Thursday, February 23, 2023

From the Kansas Silent Film Festival to gigs at Harvard University, Cinema Ritrovato, and beyond

The Carpenter Center at Harvard University, where I accompanied 'Man With a Movie Camera' (1928) in the basement lecture hall/theater.

Well, at the risk of jinxing it all for us, I'm ready to declare the pandemic officially over.

Why? Because in recent weeks, I've received requests to accompany silent films in the last two places that had suspended activities starting in March 2020, and only now are they resuming.

So this past Tuesday, I went down to the Harvard Film Archive for the first time in four years to do music—in this case for a class screening of Dziga Vertov's 'Man With a Movie Camera' (1928).

And in early March, I'll return to the University of New Hampshire for the first time since the pandemic. On Tuesday, March 7, I'll do music for a film class screening of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920) at the UNH-Manchester campus (where I used to teach).

And in late March (the date isn't yet set), I'll accompany silent films at the university's main campus in Durham, N.H. for the annual appearance of the travelling 'Cinema Ritrovato' festival of restored films.

In retrospect, the pandemic caused only about four months of total inactivity before a few venues began showing film again in the summer of 2020. 

Since then, it's a been a long, slow climb to back to normal, with some new places being added to the roster along the way, including Epsilon Spires in Brattleboro, Vt., the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, R.I., and the Greenfield Garden Cinema in Greenfield, Mass.

And then there are long-established traditions, including the annual Kansas Silent Film Festival, the latest edition of which starts...tomorrow! Yes, the 2023 version takes place on Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25 at Washburn University in Topeka.

I've attended every Kansas festival since 2000, making this my 24th year in a row.  What keeps me coming back are the people (both with the festival and the general public), the chance to see big films with big audiences, and also the chance to hear some of the best silent film accompanists in the business do their stuff.

It was attending this festival back at the turn of the century that first pointed me in the direction of accompanying silent films. I'll never forget hearing the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra for the first time there, doing music for Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) and for 'Peter Pan' (1924).

Continued attendance in Kansas was one reason I began accompanying films myself in 2006, and which I found was something I could do. (Some people go to Aruba in February. I go to Topeka.) 

The basement lecture hall for Harvard University's Carpenter Center, which doubles as the screening room for the Harvard Film Archive, where I accompanied 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1928) last Tuesday evening.

Today, I do music for about 120 silent film screenings per year, in places ranging from junior high school all-purpose rooms to Harvard University.  Accompanying films, and creating music to help keep silent-era films before the public, has become a big thing for me. It's my primary creative outlet, other than stilt-walking. (Just kidding. There's nothing creative about stilt-walking. It's all data processing.)

So it's always a pleasure to head out to Kansas each February, as I feel it's like returning to my roots, at least in terms of music and film. As someone who once had aspirations to pursue a career in music (which I didn't), I'm grateful for how the Kansas festival showed me a way to bring out the music I had in me after all.

I'll be thinking of that as I once again make my way to the Sunflower State and a weekend of silent film and live music. Hope to see you there!

Me at the keyboard in Kansas—not in Topeka, but at the Keaton Festival in Iola, Kansas. Photo by  Steve Friedman.

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