Sunday, November 9, 2014

Some good news, a little bad news,
and then heading off to San Francisco

The good news: I survived my "three films in one day" marathon on Sunday, Nov. 2.

But the bad news is that I haven't had time to catch my breath since.

And then on Thursday, Nov. 6, I catch a plane to San Francisco, where I'll do music for a program highlighted by Mary Pickford's 'The Little American' (1917).

So here's a quick report on recent film screenings and a look at what's coming up.

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, who landed at the Bedford (N.H.) Public Library on Sunday, Nov. 2.

• Sunday, Nov. 2: 'Peter Pan' (1924) at the Bedford (N.H.) Public Library. Fun to do a silent film screening right in your own hometown. I was introduced by Paul Bordeleau, a local legend who's performed for decades and taught generations of students.

I don't know how old Paul is, but I do know he's a D-Day veteran, so he must be at least in his mid-80s. But he's sharp as a tack and still spry enough to carry audio equipment out to my car. He drives everywhere. Age doesn't seem to have slowed him up at all.

It's only a guess, but Paul's involvement in music must be a factor in how active he continues to be. That's a good reason to keep doing silent film accompaniment—to forestall my own descent into decrepitude.

About the film: the audience for this "family friendly" screening was a little short on actual children. But those that attended did a stellar job in the audience participation part of the program, where Peter begs the audience to save Tinkerbell by clapping. Tinkerbell made it, so gold stars for everyone!

And I've often wondered: Did the filmmakers prepare an alternate version of this scene in which a lack of audience response causes our favorite fairy to bite the fairydust?

Tinkerbell doesn't have much to do after this scene, so it wouldn't have really hurt the film. Would have made things just a little more interesting.

A scene from Fritz Lang's 'The Wandering Image' (1920), which for this screening might have been retitled 'The Wandering Accompanist.'

• Sunday, Nov. 2: 'Four Around A Woman' (1921) and 'The Wandering Image' (1920), both directed by Fritz Lang, at the Harvard Film Archive. A double bill of very obscure early Lang efforts, both shown in 35mm prints, illustrated the pitfalls of preparation.

First up was 'Four Around A Woman,' a title that I'd previewed only once, and found it didn't make a lot of sense to. Because I wasn't too inspired, I didn't spend a lot of time developing original material.

'The Wandering Image' followed. With extensive Bavarian Alps location shooting (a rarity for Lang), I responded much more readily to this flick. So, to go along with the expansive landscapes, I plotted out an ambitious soundscape for the picture, making simultaneous use of my digital synthesizer and the hall's Yamaha grand piano.

So come screening time, guess which score went well, and which was a mess? Of course the completely unplanned 'Woman' music fell together perfectly, while the 'Image' score was an avalanche of weak moments and missed opportunities that never quite jelled.

Maybe there's a lesson in that. But the first film, 'Four Around A Woman,' surprised me in that when seen on the big screen and with an audience, it seemed to make perfect sense! Musical themes for characters and situations came easily, and it all built nicely to a melodramatic climax.

With 'The Wandering Image,' it was more like 'The Wandering Accompanist,' as nothing I did seemed to work very effectively with what was happening on screen. And I kept botching the notes when I reached over to get the big bass drum/cymbal sound for lightning strikes, etc.

Part of this might be the result of 'Wandering Image' being my third film of the day, and I'm perfectly willing to admit that at some point an accompanist is going to run out of gas. I might just been tired.

But I also take it as yet another example of how just showing up and going with it seems to be a pretty good strategy for my style of playing. Call it the "Woody Allen School of Accompaniment" after his observation that 90 percent of life is showing up.

Not quite Our Gang: A scene from 'I Was Born, But...' (1932), a silent from Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

• Tuesday, Nov. 4: Two days later, it was back to Harvard to accompany an afternoon screening of 'I Was Born, But...' (1932), a film from Japanese director Yasojiro Ozu.

I'd never encountered Ozu's work before this: a delicately observed portrait of two young brothers who discover that their father is not "someone important," but a company salaryman.

It's not all comedy, but the tone is light enough to justify a score that was very different from what I usually do. Using a few simple melodies and a synthesizer setting that blended woodwinds and the sound of a plucked harp, which I think evoked a kind of child-like wonder throughout the film.

Also I avoided the clich├ęd sound of fifths played on a pentatonic scale, which I've sometimes heard referred to as "chopsticks" music. Tong War, anyone?

Instead, I built the score using a modal scale that incorporated a sharped 4th and a flatted 7th, which sounded vaguely Asian, and also worked in a lot of bright harmonies: chords with several notes of the scale close together all at once.

I was really pleased with how it came out. No big musical gestures, just a modest running accompaniment that I hope evoked the world Ozu was trying to depict.

The course is taught by Prof. Adam Hart, who afterwards said he thought the music for "I Was Born, But..." was the best of what I did for his class. Thank you, Adam! I completely agree!

Me banging the hell out of my Korg synthesizer back in 2010.

• Technical issues: One nice thing about the recent Harvard screenings is that I'm now able to plug my synth output directly into the theater's sound system. It really sounded great, so one less opportunity to stress out my aging speaker/amps.

However, this past weekend I did acquire a second Korg keyboard as a back-up for my 13-year-old machine, which is literally falling apart.

It's the exact same model as mine: a Korg Triton LE with the full 88 keys. But it's much newer and much cleaner , as it has been an indoor Korg.

I got it from a nice guy in Westerly, R.I. who was selling it on Craigslist. When I fit saw it, it was like my old bang-ed up machine had discovered the synthesizer fountain of youth! It was reborn!

Haven't had a chance to really play with it. But as soon as I can check it out thoroughly, the trusty old Korg will be relegated to back-up status, and the new Korg will start being hauled around to venues hither and yon.

I'll eventually get around to deciding on a totally new synth: probably some kind of Kurzweil. But I haven't been satisfied with the keyboard feel of what I've tried out so far, so we'll see.

In the meantime, I at least have a back-up if one or the other of my fleet of aging synthesizers finally shits the bed, if you'll forgive me using a technical term.

The next piece of equipment I really need are new speakers for venues that do not have adequate house sound systems. The two old Rolands I drag around have been great, but they're literally falling apart, and in some ways they're clearly not reliably handling the full output of the synth.

But as with the keyboard, I've yet to find anything quite like my Rolands, which I understand are not made anymore.

It's just like what happens to me with shoes: as soon as I find a style I like, they get discontinued!

Anyone know any speakers for sale?

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