Friday, February 2, 2018

Wrapping up January, prepping for February—
silent film music from Toronto to Topeka; also...losing a teacher, gaining a pupil

Me at Phillips Exeter Academy. Photo by Todd Bookman, NHPR.

It's Groundhog Day, so if a silent film accompanist sees his (or her) shadow, we'll have six more screenings of 'Nosferatu' or 'Phantom of the Opera.'

Just kidding! Scary thought, though.

Here we are, in the second month of 2018, and only now am I updating this blog for the very first time this year.

So lots to catch up on, and plenty to look forward to as well. Getting right to it:

• Myanmar and music: The first half of January, I was traveling in Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma.

Not much silent film action here, and I didn't expect any. But I got pictures like this:

This was taken in Mandalay at sunset on Jan. 3 at the world's longest teak bridge.

Although I didn't go to Myanmar for music, it was all around me: the chanting of the monks, the rattle of outboard motors, the uneven banging of the hammers used in making gold leaf by hand.

So I wouldn't be surprised if it results in some kind of idiosyncratic score for orchestra. We shall see. I recorded a lot of stuff for future reference.

But while on the road, I did come up with music for a video project being put together by New Hampshire filmmaker Bill Millios.

Bill's doing video work for the publication of 'The White Mountain,' a book about Mount Washington due out later this year and written by my HippoPress business partner Dan Szczesny.

(And get this: Dan's contact at publisher Hobblebush Books is Kirsty Walker, who was a student in one of my classes at UNH-Manchester. It's a very small state indeed!)

For the music, I wanted to try doing it away from the keyboard. Done that way, I understand it can be freer and not limited by where your 10 fingers can go.

In this case, it was done in Myanmar while taking a three-day boat trip from Bagan to Mandalay. Not a piano—just the thrumming of the boat's diesel engine as we pushed upstream in a steady rainstorm.

We'll record the music later this month and Dan will be take the video (with music) on a promotional odyssey around New England starting later this spring.

More info on that as it happens, but for now I'm happy with the music that emerged on that boat ride.

• Chaplin and chance: Back home, it was back to silent film accompaniment. On Thursday, Jan. 18, I did music for a showing of Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921) at Phillips Church, on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.

This was part of the Academy's chamber music series—once a year, they take a flier and bring me in for a silent film/live music program.

I like doing it because the chamber series audience is different from the usual silent film crowd. You can tell from their response that many people are discovering the silent film/live music thing for the first time.

And this time was also special for me because several members of my extended family came out to hear cousin Jeff do his nutty silent film music thing. Thanks, everyone!

Chaplin and Coogan killed, of course. Lots of questions and comments afterwards: apparently I didn't make it clear that I was improvising the score, as people were shocked to hear this!

"It's no different from you and I having this conversation right now," I usually say. "Nobody had to write a script for us to follow."

The concert also reconnected me with Mimi Bravar, long-time string guru and educator in New Hampshire and once chair of the Phillips Exeter music department, who came out for the show.

Mimi and I spent about a half-hour chatting and catching up, and made plans for me to visit her for lunch at her home in Durham.

So it is with great sadness that I report that Mimi, in her 80s and in perfect health, unexpectedly passed away earlier this week.

On Sunday, Jan. 29, she made a veggie lasagna, then went down to Waltham, Mass. to sing in a performance of Bach's B minor Mass.

Afterwards, while having dinner with friends, Mimi suffered a serious stroke. She was brought to a Boston hospital, but cardiac surgeons couldn't save her.

She died peacefully at the hospital, surrounded by her family and friends. I'm already missing her greatly, but I'm so grateful that chance (and Chaplin) brought us together for one more conversation before this happened.

Although I never took string lessons from her, Mimi was a great help with me learning about string technique and playing. She went over parts I wrote and nudged me to make them better and more playable.

She even was one of the players who recorded the soundtrack to 'Dangerous Crosswinds' (2005), another Bill Millios film for which I wrote music.

Here's a link to Mimi's obituary.

That's one of the down sides of New Hampshire being a small place. When someone goes, it leaves an awfully big hole that touches a great number of people.

R.I.P. Mimi!

One interesting sidelight to the Phillips Exeter show was that it formed the centerpiece of a radio story on me produced by Todd Bookman of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Wow, back from Myanmar just a couple of days and already the media is phoning. Must be a real shortage of interesting people just now!

Todd interviewed me in the church prior to the show, and then recorded the performance. From that, he put together a nifty piece that aired last weekend.

