Wednesday, December 09, 2009

L&H, Keaton and Lloyd Hamilton

Looks like a deleted scene from Playtime, doesn't it? I'm sitting in the Bauhaus lounge at MoMA. I'm early for my show today, and enjoying the free wifi at MoMA.

Have been too danged busy to reflect and post here, but I know people read this blog, so I'll jot something down, just to stay in touch.

Sunday's Silent Clowns show was our last of the season, and we did a program of L&H silents that people voted for online. The finalists that were screened were Putting Pants on Phillip, The Battle of the Century, From Soup to Nuts, and (of course) Big Business. Show was at the Museum of the City of New York, where we partner for a show once a year or so, and it's a beautiful auditorium. I had an idea a few weeks ago to have Bob Greenberg and Jonathan Smith who -- among many other talents they possess -- are L&H impersonators, show up as a surprise to announce the films. They've made appearances at our shows twice before and are always a big hit, and this time was no exception. Here's a shot of Bruce, me, Steve, Jonathan and Bob after the show.

Had some fun with main title music for the shorts. For Phillip I played the March of the Cuckoos theme with a scottish left-hand underneath, for Battle I played the opening of Lecuona's "La Virgen de Macarena", and for Business I played a version of "Jingle Bells" where the first two bars were the first two bars of the "Cuckoo" theme.

Last night I brought my 16mm print of Lloyd Hamilton in Papa's Boy to the show of Steamboat Bill, Jr. at the Cinema Arts Centre. SBJr came from LOC in 35mm, and it's nice to see a 35mm print of that film that hasn't been beat to death. I brought the Ham short because of the hat-trying-on sequence in SBJr. The hats are all iconic toppers of movie stars, and the checkered cap Keaton takes a liking to was Ham's trademark hat. Besides, when do you get to show or see Lloyd Hamilton? I'd shot new, authentic main titles for the print, which had been made in the '50s with a remade main title in simple helvetica of "Who's Kidding Who?". I'd won it on eBay because someone listed it as a Glen Cavender short, but the screen grabs tipped me off that this was a Hamilton (with Cavender, Blanche Payson and others) in supporting roles. I created the lookalike titles in Photoshop, printed them on transparency film and shot them with a lightbox I built with Plus-X reversal in 16mm.

My dance card for the first 4 or 5 months of 2010 is slowly filling up. The MoMA series will run through May, it turns out. We're running Napoleon in April, and in the big theater (Titus 1) on a Sunday afternoon, instead of Wed/Thur/Fri (*whew*). Now I just need to find time to post the bookings on my website...

Gotta go grab lunch and get ready for today's double-bill.

See you at the silents!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

vote for The Silent Clowns on Chase Community Giving

Are you on Facebook? Please help support The Silent Clowns Film Series by voting for it (a/k/a Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc., our not-for-profit corp identity) on the Chase Community Giving page on FB.

Click here and type in Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc. in the 'search for your charity' field:

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Alice Guy silent films at the Whitney (schedule)

I've just received my "marching orders" for the Whitney's Alice Guy retrospective, Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer. Below are the dates and film titles I'll be accompanying. There will be other screenings dates, times and films, but I do not know what they are. There will be piano accompaniment for most Sunday afternoon screenings, and the Sundays I am not playing for will be accompanied by either Donald Sosin or David Arner. I'm posting these here now for anyone anxious to see what's on tap. The Whitney's page on the retrospective – which at this writing has a blurb but no film screening info – is here.

A GranTouch digital piano is being provided for the series by Yamaha Artist Services. Most of the films are archival 35mm prints, with some films presented on either 16mm or digital Blu-Ray video.

Again, posted below are just the shows I'm playing, and is not a listing of the whole retrospective screenings. Sunday shows are in the afternoon, at 2:00pm (?):

Special Screening: Women's Film Preservation Fund
Fri, Dec. 4, 2009 (7:00PM, Whitney Museum)
Mixed Pets. 1911 (Solax).
A Fool and His Money, 1912 (Solax).
A House Divided. 1913 (Solax).
Matrimony's Speed Limit, 1913 (Solax).


Sun, Dec. 13, 2009
Alice Guy in Spain, 1905 (Gaumont).
Tango. 1905 (Gaumont).
Le Bolero [The Bolero], 1905 (Gaumont). Performed by Miss Saharet.
Cake-walk negre [Negro Cake-walk], 1905 (Gaumont; phonoscene lacking sound component).
Le Piano irresistible [The Irresistible Piano], 1907 (Gaumont).
La Hierarchie dans I'amour [The Hierarchy in Love], 1906 (Gaumont).
Matrimony's Speed Limit, 1913 (Solax).
When Marian Was Little. 1911 (Solax).
Canned Harmony. 1912 (Solax).
La Fee printemps [The Spring Fairy], 1906 (Gaumont).

