How do I get started in silent film solo piano accompaniment, as a hobby?
February 21, 2011 1:09 PM   Subscribe

What are some good starting points on the study and performance of period silent film piano accompaniment? My end goals are modest, possibly to do a small show of classic comedic shorts or a famous feature for friends. I'm interested in both generic cues and full (piano) scores, as long as they're of the period. I've only just begun the research, so any introductory tips would be appreciated.

Given my modest goals, should I be looking for full scores, or will I have more luck/fun putting together a score from generic compositions? I found J. S. Zamecnik's Sam Fox Moving Picture Music, full PDF scan online, which could be a fun start. I'm at an intermediate level with classical piano, so I'm not too intimidated by difficulty, though I'm heartened by descriptions of silent film scores having been designed to be simple for consistent performance.

Music and the Silent Film by Martin Miller Marks looks like a good start on real research.

I'd also be interested in recommendations for recorded examples along these lines. The scores on the Keaton and Chaplin in my meager silent video collection are watchable, though they seem like generic scores (they only barely fit the action and mood), and may not even be representative of the period, let alone like what would have been played on a piano. I see a couple of recorded albums of generic silent film music, as well as recorded contemporary scores for specific films.

And I welcome recommendations for films to consider, though great silent films are relatively easy to find (and I have my favorites). Especially interested in comedy or adventure titles, and I'm willing to butcher a classic. I feel I should start out with short films, just to understand the process better before taking on a feature.

-- Dan
posted by dan_of_brainlog to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest looking into the work of Dennis James, who has made a career out of authentic silent film scoring.
posted by Paragon at 1:24 PM on February 21, 2011

A few sources:
If you want to get in touch with an expert, contact Ray Brubacher. He's the organist for the AFI theater, the National Gallery of Art, the Mary Pickford theater in the Library of Congress, and the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick Maryland. (I would get in touch with the Weinberg center and see if they can put you in touch with him.) Some videos of Ray: Kennedy Center videos of Ray Brubacher accompanying silent films.

Alloy Orchestra (Wikipedia on Alloy Orchestra) is a famous group that composes and performs contemporary scores for silent films. You might look at some of their stuff (eg youtube videos) for inspiration if you're open to more experimental scores, beyond the period ones.

Also, as you're deciding which shorts to use - Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr is a terrific book with loving details on hundreds of silent comedies and analyses of the styles of the silent comedy stars; well worth finding a copy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:41 PM on February 21, 2011

I was talking with an organist who plays live accompaniment for silent shorts for MoMA a couple years ago, and he said that a bunch of enthusiasts have made recordings of Wurlitzer and other theater organs, and have put together free sound libraries, so with a keyboard you can play in the actual tones of the classic theater organ. I'm not sure if you're interested in that level of authenticity, but it might be worth looking into... I thought it was interesting.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 1:57 PM on February 21, 2011

Internet tells me the home of the aforementioned digital organ is at
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 1:59 PM on February 21, 2011

Marty Marks is a fantastic resource--both in print and in person--and I can bet he would be excited to hear from you. Shoot him an email at MIT.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:05 PM on February 21, 2011

I did live improvised accompaniment for many different silent films back in my film seminar days, mostly serious European classics, especially German Expressionist film. I usually played an electric organ or synthesizer, and sometimes I played with duets or small ensembles. I didn't do very much research and just relied on intuition, following the rhythm of the visuals and pushing the volume up at the dramatic scenes. I did not try to capture an authentic contemporary experience. The audience mostly liked it (there would be a seminar discussion after, so the effect of my music was subject to a brief critique).

Obviously, this sort of approach is fairly different from the more authentic structure you are working on in the question, but I think one essential point, whether the score is pre-written or free-improvised, is that intuition brings the whole experience together.

(Also: in my opinion, scoring for silent comedy is harder than for silent drama or horror. The timing seemed more elusive to me. I would usually avoid comedy myself, but if you like a challenge: "Dying is easy, but comedy is hard."
posted by ovvl at 2:29 PM on February 21, 2011

It's great that you're interested in this! You might want to attempt getting in touch with Phillip Carli, who in my opinion is the best silent film accompanist working these days. He's also taught classes at the George Eastman House's film preservation school, so if you can get in touch with him (I'm not sure if he's the type to reply to random inquiries) he should be able to give you some good academic-type references to start on.

You might also try asking the author of the excellent Bioscope silent film blog for suggestions, or just search around on the blog and see what you can find.

Another thing to keep in mind: when I've hired people to accompany screenings of silent films the #1 thing I look for is skillful improvising. Even if you practice a lot, the nature of playing for silents basically requires it, as there are (1) often differences in cuts between what's been released on DVD (not to mention differences between various DVD editions) and what's available on film, which is probably - hopefully - what you'll be playing to in a legit venue [see Paolo Usai's "Silent Cinema" for more info about this kind of thing] and (2) silent films are by nature somewhat flexible in their running speed, so you may end up with a film in front of you that lasts more or less time than what you're expecting.
posted by bubukaba at 9:55 PM on February 21, 2011

(Oh, and here's Philip Carli's actual resumé, which has his contact info as well as a selected list of his publications and recordings)
posted by bubukaba at 10:00 PM on February 21, 2011

I'll second Phillip Carli; he's terrific.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 PM on February 21, 2011

Take a look at my website and I'll be happy to talk with you about any questions. I also recommend the Erno Rapée book MOTION PICURE MOODS for PIANISTS AND ORGANISTS, which has a good selection of library-type music for various genres. But the best thing is to create your own music from whatever your background and style preferences are.

All best wishes
Donald Sosin
posted by silentfilm at 7:41 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

« Older Finding the Escher Waterfall diecast sculpture...   |   Name my cocktail blog Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.