Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thoughts on 10 years of silent film music

Me in action in 2010 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, which I consider home base.

This past Halloween marked my 10th anniversary as a silent film accompanist. Since October 2007, I've been creating live music in the dark to support early motion pictures.

It's been a great ride and I look forward to doing more, and different things as well. That will mean slightly fewer live performances in 2018.

Consider: this year, I'm on track to do live accompaniment for 135 screenings. While I love doing it, that represents a serious time commitment—time that I find I need to work on some long-range projects.

I'll still be on the circuit, probably as much as ever. The improvisational nature of silent film accompaniment has been an ideal place for me to forge elements of my own personal musical language.

So I see it as a crucial element of my working method—a kind of laboratory where I can test things out. So I'll keep at it, just maybe a little less often.

For now, here's a belated "dear diary" round-up of screenings so far this month, with notes and commentary.

• Last night I accompanied a program of Buster Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The General (1926) for the Wilmot Community Association.

Most of those who attended really got into Buster, greeting both films with constant astonished laughter, to borrow Walter Kerr's phrase.

That most were new to Keaton and to silent film was a special bonus. Always happy when this kind of screening clicks!

• Last Thursday night (Nov. 16) saw a marathon screening of D.W. Griffith's 'Way Down East' (1920) at a new venue for me: the Manchester (N.H.) Historic Association.

I say marathon not due to the film's 2½-hour length, but because a bronchial infection I'm battling made it hard to breath in the last hour!

What was satisfying, though, was that the movie kept a crowd of non-silent-film-goers glued to their seats the entire time.

The music came together nicely, but the narrative pull of 'Way Down East' is so strong that you could play klezmer music and it would still work.

• Wednesday night saw a return to 'Zaza' (1923), the Paramount costume vehicle for Gloria Swanson that I scored for Kino-Lorber earlier this year.

It was fun to revisit the film while accompanying it live at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

It was somewhat less fun to announce to the audience that in 2018, I'll be scaling back my performance schedule at "the Monkey."

Just need to make time for projects that are proving difficult to work on when you're accompanying 130 film programs a year!

But one nice side effect of this news was heavy sales of 'Zaza' discs in DVD and Blu-ray that I got for Kino-Lorber.

• Tuesday night at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library was a bummer of a screening in several ways.

First, while loading in, my digital keyboard slipped from where I had positioned it against my car, with one corner of it landing directly on my foot.

Youch! This happened in a rainy street in downtown Manchester, just before a screening of 'What Price Glory?' (1926), which I was to accompany.

It hurt like hell, but I figured I'd get through the film first (the show must go on!) and deal with it later.

Alas, the copy of 'What Price Glory' (1926) was a disc that I hadn't previewed, and turned out to have significant problems.

About half-way through the movie, the image began to pixellate and freeze up. Finally, it got so bad, I stopped the music and told everyone I'd see what I could do.

One-man-band that I am (at the library, anyway), I went back to the utility room where the library's media equipment lives and looked at the disc.

It didn't seem flawed, at least visually. So I did the only thing I could think of: I wiped it carefully with my shirt sleeve just to see what would happen.

Surprise! It actually worked. So after recuing the film, off we went until about a half-hour later, it started deteriorating again.

I stopped it again and applied the same fix, which got us going through the key battle scenes.

But with 20 minutes to go, it started again. One more attempt at fixing didn't help, so I asked the audience and we all decided to call it day.

So I can still say that in all the screenings I've done, nary a show has been missed. But this is the first time I can recall where I couldn't finish a screening.

• A week ago Sunday saw me at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre with our make-up screening of 'Häxan' (1922), the bizarre pseudo-documentary about witchcraft.

We had a healthy crowd on hand for this, even though it wasn't the usual "last Sunday of the month" on which we run silents with live music at Wilton.

The reason for the make-up screening was that we'd originally scheduled 'Häxan' for the Sunday before Halloween, but at the last minute I discovered I didn't have the film!

So we substituted with Paul Leni's comedy thriller 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), which I hadn't done in Wilton for a long time. People loved it!

And the first weekend this month, I trekked out to the San Francisco Bay area for a gig at the Niles Essenay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif.

I always seem to pass through when they program obscure Westerns, and this time was no exception: 'The Border Sheriff' (1926) starring Jack Hoxie. Huh?

Well, add another title to the list of silent film features I've accompanied, which is closing in on 300.

It actually turned out pretty well, considering I'd never seen the film, plus what seemed to be some incoherence on the part of the plot.

Still, it came together quite effectively. The audience, a majority of whom were first-time silent film attendees, ate it up, cheering on cue and all that.

While out West I managed to attend a performance of the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, who is retiring after next season. Get it while you can!

On the program: Bernstein's 'Age of Anxiety' Symphony No. 2 (some good parts) and 'Ein Heldenleben' by Richard Strauss—a big, heavily orchestrated work that really needs to be heard in a concert hall.

It served to remind me of the excitement of live performance, and also reaffirmed my desire to spend more time putting notes on paper.

Crossing my fingers that 2018 is the year I make progress in that direction.

Friday, November 3, 2017

California, here I come—to do music for a show at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

This Saturday night (Nov. 4) I'm at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco.

Featured attraction is 'The Border Sheriff' (1926), a Jack Hoxie Western from Universal. It's one of those obscure titles that Niles sometimes programs because, after all, they run a different silent film program every week.

There's also 'Ice Cold Cocos' (1926), a Sennett two-reeler with Billy Bevan hauling ice up the same long flight of steps that would later bedevil piano movers Laurel & Hardy in 'The Music Box' (1932). And a Koko the Clown 'Out of the Inkwell' cartoon as well.

The visit to Niles is a nice change of pace (and scenery) from the recent marathon of Halloween screenings around New England, which saw a dozen programs in 14 days in venues across four states.

By Halloween night, when I accompanied 'Nosferatu' (1922) for an enthusiastic crowd at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., I felt just about spooked out.

Things will quiet down now, in part because the pace of screenings slows somewhat as we enter the holiday season.

But it'll also be by design. Things will stay slow in 2018 because I have a number of longer-term projects in the works. So fewer screenings means more time (finally!) for significant progress, I hope.

I'm in Phoenix right now, where I plan to do a longish run first thing Friday morning. Later in the day I'll fly to San Francisco, where I'll attend a San Francisco Symphony concert that night and then make my own music on Saturday night in Niles.

If you're in the Bay area, please drop by! Besides the film screenings, the Niles Essanay museum houses an extensive collection of early movie memorabilia, a store, and many other interesting things. Really worth checking out!

The front door of the Niles museum.

One claim to fame is that Niles is where a certain British-born comedian began experimenting with pathos in his short comedies, especially in one from 1915 called 'The Tramp.'

It's the first one of his that ends with a scene of him ambling off down the road to further adventures:

And if you want to, you can still see the spot where this scene was filmed, not far from the Niles museum.

One of the things about Niles that's a hoot is that because of this connection, the whole town has embraced its inner Charlie Chaplin. You'll see his image all over: on stores, on sidewalks, on murals, and more.

And then on Sunday it's back to New Hampshire, where I'll start hunkering down for the holidays.