Sun, Dec. 20, 2009
Les Fredaines de Pierrette [Pierrette's Escapades], 1900 (Gaumont).
Au bal de Flore [At the Bal de Flore], 1900 (Gaumont). Performed by Miles Lally and Julyett de I'Olympia.
The Ocean Waif, 1916 (International Film Service Inc.; Golden Eagle Features/International Film Service Inc.)
La Maratre [The Stepmother], 1906 (Gaumont).
La Femme collante [The Sticky Woman], 1906 (Gaumont).
Les Resultats du feminisme [The Results of Feminism], 1906 (Gaumont).
Cupid and the Comet. 1911 (Solax).
Officer Henderson. 1913 (Solax).

Sun, Jan.10, 2010
Sage-femme de première classe [First-class Midwife], 1902 (Gaumont).
A House Divided. 1913 (Solax).
Mixed Pets, 1911 (Solax).
Roads Lead Home. 1913 (Solax).
New Love and the Old. 1912 (Solax).
The Girl in the Armchair, 1912 (Solax).

Sun, Jan. 17, 2010
Danse des saisons: L'Hiver, danse de la neige [Dance of the Seasons: Winter, Snow Dance], 1900 (Gaumont).
Au cabaret [At the Club], 1899 (Gaumont).
Chez Ie marechal-ferrant [At the Blacksmith's], 1899 (Gaumont).
Avenue de I'Opera. 1900 (Gaumont).
La Bonne absinthe [The Good Absinthe], 1899 (Gaumont).
L'AveuQle fin de siecle [The Turn-of-the-century Blind Man], 1898 (Gaumont).
Chapellerie et charcuterie mecaniques [Mechanical Hat-and Sausage-maker], 1900 (Gaumont).
La Fee aux choux [The Cabbage Fairy], 18967/1900 (Gaumont).
La Concierge [The Concierge], 1900 (Gaumont).
Chez Ie photographe [At the Photographer's], 1900 (Gaumont).
La Fee printemps [The Spring Fairy], 1906 (Gaumont).
The Great Adventure. 1918 (Pathe Exchange).

Sun,Jan. 24, 2010
Danse Gitanes-Sevillane [Dance of the Seville Gypsies], 1905 (Gaumont).
Chien jouant a la balle [Dog Playing Balll. 1905 (Gaumont).
La Charite du prestidigitateur [The Charity of the Magician], 1905 (Gaumont).
The High Cost of Living. 1912 (Solax).
A Man's a Man, 1912 (Solax).
The Sewer, 1912 (Solax). Directed by Edward Warren; set design and script by Henri Menessier.
The Strike, 1912 (Solax),
L'Enfant de la barricade or Sur la barricade [The Child of the Barricade or On the
Barricade], 1907 (Gaumont).
Le Fils du garde-chasse [The Gamekeeper's Son], 1906 (Gaumont).
Bonsoir (La Fee aux fleurs) [Goodnight (The Flower Fairy)], 1905 (Gaumont).


Sunday, November 01, 2009

October wrap-up, and a look forward into Nov & Dec

I've managed to post about every single one of my performances during October 2009. The calendar quarter of Oct-Nov-Dec finds me working full-time as an accompanist, with 18-22 shows each month. I decided at the beginning of October to try and chronicle all the shows, plus give Twitter updates, for those of you who read this blog, aiming to give brief reports on the shows that reflects particular insights that (only) a film accompanist has to consider or notice or deal with. I'm hoping these posts are informative or entertaining or resourceful to readers.

I won't be posting as much in November (or probably in December as well), but will try to do so from time to time. If you want to take a look at this "month-in-the-life-of", click here to go to a page containing all my posts from October. My performance schedule for November and December is posted online on my website.

See you at the silents!

Ben

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oct 28: 2 Danish @ MoMA, Thanhouser in New Rochelle

Back in the Bartos for a pair of Danish films at MoMA, The Student of Prague and The Mysterious X. Both films were shown in 16mm prints; Student turned out to be a Bob Lee / Essex Film Club print, and Mysterious was some very old 16mm (it seemed a little brown in hue) with all its intertitles gone.

We ran Student at 24 fps, as instructed since it had a track, and surprisingly it ran just fine at that speed. I'd never seen this one before, and the film turned out to be a Faustian tale of a student who exchanges his own reflection in mirrors for riches and love, only to become trapped by the arrangement and dies at the end. Mysterious X turned out to be an espionage melodrama (from Denmark? in 1913?). Charles' film notes -- shown onscreen as audiences entered -- included a synopsis which helped them and me with the plot. We ran the film a little too fast but it was manageable. It was a film where I had to watch faces constantly for information, espe since the titles were gone, and to help the audience decode what was going on, use chord progressions, melody and tempo fluctuations to help out.