I was delighted at the story Todd came up with, even thought he lead with the notion that I'm a "hard man to shut up."

Wow, not the most inspiring recommendation for a silent film musician. :) Those who know me have had some fun with this.

Afterwards, Todd said he meant it with love, and I believe him. It's an excellent piece and I'm grateful for his interest and the story he produced. Nice work!

Original promotional material for Chaplin's 'Shoulder Arms.

• The Perils of Pixelization: Thursday, Jan. 25 saw the first of five screenings in four days in two states and two separate countries: a mini-marathon of the type I enjoy, but which I'm trying to cut back on to leave time for other things.

In this case, it was another Chaplin program: a selection of his shorter comedies at the Rogers Center for the Arts at Merrimack College.

I don't know what was happening on campus that night, but the place was hopping. People were swarming the Rogers Center when I arrived, and sure enough, we had the largest audience for any silent film there that I can recall. Chaplin still packs them in!

Alas, our DVD of 'The Idle Class' (1921) began suffering intermittent pixelization problems about half-way through. The film kept going and could be followed, but it pretty much spoiled the comedy in what is usually one of Chaplin's surefire shorts.

However, even under these adverse conditions people seemed to enjoy 'The Idle Class,' which says something about the enduring and underlying strength of Chaplin's best work.

'The Pilgrim' (1923) and 'Shoulder Arms' (1918) went over very well. I think 'The Pilgrim' contains a lot of underrated scenes that play especially well with an audience.

Perhaps the best is when Chaplin does battle with a bratty child. I got a simple 'nursery rhyme' music going here, and the laughs kept building and building. Nice!

Next up at the Rogers: 'Metropolis' (1927) on Thursday, Feb. 15. Stay tuned!

Experimental selfie: my phone had an air bubble for a while, rendering the selfie lens unusable. But I got it fixed after returning from Myanmar and can now use it again.• I get a pupil: On Friday, Jan. 26, I hauled my gear down to the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass. to accompany Larry Semon's 'Wizard of Oz' (1925).

This time I was pleased to share the bill with another musician: Paul Bielatowicz, a young guitarist originally from the U.K.

Paul, who'd played at the Regent before and has quite a resume, was invited by theater manager Leland Stein to round out the venue's silent film/live music offerings.

I arrived at the Regent to find Paul already set up on stage with guitar plugged into an array of tech devices that augmented and filled out the sound.

Paul had taken the music of Debussy and Beethoven, played in his sonic universe, and matched it with a selection of short movies produced by early French filmmaker Georges Méliès.

Although my own approach to silent film accompaniment is fairly conservative and traditional, I'm open to hearing what any musician might bring to the field.

In Paul's case, it was a remarkably effective approach that brought out the dream-like nature in many of the films that Méliès produced.

Best of all was his nifty marriage of Beethoven's "Moonlight" piano sonata with the famous Méliès opus "A Trip To The Moon."

Prior to the show, I had heard Paul playing parts of the slow movement, augmented by a recorded back-up jazz band track, and thought it sounded pretty neat.

But what I hadn't realized that Paul would use all three movements of the Moonlight in his accompaniment: the slow first movement for the pre-launch build-up; the lilting scherzo for the brief and strange lunar voyage; and the manic third movement for adventures on the moon.

Wow! Very effective and quite unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. And Paul's playing on the third movement was nothing short of virtuoso level.

And I'd never considered Beethoven's lines as material for electric guitar, but Paul made these familiar melodies sing anew. Nice!

Then I did my 'Wizard of Oz' thing, in which I think I overdid the music (too much too soon), but the fairly sizeable audience seemed to really enjoy.

I have to remind myself just how strange this film is to most people, especially if they're new to silent film: no Judy Garland, no Munchkins, no 'Over the Rainbow."

Instead, we get enormous people falling into mud puddles, leaps off tall towers, animated bees, and unhealthy doses of questionable racial humor. The Semon 'Wizard' exists in a world quite unto itself.

Although the silent 'Wizard of Oz' has a terrible reputation among film buffs, I've found that when presented in a theater today, it somehow works.

Maybe it's taken a hundred years for Semon's vision to find an audience. Maybe now it's just so strange it can't help but generate a response, even if the prevailing reaction is one of astonishment.

Me and Paul at the Regent. I look like I've just come from the funeral of Lawrence Welk.

Paul and I had a good conversation afterwards. It turned out this was the first time he'd tried to create live music for a silent film being shown in a theater.

