Monday, August 8, 2011

My "Mr. Holland's Opus" moment

Okay: A busy first week of August saw screenings in an old resort ballroom in New Hampshire, an even older town hall in Vermont, and a wonderful movie theater in Somerville, Mass. that's dedicated to preserving the 35mm film experience. Let's take them in reverse order, starting with an experience last night that moved me unexpectedly and quite deeply, too.

• On Sunday, Aug. 7, I experienced what was one of the highlights of my musical life so far. Usually these writings are reports about the movies and the screenings and how the music worked (or didn't), but for a moment let me tell you about my own personal reaction to something that I'm just beginning to get my head around.

Last night, after doing improvised scores for a screening of Buster Keaton films at the Somerville Theatre, just outside Boston, Mass., a large audience treated me to a huge and prolonged ovation that just completely blew me away. And I stood there, after more than two hours of film music, and it washed over me: this middle-aged guy, who in high school couldn't get into Boston University's Tanglewood Institute for young composers (I know, boo-hoo), was thrilled and gratified and humbled to come to Boston (the "big city" in my lifelong home of New England), make his music in public, and receive such a response. Nearly three decades later, I felt I had finally, finally arrived as a musical artist with something to say.

I really mean it. And I never expected to be in such a position, and yet there I was, with about 250 people hooting and hollering, and not stopping, for music that I just did. (If I had expected it, I would have dressed better.) I took a few bows, but then didn't know what else to do, and then it kind of hit me all at once, and I just couldn't believe it. It was probably the closest this musician will ever get to his own personal "Mr. Holland's Opus" moment.

And I realized that it marked something of a milestone in this creative journey, and I'm profoundly grateful to everyone who played a role in getting me there: to the folks at the Somerville; to early supporters such as N.H. filmmaker Bill Millios, film archivist Dave Stevenson, and Wilton Town Hall Theatre owner Dennis Markevarich; to friends and colleagues and family (especially my wife Susan) who've been dealing with my silent film music thing for quite some time now; to Rick and Jemi Broussard, who hooked me up with the Somerville Theatre; to lifelong inspirational figures, chief among them the composer Charles Ives; to new friends such as the film blogger Raquelle, seen here with me after the screening; and to the filmmakers themselves, my now-absent collaborators who left such a rich accidental legacy for us to explore and ponder today.

And finally, thank you to everyone who came to the Keaton program last night. Silent film needs an audience to exist, and without you, my co-collaborators in the dark, the films (the ones that survive) would just be long strips of plastic wound on reels sitting in cans on darkened shelves somewhere. And it has become clear to me that the music I do is much the same way: it needs an audience to come forth, and without you, it would still be just ideas in my head and perhaps go no further. Thank you, thank you for bringing it out of me. To someone who has always had music in his head, but for a long time never had a place for it to go. It's something of a dream come true.

Wow! It's been an entire day since last night's screening in Somerville and, as you can see, I'm barely getting my head around the experience and its aftermath. It was especially heartening to have so many people come up afterwards and talk about the Keaton films ('Steamboat Bill Jr.' with 'Cops' and 'The High Sign,' all in 35mm) and how much they enjoyed seeing them in a theater with live music. Great questions, wonderfully supportive comments, and enough interest for me to go back to the keyboard and do an impromptu session on silent film scoring techniques for a small audience.

As for scoring the Keaton films, things went pretty well, despite one very alarming technical glitch right at the beginning when the house lights went down, taking my synthesizer and sound system with it. It's got the making of one of those dreams you don't want to have: you introduce a program to 250 people in a theater, and turn around, and your instrument is as dead as a wooden canoe. I had no choice but to turn around and shout "Wait!" and ask for the power back. Somehow it returned quickly (thank you whoever did that!) but I still had to wait for the darned thing to reboot, even as the first film, Cops, was starting on screen. At least I got a few laughs by remarking loudly, "They didn't have THESE kinds of problems in the 1920s!"