Finished the show, and headed to Grand Central to catch a train to New Rochelle. Grabbed dinner with Ned, his wife Michelle, and Theresa Krump Leghorn of the Museum of Arts and Culture in N.R. Then off to the MAC which is actually in part of a new wing at New Rochelle High School, where my mom (and her brother and cousins) went to school, for the evening's Thanhouser centennial show. Ned gave a great presentation with powerpoint on the history of the Thanhouser Film Company, and then screened seven films with me on piano, projecting off the new DVD set. The state-of-the-art theater has a nice Yamaha grand, and we were able to position it so I could see the screen without any problems. It was fun revisiting these films again in a theatrical setting (I'd only seen them without an audience, before Monday's MoMA show), some of which were the same as the MoMA show.

One of the films, Her Nephews From Labrador (1913) had its location ID'ed by a couple of audience members (one of whom was my cousin Russell Handelman, who grew up in New Rochelle) as being a pond and nearby waterfall called Larchmont Gardens...in Larchmont. When we screened the film at MoMA I'd thought the location looked a little familiar, but figured it was in New Rochelle. I grew up in Larchmont and knew exactly where this was. Click here to go to a Google maps location where the "duck pond" (as I knew the spot) is.

Scores went well, and I managed to remember the tune I came up with for "Labrador". We had a pretty decent crowd considering it was a Wednesday night in New Rochelle, that we were running somewhat obscure silent films, and it was the first night of the World Series.

Ned and Michelle went around New Rochelle the next day, shooting video and stills of Thanhouser film locations as well as a tour they got of Tedesco Auto Body, housed in the old Thanhouser Film Corp. building. Click here to see their photo album from their shoot on Facebook.

Oct 27: "Nosferatu" in Huntington

We ran a really nice, tinted 35mm print of Nosferatu at the Cinema Arts Centre for this show, and it looked great at 21 fps. What was nice was that the projector technician who'd engineered our ability to have 21 fps as an alternate speed was in the audience to see his handiwork in action (he'd missed our Arbuckle and Orphans of the Storm programs, where we'd used it so far). Believe it or not, I typically do not spend every day of the week leading up to Halloween playing for Nosferatu, Phantom, Caligari and Jekyll and Hyde every year. I'd not played for Schreck in quite a few years, actually, and so this show was fun and my first time doing it on organ.

Once again, a main theme that I'd come up with for Nosferatu's character and which I've never written down, came out of my brain and fingers all by itself without my trying to remember it before the show. And I got to use the Miditzer's snare drum in the scene where one is played at the announcement of the plague. I brought it back for the wide shot of coffins being carried through the street, even though the snare drum is not played onscreen...aiming to make it a "plague" motif (I hope it worked).

One of the nice things about the show is that it was introduced by Ian Holt, who's co-written a sequel to Stoker's Dracula with Bram's great-grandnephew Dacre. Click on the book image to go to Amazon's page for the book. I didn't have to answer questions about the film, and Ian – who is an expert on vampire folklore – spoke about Bram Stoker's book, the play based on it, Nosferatu, Stoker's widow's legal battle, who the real Dracula was etc etc. Very informative and a great choice for this picture. We've built up an audience of regulars and I think a speaker who was not me, especially for an iconic film like this where the subject matter is of greater interest, was fun. Turns out the show was Holt's first time seeing a silent with live accompaniment. We had a real big crowd for the show and hopefully we've hooked a few more Long Islander's on silent film.

Oct 26: Thanhouser at MoMA

Last April, Charles Silver, Steve Massa and I screened MoMA's holdings of Thanhouser Films to select the titles for this program. As it turned out some of these wound up being on the latest Thanhouser DVD set, which I also scored for Ned Thanhouser. With the exception of one title, a dupey 16mm print, they are all excellent 35mm prints, and we elected to omit Joseph in the Land of Egypt because of its length (four reels), in order to show more films.

The evening was preceded by Ned's being interviewed on the Leonard Lopate radio program on WNYC. I've been a guest myself a few times over the years, and connected Ned with the show's producer, since I knew Ned would be in town for both the MoMA show and the one in New Rochelle. The segment is about minutes long, and has some great background info on the Thanhouser company; you'll hear me playing the sheet music song "Zudora" during the show's intro and outro, excerpted from the score I recorded for episode #2. I've embedded the segment below.

The show went very well, and we had a nice crowd. We ran the films a little faster than the speed they were transferred at for the DVD, which was a nice chance for me to see how they felt this way, and with an audience. I'd scored them looking at a (large) computer monitor. I wonder what it'd be like to record a score with the image projected instead. Since I record with the Miditzer at home, I could borrow a projector and show it on the wall in my living room perhaps...

Oct 25: Harold Lloyd in "Dr. Jack"

Dr. Jack, along with Keaton's The Haunted House, was our Halloween offering at the Silent Clowns series. I dressed for the occasion, donning my saddle shoes and straw boater. (BTW, best place to get your own saddle shoes is muffys.com -- they make saddle shoes for all the Broadway shows and tours, and they're reasonably priced and great quality). I'd never seen Dr. Jack and watched the new DVD a few days beforehand to prepare. I was struck by the film's charm and how well it succeeded, even with Lloyd playing somewhat out-of-character; in the film Mildred is the one who is the weakling who goes through a change in reel 5, thanks to Harold's character. While something of an anomaly for that reason, I think it's one of the better features and deserves more exposure.

