Monday, November 19, 2018

Playing 'Name That Tune' at the Coolidge, and other tales from 'The City Without Jews'

A scene from 'The City Without Jews (1924).

Last week I had the privilege of creating live music for 'The City Without Jews' (1924), an Austrian film about anti-Semitism. This put me in front of a totally new audience, and led to some surprising conversations.

About the film: it's a wild fantasy about a European nation whose leaders vote to expel all Jews, with unexpected consequences. Long thought lost, it's been kicking around in mutilated form in a partial print for a few decades now.

But a complete and pristine nitrate copy turned up in a Paris flea market in 2015. (These things happen!) Newly restored and available, it was included in this year's Boston Jewish Film Festival, a multi-week affair that takes place in venues all over Beantown each November.

I was thrilled to be asked to do music for 'The City Without Jews,' and also delighted to find that it would be screened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., just over the Boston city line.

The Coolidge is justly famous for the depth and breadth of its cinematic programming, including a long-running "Sounds of Silence" series with live music accompaniment for silent films. It's very popular.

The interior of the Coolidge Corner's main theater.

It's also kind of a classy place, and run a certain way, it seems, which makes it unlikely that a lone wolf such as me (independent, no agent) would get invited to perform there. Which is just the way it works: some venues have their regulars, or prefer to work only through booking agents, just have certain ways of operating.

So as a local musician who specializes in silent film accompaniment, it was a real honor to be asked to do my thing at the Coolidge for 'The City Without Jews." I also regarded it as kind of a breakthrough—an exciting chance to accompany an important film in front of a new group of cinema-goers.

Working with the staff of the Boston Jewish Film Festival and the Coolidge was a dream! Everyone couldn't do enough for me. I was pampered and fussed over as we plugged my keyboard into the house sound system and adjusted levels. They even asked to get me coffee!

I had what I thought was some good material for the film, which is a challenge to score because it keeps shifting tone, often quite abruptly. It's a drama, now it's a comedy, now it's a romance, now it's a comedy again, etc.

To help it all hang together and to smooth it all out (and also to keep from overdoing the music), I used a "strings only" soundscape that turned out to be a good move, I thought. Definitely a case of less is more.

Among the audience members who approached me afterwards was a woman who wanted to congratulate me for doing such a great job incorporating an obscure Israeli folk song into the music.

This was news to me, because the improvised score was completely original. I had improvised it, meaning I didn't plan anything ahead of time, other than to select a pair of melodies I'd invented earlier and thought would be a good base to work from.

Hence my reaction: "huh?"

She then named the tune, which I forget, and said she was surprised I knew it because it was a melody from her childhood and isn't well known today.

I suppose I could have just said "Thank you" and told her I appreciate her kind words. But no—I had to find out what tune she was referring to. So I asked her which tune was the Israeli folk song?

And so she sang part of one of the melodies I had used, and sure enough, the way she rendered it, it did sound like a Jewish folk song.

Well, we only have 12 notes, and sometimes the sequences and rhythmic patterns are bound to be similar.

But this was topped by a gentleman I met later. During the screening, he'd been running an app on his phone that analyzes audio and matches it with a database of known melodies.

He had no idea the score was being improvised and was live. But when he learned I was responsible for the music, he said he was glad to meet me, because he wanted to ask how I was able to quote so many different tunes in putting together the score.

"Er, how many different tunes?" I asked.

"Well, it got up to 23, but that was only in the first half-hour. After that, I turned off my phone."

He showed me the results: a Bach fugue, Peruvian flute music, and a roster of incredible artists and music I had never heard of. And I was using all of it, according to his app!

Let me emphasize that this was news to me. What I had just done was my own music, original to me. Improvising music in real time is my creative outlet and mode of artistic expression and also my therapy, I think.

But here was technology telling me that what I had just done had already been done in some way, although in little pieces here and there. Wow weird! It's enough to make one shake one's head, which is what I did.

And even after an introduction in which it was explained that I would improvise the music, and then after talking with him for 10 minutes, it was clear from his questions and our conversation that he didn't grasp the idea that I was playing a keyboard right there and making the music happen right then.

He just didn't get it. His brain didn't allow for this possibility. To him, it was all sound files and downloads and I don't know what else.

Here's the thing with technology: it's great. It powers my synthesizer and helps me get to theaters when I don't know the way and is responsible for the films I accompany and allows this blog to be posted and read all over the world. I'm grateful for it!

But I think too much technology risks crowding out where the music comes from, which depends on a very old and fragile technology: my brain working in a certain way. And I've found that requires what Hemingway referred to as a "clean, well-lighted space" to focus on creating music that works in real time.

So...can you imagine trying to compile a score by actually drawing music files from the vast storehouse of sound files out there? And trying to make it work in real time to effectively support a film as it plays on a screen? And never mind taking into account the mood of the room, the reaction of the audience, and so many other factors that make each screening an individual and unique experience?

With me, silent film accompaniment is a way for me to produce original music, and having to harness it to support a film is a great way for me to manage and organize this creative impulse. It's what I do.

So once the technology is in place (synthesizer set up, projector loaded, etc.), I prefer to focus on the keyboard and the sounds and the chords and the melodies as I react to the film and the audience around me. I don't want to change settings or download files or worry about any of it.

I write all this here because people such as the gentlemen with the app seem to think that all music exists as sound files to be downloaded, and must be made somewhere else, but not by real people in real time right in front of them.

But it is! It has to come from somewhere, after all. It's not magic. But some people seem to think that it's some kind of black art to create music on the spot (without sheet music!) and that all film music has to be recorded and mixed and processed in advance.


Such was my big night at the Coolidge. It really was an honor to work in this theater and to meet such cool people, both at the venue and with the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

I hope to work with them all again soon!

And I followed that up on Friday night with a crackerjack screening at the Flying Monkey up in Plymouth, N.H.: a Buster Keaton double feature of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928).

This may sound more like a weather announcement, but I'm pleased to report we experienced gales of laughter throughout!

And with the music...sometimes everything just falls into place. You have the right stuff at your fingertips when its needed, and you hit every mark, and it just works like a dream. Friday night was one of those nights!

Looking forward to returning to the Flying Monkey again on Saturday, Dec. 1 for a holiday program of silent films.

But before that happens: a Thanksgiving road trip this week to a family get-together in Chicago provides a chance to drop in again at Cinema Detroit, where I accompanied a Marion Davies film this past summer—their first-ever program of silent film with live music.

Well, I'll be darned if Paula and Tim Guthat haven't gone and booked some more silent film programs for exactly when I'll be passing through. This month they're running a "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" series (with material from the recently compiled DVD of the same title), and so I'll accompany a Mabel Normand program on Friday, Nov. 23 at 5 p.m.

So after you recover from your turkey-induced trance, head over to Detroit and digest some very interesting early cinema. Hope to see you there!

And then Charlie Chaplin takes the screen on Sunday, Nov. 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, but more on that later.

And it's a month to go before Christmas!?

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