Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In which I get into Harvard University;
plus reviews, radio interviews, and more

Phyllis Hart stars in 'Chicago' (1927), a silent film that got a recent thumbs-up from a college newspaper.

Some great Halloween screenings coming up, but first a few updates from the present:

An unexpected review: I've just found a wonderful review of our screening of the silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927) earlier this month at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center up in Plymouth, N.H.

It's by Sarah Liebowitz of 'The Clock' (the student paper of Plymouth State University) and I think she did a great job capturing the spirit of the film and its ability to reach audiences today, even those unfamiliar with silent cinema.

Me, I'm the choir. I certainly believe in the timeless power of silent film. But it's really heartening and encouraging to seed others discover this on their own.

Thank you for making my day, Sarah. If you come to 'Phantom of the Opera' at the Monkey later this month, please stop by to say hi!

The back end of the Carpenter Center at Harvard, including the doors through which I lug my digital synthesizer and sound gear.

Playing at Harvard: I continue the head-spinning experience of going down to Harvard University to do live music for a variety of silent film screenings. I've done three in the past few weeks, and three more are coming up, including one later this afternoon.

Why head-spinning? Because as music-crazed teenager in Nashua, N.H., I was immersing myself in material such as Igor Stravinsky's Charles Elliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, and so always thought of the place as a citadel of American musical culture.

I never got to attend, of course, and later shelved my musical ambitions for the word game. So I never expected, all this time later, to be coming down to campus and playing my own stuff where the like of idols such as Leonard Bernstein and Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland and John Adams (the composer, and the founding father) once hung out.

It's a great honor, a real satisfaction, and a genuine thrill. 'Nuf said. (But I want to thank David Pendleton of the Harvard Film Archive, Heidi Bliss of Harvard's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and everyone else who has played a part in this adventure so far.)

The screenings take place at the Le Corbius-designed Carpenter Center in an environment that's pretty luxurious compared to the town halls where I often ply my trade. In a real plus for silent film, the booth is equipped with 35mm projectors that can run variable speed! Also, in an unheard-of luxury, able projectionist Clayton Mattos will often check with me (before and during a screening) about a film's running speed.

A classier front-end view of the Carpenter Center, the only structure in North America designed by Le Corbius, the 20th century oracle of architectural modernism (and big fan of concrete.)

Last Wednesday night, I accompanied 'The Big Parade' (1925) for a class taught by Harvard Prof. Tom Conley. The print was the Harvard Film Archive's very own gorgeous 35mm print, and the screening was open to the public, so we had a nice turnout.

Because it was 'The Big Parade,' I pulled out all the stops, bringing down the digital synthesizer and staging what I thought was a suitable soundtrack to scenes of World War I trench fighting. (In other words, KABOOM!)

And, despite my need for a bathroom break just when the soldiers were being called up to the front, it was one of those magical screenings where a film seems to completely absorb an audience.

Even better, it was not the usual silent film crowd, but a mix of people who may not have been expecting the experience that King Vidor and company had planned for them nearly a century ago.

I often say silent film is about the big emotions, as demonstrated here by John Gilbert and Renee Adoree in 'The Big Parade.'

I have to admit I was pleased how most of the score came out. I think I hit all the big moments, and was especially happy at how the well-known "departure" sequence came together, with Renee Adoree hanging onto the truck taking John Gilbert to the front. And I found myself quite overcome (SPOILER ALERT!) during the final sequence, when the pair are finally reunited.

So after "The End," despite three hours at the keyboard, I couldn't help but stand up and thank everyone for helping to collaborate in bringing 'The Big Parade' to life, and encourage them to understand that to really experience the full power of silent film, this was the way to do it: in a theater, on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

It was only then that I remembered that this was Prof. Conley's class, not my personal forum. But the professor was nodding his head in agreement, and later thanked me for the performance, so I trust I didn't tred on any Ivy League toes.

And it was a real rush to talk with attendees afterwards, some of whom have actual music backgrounds! One woman, Peggy Wang, a Boston-area violinist, seemed completely enthralled with the whole experience. It's interactions such as this that make all the efforts at creating effective accompaniment worthwhile.

We'll see what I can do later today with screenings of the Epstein/Bunuel version of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928) and 'The Smiling Madame Buedet' (1928). The titles are being run today at 4 p.m. at the Carpenter Center as part of a class in silent cinema led by Adam Hart.

Later, on Sunday, Nov. 2, I'm doing music for a double bill of obscure silent Fritz Lang titles being screened by the Harvard Film Archive, which runs an ambitious schedule of repertory programs in the same theater.

The program is at 7 p.m. and includes 'The Wandering Image' (1921) and 'Fighting Hearts' (1922), both of which are new to me. The Lang films lend themselves to my musical strengths, I think (the big gesture), so I'm looking forward to helping bring them to life.

A scene from Fritz Lang's early film 'The Wandering Image' (1921), considered lost for decades until a print was discovered in Brazil.

And then on Tuesday, Nov. 4, a new challenge beckons at the Carpenter Center: my first-ever Japanese silent, "I Was Born, But..." (1932), directed by Yasujiro Ozu. I'm very much looking forward to scoring this one, as it's an unusual film with a whole different sensibility than most silent cinema. I'm not sure what I'll do just yet, but I hope to create music that brings this quality out.

The only downside to this whole adventure has been fighting the traffic in and out of Boston. The Harvard folks have been great in terms of arranging parking passes and the like. But they can't do much about road construction on Memorial Drive, which I think has been going on since the silent film era.

The upside to this, however, is that I'm developing a much better understanding of the small one-way streets of Cambridge, Mass. Need directions?

Virginia Prescott of New Hampshire Public Radio's 'Word of Mouth.'

On the radio: Tomorrow (Wednesday, Oct. 22), I've been invited to drop by the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio for a pre-Halloween segment with Virginia Prescott, host of the station's popular "Word of Mouth" program.

It's a real treat to do this. Not only will it provide a nice publicity boost for several upcoming Halloween screenings, but Virginia is one of those people who seem to bring out the best in anyone she speaks with.

I once thought my high point in terms of public radio celebrity interaction was bumping into Tom and Ray Magliozzi (the "Car Talk" brothers) some years ago in an elevator at the studios of WBUR in Boston.

But that encounter has since been surpassed by my interactions with Virginia. For one thing, she has much better hair than either of the Car Talk guys.

I'm not sure when the 'Word of Mouth' segment will air, but I'll post the info here as soon as I know. The station's Web address is: http://www.nhpr.org.

Virginia Prescott making a gesture that I expect to see a lot of tomorrow, given my inability to stop talking.

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