I watched the DVD with the sound on, as an experiment -- I usually screen films on DVD with the audio muted -- and was surprised to recognize several photoplay music cues in the score, some of which I'm proposing for the Schirmer's book or which were contenders.

The show went well, as did the scores. I managed to come up with couple themes that worked and which I was able to recall when they were needed again. Two weeks earlier, when we ran The Goat, Keaton's theme -- which came out of me at a show Bruce and I did at the Princeton Arts Council some years ago and which had become part of the score for a while -- had not wafted up to the surface during the show like a couple of the other themes had...until a couple days later. I used it for Buster in The Haunted House, and it (basically) fit.

I'm still thinking about Dr. Jack. There is much made of the use of showing reflections in mirrors, and it features a number of character actors who are not part of the usual Lloyd ensemble; Charles Steveson shows up, but for only a tiny part.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

profile on me in The Epoch Times

Last Friday, I got an email from a reporter from the Epoch Times, asking me for an interview on silent films and silent film music. She had a short deadline and found my website online, and could she interview me on Skype because she was in Bulgaria. Sure. I have a Skype account, fired it up, and we text-chatted for about 45 mins. I'd never done an interview this way before, but I can see its advantages. One, if you're in Bulgaria writing for a NY edition of a paper and your subject is in NYC, it's way cheaper than an int'l phone call and easier than batting a volley of emails back and forth; it's more of a conversation, in terms of how it flows. The other advantage is that your subject doesn't have to worry about being misquoted since all the text is in the transcript of the chat session. I didn't have a photo of me accompanying a film, unfortunately, but was able to send in a jpeg of a piece of photoplay music for people to see. I thought the article came out rather well.

Here's a link to the article.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Oct 21-22: a pair of Scandinavian films

Oct 21 and 22 found me back at MoMA's Bartos theater accompanying a pair of films from my one of my favorite corners of the planet, Scandinavia. Afgrunden and Ingeborg Holm were screened, both in 35mm prints. MoMA's print of The Abyss is okay; there's a bit of decomp, but it's complete. The print of Ingeborg Holm was very good.

There is a shift in Ingeborg Holm, about a third of the way through, after Ingeborg's husband passes away, when the film stops being about this family with a nice home and a shop that the husband works at to being about Ingeborg's journey of mourning, heartache over her separation from her children and, eventually, into madness where you're just watching actress Hilda Borgström. I found myself completely drawn in at both shows, getting completely lost in the film, connecting with Borgström's beautifully subtle and subdued performance and creating the music to support it. Sjöstrom's direction is so wonderful and artistic, you forget that the film is largely comprised of long takes and well-composed wide-shots the actors play their scene in and through. And this is in 1913. There's so much meat up on the screen, the film is a delight to play for. I'd have to say the last time I got that lost in a mood-piece of a film like this was Julien Duvivier's La Vie miraculeuse de Therese Martin, which I played for at MoMA in May.

Oct 17 - "The General" in Lake Champlain area

Oct 16 - Traveled to Essex, NY for a show (on 10/17) of "The General" (DVD projection of the new Kino disc). Could've flown to Burlington VT on JetBlue and taken a ferry across Lake Champlain but, let me tell ya folks, Amtrak is the only way to fly. Both the trip up and the one back on Sunday found Amtrak a pleasant experience and right on time (actually a few minutes early). A beautiful ride up the Hudson and into the Adirondacks.

The program was co-sponsored by Piano By Nature and by the Champlain Valley Film Society. My General show was preceded by a talk on silent film accompaniment and piano improvisation. The talk (late afternoon) and show (evening) were held in the auditorium of the local school, a K-12 in Willsboro. The talk went really well. I'd been interviewed a number of times by the press that week -- actually, every day that week -- and so I'd had the arc of the history of silent film accompaniment as well as an organized explanation of my own journey and philosophies on the subject fresh in my head. Being interviewed is a great opportunity to better articulate things, and often analogies and statements etc will come up during the chat to supplement the premeditated ones. Here are links to two articles that appeared in local papers about the show:
The talk went on for an hour and a half, with some Q&A and a written outline to help me with the flow etc. One of the things I demonstrated is the freedom and flexibility improvisation allows an accompanist, talking and playing at the same time (something that does not come easily to me) to explain. I also played a couple examples of mood music (my own) and of different comedians' musical rhythms, i.e. the statement-response-reaction of a typical L&H interaction. This talk needs to go on my website as an added possible program. Even without clips, it went over really well.

The evening show was extremely well-attended, with the largest number of kids the film society had seen at one of their events and the second standing ovation at the end of a film program they'd ever had. Most of the people in the audience had not seen a silent film before and were absolutely wowed by Keaton's masterpiece. The score went well; the General can be a challenge sometimes since it's mostly a long chase that -- because it's conducted (pardon the pun) entirely on trains -- is almost entirely at the same pace. The piano was a Story & Clark grand that played well and had a nice tone.