Kept to an organ setting for the two shorts, which went by quickly. Cops is very satisfying to score because it builds so well, from small comedy to massive city-wide chase. The key moment, and one I always have trouble with, I think, is when the bomb goes off during the police parade, which launches the big chase. Keaton lingers on the static aftermath of the explosion quite a bit before cutting to the actual chase, and I've never found a satisfying way to build the music and make the transition. Have to work on that one. Weird, too, that this 35mm print was missing significant footage, sometimes cutting out of one gag before the payoff and going immediately to other scenes. I've known the film my whole life, though (it was one of the first 8mm prints I bought from Blackhawk as a teenager!) and had a solid sense of when to push, and when to pull back to keep the energy going.

I had never done 'The High Sign' before and wasn't sure because it was truly "early" Keaton, his first film made after leaving his mentor Arbuckle, and made before he'd truly formed his unique comic personality and outlook. I've always found the Arbuckle films to be a bit slapdash and loose for my taste, but once again the audience proved me wrong, with 'The High Sign' getting big and sustained laughs, especially with the ridiculous gesture that forms the film's title. For scoring, some tricky patches in a shooting gallery with gunshots and bells ringing to make the comedy fully work; I did the best I could but next time will get someone with an actual bell to do that sound effect, which I think is so essential to the humor.

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' is a wonderful film for music. Its rural riverboat setting lends itself to a certain kind of simply melody, and the main one I came up with proved to be versatile enough to work throughout the film without (I hope) becoming tiresome. And the tail end of it, a rising little "answer" phrase, formed the basis for another tune, much lighter in character, to go with the film's boyfriend/girlfriend scenes. And then, completely unexpected, was a little 6/8 tune that kept coming up to quietly underscore the small-scale comedy.

And that brings us to the hat scene. One of the most interesting scenes in this picture is when Buster's gruff father, Ernest Torrence, takes him into a store to try on hats, most of them ridiculous. After things get going, it doesn't take long for the scene to shift to a view of father and son as if they're looking into a full-length mirror (a brilliant trick in and of itself!) and then we're treated to a wonderfully diverse procession of ill-advised headgear. Never was Keaton's comic abilities seen to greater advantage, I think, and he's more than matched by Ernest Torrence. It's a wonderful scene.

But what about music? I recall, years ago, I saw this film done with a live score by a talented and energetic group. It was a memorable performance, but I was struck by how they chose to handle the hat scene. Right at the start, they launched into a heavy, up-tempo gallop, like raucous circus music, loud and fast and unrelenting. And you know what? It killed the comedy! And I think a big reason was that you couldn't hear the audience around you laughing, and so that magical silent film audience reaction thing didn't kick in. And despite the brilliance of the scene, I found it left me cold.

So now, all this time later, here we are at the hat scene again. So I tried to keep the underscoring to a minimum until the audience reaction kicked in, and only then did I bring things up a bit in terms of intensity, but not too much, and then only by a few discords or pushing up a key rather than in volume or tempo. In doing music for silent film comedy, I'm becoming convinced that less really is more.

I was very happy with the extended night scenes, where Buster sneaks over to the rival riverboat to see his girlfriend, also a textbook example of more is less. It's night. It's quiet. As my copywriting colleague Paul Donovan at PC Connection used to say, "Do I have to draw you a map?" Making up the prominent "Prisoner's Lament" in the jailhouse scene went well, and the whole extended storm climax fit together nicely, though the Korg synthesizer is really showing its age, which is now eight. After all this pounding, the bounce of its weighted action keys is pretty much gone, and there are other symptoms. During 'Steamboat,' a tone stuck after pressing a key, and not once or twice, but three times, each time forcing me to switch quickly to another setting and then back to get it to stop. Sheesh! It blows your concentration and doesn't sound right, either, but anyone I asked later said they notice it.

• On Saturday, Aug. 6, made the drive up to Brandon, Vt. for the latest summer silent film screening at their historic Town Hall, which is in the process of restoration. Another solid crowd, about 75 people, came for a program of Laurel & Hardy shorts and 'Paths to Paradise' (1925), a rare film starring Raymond Griffith. The L & H films slayed them, leading off with 'Double Whoopee' (1929) and then 'Early to Bed' (1928) and 'Angora Love' (1929).

All three produced big laughs, and they're all fun to score, because the Laurel & Hardy comedy technique is so musical to begin with: definite rhythms, peaks and valleys, often leading to the one "purple moment," the place in a piece of music that Rachmaninoff said everything else in a score was leading to. (And how appropriate that one of their films, from 1928, is called 'Their Purple Moment.')