He'd like to do more, and so we got talking I now have a pupil!

Yes, I'll be sharing with Paul my deep and dark and dirty secrets of the world of silent film accompaniment.

When Paul asked if I gave lessons, I was going to say something along the lines of "Are you kidding?", but then I thought more about it.

Having just been described by the local public radio station as "hard to shut up," it might be a good idea to know someone with at least a passing interest in what I yammer on about.

So Paul has already gone out and bought two books, and we'll see how it goes.

And I have to think: how strange that at the same time that I (and the whole musical community) lose a beloved teacher, I gain a pupil.

As Mr. Vonnegut might have put it, so it goes.

Dogs under the drinks table for silent film night at Liberty Ridge Farm.

The end of a tradition? Saturday, Jan. 27 brought me out to Liberty Ridge Farm in Schagticoke, N.Y. (just north of Albany) for one of my favorite annual gigs: a mid-winter potluck supper and silent film program in the banquet hall of a recreational farm.

Bob and Cynthia Gifford have hosted this community gathering for eight years now. Intended as a get-together for non-snowbirds (those who don't go south for the winter), it's turned into an annual ritual that I look forward to each year.

The set-up at Liberty Ridge Farm.

Comedy is the order of business at these screenings, which are attended by young and old alike, and many household pets as well. This year's featured attraction was Buster Keaton in 'Our Hospitality' (1923), which drew big laughs and afterwards had people saying it was the best we'd ever done.

Alas, this year may be the last for this tradition. Cynthia Gifford told me (and announced to the crowd) that future winters may find the couple in Florida rather than the farm, which would mean an end to the annual silent film get-together.

But when I was packing up my stuff, Bob said that he hoped to keep it going. So will 2019 see another mid-winter silent film event at the farm? We shall see.

After this, I drove west to Syracuse, N.Y., where I crashed on the way to...

Me outside the TIFF Lightbox Theatre in Toronto, holding the bell to be used when cook Snub Pollard summons the crew to chow in the Lloyd short 'The City Slicker' (1918).

• A double-header in Canada: ...Toronto, where I'd accompany not one but two separate silent film screenings.

This was all due to Alicia Fletcher, a Toronto-based film archivist and historian, who programs series for several venues in North America's fourth largest city.

Alicia happened to be in Boston a few years back and visited the Harvard Film Archive on an evening when I plowed my way through Abel Gance's 'J'Accuse' sight unseen.

She's been kind enough to invite me to Toronto several times since, and I often piggy-back the trip with appearances in other venues such as the Cleveland Cinematheque.

This time, however, it was all Toronto: a 1 p.m. screening of Harold Lloyd's 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) at the very modern TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema complex in downtown Toronto, and then a 4:15 p.m. screening of 'The Golden Clown' (1926), a Danish film I'd never heard of until Alicia told me about it.

Part of the Revue Cinema's "Silent Film Circus Series," the film (which Alicia saw in San Francisco a few years back) tells the melodramatic story of a vengeful clown.

'The Golden Clown' sounded great (and I trust Alica's judgment), so I was really looking forward to creating music despite an inability to preview the film beforehand.

But I knew the basic line of the story, and I had what I thought was suitable material ready to go.

And in the case of a movie like 'The Golden Clown,' I often find it preferable NOT to see the film in advance. Somehow that makes the whole experience sharper and more focused and intense, as I have to be watching the movie. And I think it comes through in the music.

I think that certainly happened on Sunday afternoon at the Revue, where it took about 20 minutes to "find" the film, musically. Once that happened, I was able to roll with it pretty successfully, I thought, all the way through to the end

Along the way, there was Gershwin-like dissonant blats to accompany the bustling streets of Paris (with scraps of the Can Can underneath); smooth music for a fashion show which morphed unexpectedly (and very effectively) into the music of the rival who stole the clown's woman; and increasingly complex textures building up to big dramatic moments.

It was all augmented by an audience that Alicia said was three times what she expected for an obscure silent foreign drama. There was a great deal of energy from the crowd, and I could sense that and I think it helped the music as well.

When everything clicks and a screening is going really, really well, I often find myself aware of it only at about the two-thirds or four-fifths mark. It's like I finally allow myself to admit that it's really happening, even as I'm still working the keys.

This occurred during 'The Golden Clown,' but that prompted me to keep my head down and stay in the zone, because I think we still had about a half-hour to go at that point.