Oct 14-15: D.W. Griffith Biographs @MoMA; press interview

October 13 and 14 found me at MoMA playing for a program of Griffith Biograph shorts, as part of Charles Silver's series. The Weds show was in Bartos, on the Modus digital, and the Thurs show was in Titus 2, on the Steinway.

(The T2 instrument, BTW, was Blanchette Rockefeller's piano and had been reconditioned by Steinway – inside and out – several years ago. When MoMA was at the Gramercy during the museum's renovations, we used this Steinway there right after the work was done. It plays "like buttah" and the piano's action is amazing.)

It was fun getting to see the program of Biographs, and accompanying them was enjoyable since, even though they were early films, because they were Griffith shorts there was a great deal off drama and subdued acting and effective storytelling onscreen. This helps inspire an accompanist, especially in a film that – primitive as these are – have a certain poetry to them, like The Country Doctor or A Corner in Wheat. I don't think my playing was that different from one day to the next, with the different instruments. Both days I think I wound up free-associating a bit of photoplay music into one or two of the films. On Thursday my hands just started playing "The Bold Riders" (by Gerard Carbonara, one of the pieces I'm hoping will wind up in the Schirmer book) during the battle in Elderbush Gulch. This has happened a couple times over the last few weeks, when playing for pre-WWI dramas.

After the Thursday show I was interviewed by a sophomore at Columbia's film studies program for a piece in the Columbia Spectator's weekly arts magazine called "The Eye". She also took photos of me at the piano. The iPhone has an audio recording app, and she used this for the interview. The second time I saw this in use: first time was when I was interviewed for a podcast by a blogger from WNYC at a William S. Hart film I played at MoMA. When the article is published/posted I'll link it on this blog.

Oct 11 - Silent Clowns: new digs, fun shorts

Sunday Oct 11 was our maiden voyage at the Arclight Theatre. Our audience really loved the new, more intimate space and the films looked great in there. Piano is an old Somebody & Someone upright, which I'd tuned a week or two before and seems to have held. The action is a little loose and creaky here and there, but I'll take that over some of the grands I've played whose action is a bit on the tight side (sluggish center pins). One of the things that runs through my mind while I'm accompanying sometimes, is how to fix an action issue with the piano while I'm playing. The sound of this old upright, however, fits the films in some people's minds, and I don't mind it.

Program was a group of five shorts where the lead comic utilizes the vaudeville "tramp" character or is just down-and-out. There is a "fate" theme for The Goat – like the one in Tschaikovsky's 4th – that came out of my hands a few years ago at a show Bruce and I did in Bryn Mawr for one of the campuses of S.I.G. that suddenly popped back into my head just before that film hit the screen. And, somehow, the chase music I'd come up with for the film came to me when the chase started. None of this was premeditated at all. Two days later, the theme I'd come up with for Buster's character wafted up into my head; that theme was one that also "just happened" at a show Bruce and I did at the Princeton Arts Council a few years ago. These were both themes that I wasn't sure if I thought they worked when I played them for the first time, but Bruce and his wife Alice told me they really fit afterwards, so they stayed.

We had a great crowd, and I was really pleased that everyone liked the new theater. It's a different sort of space, a little more homey, than the museum aud we'd been at since 2005.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Another happy altscore.com customer

Over the weekend, someone bought and downloaded my piano score MP3 that synchs with the Kino DVD/VHS of Sherlock Jr. with Buster Keaton. I opened my virtual mailbag this morning to find this kind note:
I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your making the "Sherlock Jr." piano score available. I watched this film for the first time this past weekend and was driven to distraction by the self-indulgent, too-clever-by-half Club Foot Orchestra score that seems to be the standard on every available release of this film. I purchased your alternate score, watched the film again, and enjoyed it a great deal.
-- Michael W., in Oklahoma
If you haven't already, visit altscore.com to check out the alternate scores I have listed there. I've been too busy to record more lately, but hope to do so when (if?) things slow down. I have read much by silent film fans about scores by Maria Newman on a few DVD's of Pickford films that could use an alternate track.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

article about "Metropolis" in Queens Gazette

There's an article in the Oct 14 issue of the Queens Gazette about last week's show of Metropolis that I spotted online. Click here to read the article. The writer did a nice job, and quoted me on a couple of things and mentioned the Silent Clowns series as well.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Oct 10 - "Cat and the Canary" in Brooklyn

Sat, Oct 10 -- the first silent film program in this bi-monthly series sponsored by the Brooklyn chapter of the AGO was sparsely attended, unfortunately. The people who came, however, got to hear that magnificent instrument in action. The acoustics in the church are great, and I had fun using the Echo ranks -- which included chimes -- that are at the back of the sanctuary. Used the chimes for the moment when the old clock rings just before the will is read. We had a TV monitor on top of the console, since the screen was below and behind me.