What were Saturday night's purple moments? SPOILER ALERT! In 'Double Whoopee' it's the multiple-person chaos in the lobby followed by prince's final fall into the shaft; in 'Early to Bed,' it's Ollie and Stan doing battle in Ollie's fountain followed by Ollie cracking up; in 'Angora Love' it's the cop getting the water in the face, followed by the litter of goats (or whatever a group of baby goats is called) emerging from under the bed.

And the reaction to 'Paths to Paradise' was really, really gratifying. How great to have people who've never heard of Raymond Griffith get caught up in one of his pictures after all these years of obscurity. 'Paths' does take awhile to get going -- the usual flash point is the comic dance in the flashlight scene about halfway through the film. But once it takes flight, it sweeps everyone along with it. Some of the bigger moments in the climactic chase had people spontaneously applauding -- this for a character to whom they had just been introduced. Nice work, Mr. Griffith!

Weird trivia: Afterwards, people could not believe that one of the two clumsy detectives in 'Paths' was the same guy who played the irate landlord in Laurel & Hardy's 'Angora Love': Edgar Kennedy. It's a small silent world!

• Tuesday, Aug. 2: Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't record some impressions from an unusual screening that I think will endure as another highlight of the summer. Last month I was contacted by Matt Van Wagner, a fellow ex-ensemble member of the late and much-lamented Granite State Opera. (He's a tenor, and also plays trumpet.) Matt had a proposition: How about a silent film show at Twin Lakes Villa, a resort in New Hampshire's Lake Sunapee region that he and his family visit every year. My reply: Sure! (It doesn't take much.)

And lo, I found myself tooling up Interstate 89 late on a beautiful summer afternoon, arriving at the resort about 6:30 p.m. Everyone was still on a picnic at the summit of nearby Mount Kearsage, so I got to poke around the well-manicured grounds and well-kept buildings.

What I found was an incredibly well-preserved hotel and resort property that must not have looked much different a century ago. Really! It was from the same era as the old grand hotels up north in New Hampshire's White Mountains, but on a smaller scale. Owned by the same family for five generations, it had somehow survived intact into the 21st century, open for only 10 weeks each summer, serving communal meals that were announced by the ringing of a big old bell mounted over the wide porch that wrapped around the first floor of the three-story main building.

The films were to be screened in the "ballroom," which was the entire first floor of a separate three-story building connected to the main building by a covered wooden walkway. The screen was, yes, a bedsheet that had been strung across the small proscenium stage at one end of the hall, the floor of which was filled with chairs for more than a hundred people.

And as the light faded and the picnickers returned, the seats filled and off we went. Great response to Keaton's 'One Week' (1920), which is an excellent intro not just to Buster but to all of silent film comedy. Our feature was Harold Lloyd's great 1928 film 'Speedy,' and right from the beginning, the reaction to this was just incredible.

The reason? Well, what started it was baseball. In the film, Harold's character is obsessed with baseball, and his team is the New York Yankees. New Hampshire is Red Sox country, and there's a long-standing rivalry between the two teams that's on par with India and Pakistan. Normally it's not an issue, but in the summer, Yankees fans come up from New York to visit, and they keep their allegiance no secret.

So, in the case of 'Speedy' last Tuesday night, the minute the Yankees make their appearance, good-natured partisan reaction started behind me. I'd never seen that happen before, to this extent, with cheering and booing and everything in between. But the net effect was to really loosen up everyone at a very early stage, and I think that paved the way for a truly intense experience that carried through the whole picture. Lloyd: master of getting a reaction in ways that still work today. (I'm sure the Yanks were just as loved/hated in the days of Babe Ruth, too.)

One nice touch was that since Matt played the trumpet, I invited him to sound the bugle calls that lead into the films first climax, the battle in the streets. Matt did an excellent job doing two versions of one of those tunes we all know but I never know the name of ("Charge?"), and then a final blast as the action really starts. Thanks, Matt!

Big reaction at the end and lots of good questions and comments. Talk of me going up there again next summer, and I'd love to do it, especially if they can arrange for the same kind of weather. Speaking of which, in the weird coincidence department, when the storm developed in 'One Week,' it unexpectedly started raining outside for real!

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