When the film concluded, I finally allowed myself a rush of satisfaction and pleasure at thinking I'd come all the out to Toronto and played music for a roomful of strangers for a film I'd never seen before, and it all worked.

The applause was most gratifying, and a lot of people had really kind comments afterwards. Thank you, Alicia, and thank you Toronto. Hope to make it back again soon!

Alicia and me, post Golden Clown.

One reason to return is that each time I go there, my schedule is such that I'm in and out in a single day. Wouldn't it be nice to actually look around a bit?

In this case, I was back on the road by 7:30 p.m., and back in the U.S. by 8:45 p.m., and back in Syracuse by 11 p.m. to get a catnap in before finishing the drive back to New Hampshire, where I was due at work on Monday morning.

Did I mention I'm in the middle of trying to set up a wholesale food distribution operation for our company? That's one reason the blog updates have been non-existent.

But here we go into February, which promises several exciting silent film accompaniment events.

Among them: returning to the annual 24-hour Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, where I'll do music for the early German sci-fi film 'Algol' (1920) on Sunday, Feb. 18 / Monday, Feb. 19. (Not sure where I am in the line-up just yet.)

I'll post more info as screenings come, but for now, here's a quick round-up of the highlights:

• Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 7 p.m.: "Girl Shy" (1924) starring Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston; in the Stonyfield Theatre at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; Prepare for Valentine's Day with the original rom-com, a Harold Lloyd gem starring one of the masters of silent comedy and featuring an unforgettable race-to-the-church finish. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $12 per person.

• Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, 5 p.m.: "Zaza" (1923) starring Gloria Swanson, H.B. Warner; Campton Historical Society, Campton Town Hall, Route 175, Campton, N.H.; Campton Historical Society. Silent film program preceded by potluck supper beginning at 5 p.m. Film program to start approximately 6:15 p.m. Free and open to the public! Romance set in France in which Swanson plays a hot-tempered provincial actress who gets entangled with a married diplomat. Swanson's ebullience in Zaza was unfeigned; she called it "the fastest, easiest, most enjoyable picture I ever made." Preceded by one of Gloria's earlier efforts, the short comedy "Teddy at the Throttle."

For Valentine's Day: Greta in 'Wild Orchids' (1929).

• Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, 4:30 p.m.: "Wild Orchids" (1928) starring Greta Garbo; Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Steamy romantic thriller just in time for Valentine's Day. An older man takes his young wife to Java where he plans to invest in tea plantations. Aboard ship, a young man (and member of the island's royal family) is immediately taken by the beauty of this mysterious woman and resolves to make her acquaintance. Monthly series of silent films with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

• Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, 8 p.m. "The Cameraman" (1928) starring Buster Keaton; Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St., Somerville, Mass. Admission $10 per person, limited seating. Special Valentine's Day silent film screening! Double bill of romance-themed comedies starring Buster Keaton. The early short masterpiece 'Cops' finds Buster trying to impress his girl, but windup up on the run from law. In 'The Cameraman,' portrait photographer Buster exchanges his still camera for a movie camera in an effort to break into the newsreel business and win the attention of a special gal. Spectacular movie-themed Keaton comedy filled with great stunts filmed on a grand scale. Part of the Aeronaut Brewery's commitment to showcase local music, art, and performance. Limited seating so reserve early; for more details on tickets, visit Aeronaut Brewing online.

• Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, 11:30 a.m.: "Seven Chances" (1925) starring Buster Keaton; Kingswood Regional Arts Center, 21 McManus Road, Wolfeboro, N.H. Silent film presentation for students at Kingswood Regional High School, some of whom are creating a live "silent film" theatre show to be performed in March. More info as it becomes available!

• Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, 7 p.m.: "Metropolis" (1927); Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. (978) 837-5355. German director Fritz Lang's amazing epic about a futuristic society where an educated elite enjoys life in a glittering city, all supported by colonies of workers forced to live deep underground. A film that set new standards for visual design and changed movies forever! Silent film with live music on the campus of Merrimack College. Free admission. For more information, visit the Rogers Center online.

• Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, 7 p.m.: "Man With A Movie Camera" (1929), directed by Dziga Vertov. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Classroom screening of landmark cinematic portrait of life in the early Soviet Union at the end of the silent era. For Laura Frahm’s “Art of Film” course. Public welcome, no admission charge.

• Friday, Feb. 23 & Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, 22nd Annual Kansas Silent Film Festival at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Annual pilgrimage to wonderful two-day celebration of silent film with live music. Check it out at

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