At one point the screen went blank. I kept playing anyway and called out to Keith Bigger, who was running the equipment, and pointed at the screen. I continued to play, looking over my shoulder occasionally to see the screen from the back, as Keith scurried to the monitor and reset it, which didn't take very long. When something like this, or a film break, etc happens, I keep playing. This was one of Lee's things as well, and I've heard stories about Lee playing through a film break. The idea is that until the film is over the show isn't either, and keeping the mood and momentum going is key.

The organ sounded great. Keith is also organ curator and has devoted a great deal of his time to maintaining this beautiful instrument and should get some sort of medal for this at some point. He was one of the few people who said 'yes' to me when I was looking for a place to practice the organ back when I started on the instrument 8 years ago – so was Jeff Barker and Nelson Page at the now-shuttered Galaxy in Gutenberg, NJ which had a wonderful Kimball theatre organ in it.

Next show at the Baptist Temple is in December, and we'll be running Chaplin shorts. Hopefully we'll get a bigger audience next time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Oct 8 - "Metropolis" at QTIP

October 8, 7:30pm -- after playing for the Melies/Zecca matinee program (second time, on Thurs), I headed out to QTIP, or Queens Theatre in the Park for this screening of Metropolis that was part of a weekly series that AMMI was doing in a partnership with the theater.

The theater is located inside Flushing Meadows park, and QTIP provided a car service to and from, making the commute much easier for me...plus the return trip was in an Escalade. The show was scheduled to be introduced by David Schwartz, but he'd called me a couple days beforehand asking me to do the intro. This was no problem; I'm used to introducing my shows anyway.

The theater is a very nice space, with an extensive backstage and green room and dressing room area. Actually, I was met by the company manager's assistant, who took me through the staff entrance directly to a dressing room. I'm sure this is what most performers like, but I just wanted to see the theater. I rarely hang out in the dressing room before a show; I like hanging in the wings or back of the theater. Helps me get a handle on the vibe in the room. When I did stand-up back in the late 80s I always stayed in the room to see the comics going up before me and how the crowd was reacting; guess that's where I picked up that habit.

The show was DVD projection, but the image was on a huge, curved screen projected with a high-end 4K projector...very sharp, very bright.

The instrument du jour was a Steinway baby grand that, unfortunately needed some work. Being a tuner/tech I knew exactly what I was dealing with (sluggish center pins, repetition springs in need of regulation), plus there were a few bass notes that wouldn't dampen. However, it was a Steinway and had that nice oomph in the bottom which would be useful for Metropolis, and it was in decent tune and worked out just fine. We set light levels (lowered all until there was just enough so I could see the keys and my story notes), and de-miked the piano; there was a stage mgr, lighting person and projectionist/tech.

Since a lot of background on the film can be found online, I chose to speak briefly in my intro about the various versions of the film, about its original score and why I wasn't using it, and a little about Fritz Lang. We had a modest crowd of 40-50 people, and the film went over really, reaaly well. I brought my Zoom recorder and placed it on the piano to get a reference recording. Below are two "needle-drops" (Daddy, what's a needle?) from my recording of the score.

Clip #1 (2:13) is from, gee, actually I'm not sure:


Clip #2 (5:04) starts during that bourgeous party in the beginng and then there's a shift in tone when Maria and the children enter the room.


I have the whole score on an MP3 and, if I can find the time (and a split point in the middle), maybe I'll release it on altscore.com since it was performed in accompaniment to the DVD and will therefore synch with it.

After the show, a reporter from the Queens Gazette interviewed me about the film, the performance and my work. This article will appear in the next week or so, and I'll post a link once it comes out. When I left the theater, the sun had now set and it was night and there, all lit up in its chromium glory was the Unisphere, which was quite a sight after watching Metropolis.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Oct 7 & 8: trick films @ MoMA

George Melies and his Rivals
Le Voyage dans la lune (A Voyage to the Moon) 1902. France. Directed by Georges Méliès. 13 min.
Barbe-Bleue 1901. France. Directed by Georges Méliès. 10 min.
Les Sept Chateaux du diable (Seven Castles of the Devil) 1902. France. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca. 12 min.
Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (Impossible Voyage) 1904. France. Directed by Georges Méliès. 17 min.
La Caverne infernale 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 2 min.
Créations renversantes (Stunning Creations) 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 2 min.
La Garde fantôme (Phantom Guard) 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 3 min.
La Peine du talion (Tit for Tat)1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. 4 min.
Robert Macaire et Bertrand (Foxy Hoboes) 1906. France. Georges Méliès. 10 min.
Le Tunnel sous la manche (The Nightmare of the Submarine Tunnel) 1907. France. Directed by Georges Méliès. 14 min.
Excursion dans la lune 1908. France. Directed by Segundo de Chomón, Ferdinand Zecca. 10 min.

