!
In terms of accompaniment, one of my take-aways came from the festival's final film, Chaplin's 'Modern Times' (1936), which has a recorded soundtrack created by Chaplin himself at the time of the film's release.
The film offers a rare chance to hear what music Chaplin had in mind for his movies: not just 'Modern Times,' but conceivably all of them, generally speaking. And unlike scores he put together much later in life for silent reissues, 'Modern Times' (and also 'City Lights' from 1931) show what he would have regarded as ideal at the time those films were actually released.
Though I've seen 'Modern Times' many times, I paid attention to the music this time, and found Chaplin's method of scoring is quite varied.
In 'Modern Times,' it includes passages that are used mostly to set a tempo—the skittering strings for Paulette Goddard's character come to mind, or the repetitive and frantic factory music for the assembly line scenes, which eventually erupts into a kind of light classical frenzy worthy of Offenbach or von Suppe.
There is also a lot of straight dramatic music, which I think works to help establish the serious nature of the story and hence provide a launching pad for the comedy. The dissonant opening fanfare keeps returning as a device to indicate transition or even fate, and there's also an anthem-like melody that I think helps keep the political nature of the story from being overshadowed by all the memorable gag sequences.
(I have since learned that this is the melody to 'Hallelujah, I'm a Bum,' a pro-labor song from that era. For more insights into its use, check out this nice analysis by Phil Posner of the Modern Times score.)
And then there's the one big tune, later issued as the stand-alone song 'Smile,' that shows up (without any lyrics) at key moments. This seems to me another way Chaplin was trying to keep some amount of pathos present in the film, using music to cue us that these characters and the situations they're in are real people with real feelings.
And yes, there's a lot of "funny" music that helps enrich the comedy when Chaplin felt it added to the whole, I think. The marching music in the prison scenes comes to mind. Visually, it's so grim and the stakes are so high that a goofy little 6/8 quickstep helps keep it all together. The climax of this kind of music is Chaplin's on-screen rendition of "Je cherche après Titine," with nonsense lyrics, near the film's end.
Also, here is a good amount of what accompanists call "Mickey Mousing," meaning music that closely mimics the actions of a character on screen. Interesting, especially as there are some film folks who frown severely on this practice, but here it is, part of the master comedian's toolkit when he was at the height of his creative powers. Chaplin does not do it gratuitously, or out of a lack of inspiration. He only uses it, I think, when it helps contribute to bringing out a joke or gag.
The point here is that for 'Modern Times,' Chaplin created a range of musical material of different types and characters, and then used it in any way that helped a scene or a sequence be more effective.
There's no "one size fits all" philosophy of scoring here: it's whatever works to move the film or the story or the drama or the comedy in the direction Chaplin seeks at any given time. It's a real grab-bag guided mostly, it seems, but Chaplin's intuition and master showmanship.
This is interesting to me because it can help guide an accompanist today about what Chaplin might have had in mind as the ideal music for his earlier films, for which no "official" scores exist. (And Chaplin himself is no longer around to ask.)
At some point I'd like to look into this even deeper, as music is such an important part of silent film, and Chaplin himself is so important to the art form. A presentation I was hoping to develop to explore this didn't make the cut for a Chaplin convention later this year, but I'll keep working on it as opportunities arise.
For now, I credit the Kansas Silent Film Festival for helping push it along just a little bit further. One more reason to keep going, so mark your calendars. The next one is Friday and Saturday, Feb. 27 & 28, 2015. See you there in just...363 days!