Thursday, February 5, 2015

Silent film music mid-winter update:
Snowstorms, a farm, and a brand-new brewery

We're digging out from three feet of snow in this part of the world. But the show must go on!

And how fitting that the show last Tuesday night was 'Nanook of the North' (1922) at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

A few dozen hardy souls braved the enormous snowbanks and we had a great screening. My big joke was my answer to the commonly asked question, "How are the roads out there?"

"The roads are fine. It's the other drivers that cause all the problems!"

I returned from Africa a few weeks ago, and I've already had some unusual silent film adventures. Here's a quick round-up:

• Two separate screenings of Fritz Lang's neglected late silent 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) really connected with audiences.

I had planned these deliberately to get the silent film part of my brain restarted after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

And it worked: I love doing this film, and both times the score came together fairly easily, even if it's a big and ambitious film.

Anyway, it was enough to get the rust out and get back into the "silent film accompaniment" zone.

One of the tricks of this film, incidentally, is to limit the accompaniment to strings only for the first 90 minutes or so—up to the big launch sequence.

The only exception is using a loud bell and whistle as sound effects during an early flashback to a university lecture, and then a breathy voice/organ sound for when we see footage of the moon shot from a probe. Otherwise, all strings.

This creates a great impact when you switch to full orchestra starting with the launch sequence, which is quite powerful filmmaking, including the first-ever appearance of a "countdown" prior to something blasting off, which was apparently the invention of Lang and his collaborator, Thea von Harbou.

However, I think the exciting sequence leading up to the crash landing on the moon's surface is also first-rate. With the right kind of music, it build to a tremendous climax—so much so that at both screenings, spontaneous applause broke out when it concluded.

A great film that I love doing.

• This past Saturday, I took my now-annual trip out to Liberty Ridge Farm in Schagticoke, N.Y., a rural community about a half-hour north of Albany.

There, we had the sixth annual "Dead of Winter" community get-together pot luck and silent film night in the farm's very handsome function hall.

This has been going on so long, and with most of the same people attending each time, that I now getting updates on the health of family matters and other personal concerns. Which I love.

I also love that the audience is made up of all ages: from kids in elementary school to people old enough to actually remember when silent movies were new. I'm not kidding: one lady was 94 and able to recall details from her childhood experiences at the local bijou.

We ran Keaton's 'The General' (1927) and audience reaction was strong.

But the highlight for me, truth be told, was someone's casserole dish, which was topped with french-fried onion rings.

While in the buffet line, when no one was looking I selfishly scooped a large portion of fried onions off the top of the dish.

Pure heaven! I could make a whole meal out of those if my cardiologist would allow me.

• One of the great things about doing silent film screenings is that you get to go to places you otherwise never would have got to.

For instance: after doing music for 'Nanook of the North' at the Harvard Film Archive, I ventured out in search of the Aeronaut Brewery, a place I'd never heard of but located not too far away.

The folks there were interested in a Valentine's Day silent film event, so I wanted to check the place out.

Driving slowly through the snow-clogged streets of Cambridge, I seemed to be entering an old industrial area. Did I have the address right?

I turned onto Tyler Street, which was all loading docks and chain link fences. By some miracle, I found a parking space carved out of a 10-foot-high snowbank. Snow was blowing off roofs like it was the Klondike.

A brewpub? Here?

But I walked up the street, which continued between what seemed to be two abandoned warehouses. I could hear noise coming from inside the buildings, but with the wind howling I wasn't sure if it was just my imagination.

I finally got almost right in front of a pair of steamed-up glass doors when I could make out the name: "Aeronaut Brewing."

So I walked inside, and entered an alternate world that completely surprised me.

Get this: The place was an enormous high-ceilinged warehouse packed with people, most of whom seemed half my age or younger. Hanging overhead from the ceiling were collections of lawn chairs and balloons—apparently that kid who took a ride using similar equipment is the inspiration for the name.

Off to one side, people were lined up several layers deep at an enormous beer bar. And in back, where the brewing tanks were located, I found a guy with a laptop who turned out to be co-owner Ben Holmes. Ben happens to be married to Christine Platzek, who plans events at Aeronaut and contacted me about the silent film.

Christine gave me a tour of the place, which sprawls through several connected industrial spaces. In addition to customers, at least two bands were jamming in odd corners, including one with a sousaphone. Food is not yet available, but an enterprising guy was reselling Union Square donuts.

For the silent film, Christine wanted me to set up in an area on the far side of the facility (to cut down on the cross-traffic) with a big white wall.

The place had a wonderful vibe and I immediately wanted to try doing a show there. So yes, we're doing a Valentine's Day program on Saturday, Feb. 14 at 9 p.m.

Christine and Ben then treated me to one of their best available: the Union Square IPA. It was fantastic. I would have tried more if I didn't have to drive back to New Hampshire afterwards.

What really made it worthwhile, though, was at one point I ended up standing behind the bar talking to Christine, and customers started asking me questions.

When it was apparent that I was clueless, Ben stepped in to explain that I was going to do live music for a silent film program there on Valentine's Day.

"Wow," gushed a young woman in line, looking right at me. "That's really awesome."

Hey, you know how a dog is supposed a great way to get women to talk to you?

Well, so is being a silent film accompanist, apparently. :)

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