We had a really good house on Weds, not only in size but they were really into the films, applauding at the end of each one, and chuckling (both where appropriate and inadverently inappropriate). Thurs's crowd started out small and grew after we began; a more sedate reaction, although they more audibly enjoyed the Zecca knock-off of Trip to the Moon.

I'd have to say that trick films are probably the hardest to play for, even moreso than last week's program of early pre-DWG directors. These trick films find all actors onscreen in tableaus and in constant motion so you aren't always sure where to look. My Weds show, esp with the films I was sughtreading, was about finding who "had the ball" so to speak in a lot of the scenes. For Thurs I knew where to look and where to point the audience musically so they'd find it more eaily as well.

Was surprised that this show of 10 films in a row did not seems as tiring as it ought to. I generally have a rule with shorts programs -- when I have more say in the programming or running of the show -- to put a break after 3 or 4 shorts, because a program of 5 or 6 stories without a brief mental intermission can be draining and by the time you get to the last short you've forgotten the first two. Still, this program of Melies/Zecca worked just fine. We'll see if the same is true of next week's DWG Biograph show.

Unfortunately, the print of Nightmare of the Subway Tunnel did not arrive. Too bad, it's a really good one; Serge Bromberg showed it at BAM a couple years ago. Ironically the print that did show up (but wasn't screened) was Now You Tell One with Charley Bowers. Charles Silver will order the Subway Tunnel film for one of the upcoming programs, so it'll still be seen.

I continue to enjoy playing the Modus for these shows, and was interviewed by a writer for some promotional piece for Yamaha about the instrument. I was actually interviewed by someone in the press every day this week.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oct 4 - Dough & Dynamite for American Girl

Oct 4 at 9:30 am (!) found me at MoMA bright and early for a private screening for a handful of young girls, their American Girl dolls, and the girls' moms, a Grandma and a Dad. This was another one of the promotional events linked to American Girl's new Rebecca Rubin doll, whose historical year is 1914. The girls were escorted into the Time Warner screening room by a pair of American Girl special events staffers, where we showed them Charlie Chaplin's Dough and Dynamite.

I had the M-Audio controller keyboard and keyboard stand from MoMA's Miditzer rig set up, connected to my laptop to access a virtual piano sound (okay, it was Garage Band, but I'd found some better samples about a year ago). The laptop was patched into the TW room's audio system. The girls were impressed by the fact that they were going into a screening room, and the two girls who had the Rebecca Rubin doll seemed excited to see the Chaplin film when I mentioned in my intro. D&D may not be the best first silent film to show 5-8 year old girls, but it is part of the story in "Meet Molly", the first of the Rebecca books. Her uncle Max is an actor, working in a nickelodeon, and at the end of the book he finds work in a picture studio and takes Rebecca and her family to a picture show, assuring them it's okay because they're showing Perils of Pauline and the new Chaplin film, "Dough and Dynamite".

In book 4, "Rebecca and the Movies", she visits Uncle Max at the studio:
"On her tenth birthday, Rebecca can hardly believe it when her cousin Max, the actor, invites her to come to his movie studio! Although her parents don't approve of actors or movies, Mama relents and says Rebecca may go. When the camera begins to roll, Rebecca finds herself facing an opportunity she never imagined in her wildest dreams. Does she have the nerve for it? And what would her parents say if they knew?"
The film played okay (it was 9:30 on a Sunday morning, though) and everyone was really appreciative. After the screening, the girls, grown-ups and dolls went to the American Girl Place store for brunch. I'm impressed with the historical research done for the books, and am thrilled that thousands of kids will learn about silent movies and Charlie Chaplin because of this doll and her books. We do another one of these at MoMA on November 8th. I prepared a DVD of the film with my score on it for use at similar private events at the other 7 stores around the U.S.



A little while later, I headed to the New York Film Festival to see Serge Bromberg's new film, Henri Clouzot's Inferno, and got a $10 rush ticket. I met up with Steve Massa and his wife Susan, and we chatted about rare or obscure silent film with Serge after the show. Susan snapped this pic of the three of us.

Oct 3 - shorts & Zorro in Sag Harbor

My third time performing at the Bay Street Theater found me with the Miditzer in tow. This was a request from Bay Street, and they covered a rental car for me to bring the instrument out (I don't own a car, and the Hampton Jitney wouldn't exactly work). The other thing new was that in addition to the evening show, we did a matinee for kids. The theatre has a regular series of programming called KidStreet, and I was thrilled that we were able to work in some silents to the series.

Miditzer set-up was a snap...it's getting to be that way, a routine now, really. Takes 15 - 20 mins, and because I bring a variety of cables and adaptors and a certain amount of working knowledge of what an audio tech needs (and how to work most mixers), the sound check went really quickly. Best part of the Bay Street's sound system is that the sub-woofers are under the theater seats. So, you really felt the 16' Bourdon in the pedals.

The matinee was attended by littler kids, maybe 8 and younger, plus some moms, Grandparents and a Dad. One Week went over like gangbusters as expected, and Number Please didn't quite get a lot of laughs. Perhaps older kids would've appreciated Lloyd's humor better. The kids show we do in Norway every year is usually a similar age group and, after a very quiet showing of Big Business one year I've learned what works for the 3-7 year old audience better; it's not just slapstick that little ones respond to, it's the spirit in which comedians inflict it on each other.

The evening show went really well. We had a nice crowd and, despite more inadvertent laughter than I'd anticipated – although, this was a Saturday nite crowd, after all – the picture played beautifully and people were really cheering for Doug by the end. I was glad to show Mark of Zorro again after doing it in Tromsø. Another chance to further hone my score. Doug is long overdue for rediscovery or revival, and Zorro is the General or Safety Last of the Fairbanks pictures (meaning it's the best one to show an untested audience).

All in all a great (although long) day of driving and performing. I also learned that 9am (due East) and 11pm (due West) are great times to drive the L.I.E.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Oct 1 "Lesser-Known Pioneers of Cinema" (MoMA)

La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ. 1902. France. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca, Lucien Nonguet. 30 min.
La Vie du Christ.
1906. France. Directed by Alice Guy Blaché. 28 min.
The Automobile Thieves (incomplete). 1906. USA. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton. 10 min. Francesca di Rimini. 1908. USA. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton. 10 min.
At the Crossroads of Life. 1908. USA. Directed by Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. With D. W. Griffith. 10 min.
Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker. 1908. USA. Directed by Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. Screenplay by D. W. Griffith. Cinematography by G. W. “Billy” Bitzer. 15 min

Read Charles Silver's notes on the program here (you may have to scroll down to the entry for this show).


Oct 1 was the repeat showing of this program, and my playing was markedly different from the first time out, the day before on Sept 30. I recorded my performance on Sept 30 and listened to it as I walked home from MoMA. (I use a Zoom H4 digital recorder.) Showing #2 gave me the advantage of having seen the films the day before so I was better able to anticipate story points, and was also able to shape melody and tempo to help point the audience to where they were supposed to look in the tableau-performance Christ films. I also felt, from listening to the recording, that I could do more in the range of dynamics and arranging, and to allow myself to leave more air between (or during) musical phrases. I recorded the Oct 1st show, and if I can get it together will post a "needle-drop" of a hunk of one of the scores.

The first Jesus film is a gorgeous 35mm print; I'd seen hand-colored early films before, but this entire 2-reel "epic" was hand-colored from start to finish. The Alice Guy film, which I'll be playing for at the Brooklyn Museum's "First Saturday" event in December (they'll be exhibiting paintings that Guy's tableaus were based on), is straight B&W, and not quite quite as razor-sharp, but a good print. The Guy made more use of locations of exterior scenes, while the Zecca was entirely studio-bound.

The "Automobile Thieves" film was a big shift in energy as it is primarily a chase film; I found myself free-associating agitato mood cues from the Photoplay music book I've been working on. I don't usually use that type of music, but it seemed to fit these early films.

I really tried hard to make an improvement in the scores between show #1 and show #2, and think I did. I'm really looking forward to this series -- which will now run through May -- to seeing so many silents in chrono order and to really getting better at accompanying silents.

October begins: 22 performances in and around NY

October finds me working full-time as a silent film accompanist. 22 performances in and around NY, plus a DVD box set release. When not performing, the rest of my working hours involve preparing for shows, agent work for shows coming up and for shows percolating for 2010, being my own press agent and doing press interviews, plus trying to spend more time at the piano (or organ) to develop and expand my accompaniment vocabulary.

It's daunting and exciting at the same time. I've made myself office manager as well, in order to stay on top of things and not burn out. For instance, in October and in November (18 shows) the days I don't have performances are Mondays and Tuesdays...so that's my "weekend". Some Fridays as well.

I won't have time to go back and write up shows from Sept or the summer, unfortunately, but I'm going to try and report on each of the shows this month. If you read or follow this blog and haven't seen my sched, check it out here. I'm also considering using my Twitter account to "tweet" so people and fans can follow more regularly throughout each day -- tweeting from my cell -- in case that's interesting to anyone. My Twitter account is here.

Do understand that there will be several things going on that I am not going to post about, so do not take what's posted on this blog as the only silent film work I'm doing -- just the live performances.

See you at the silents!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

article on Zorro, shorts, at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor

Elise D'Haene did a real nice write-up in this week's East Hampton Star on the shows I have coming up this Saturday, at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. Click here to read the article.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Carmagnole in "Orphans of the Storm"

Am playing for Orphans of the Storm in Huntington tonight. Reviewing my story sheet reminded me that toward the end the townspeople dance the Carmagnole. My notes -- cribbed from some other website years ago -- on the dance read:
"The Carmagnole, an anonymous song and street dance popular during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution (1789-1799). The carmagnole consisted originally of 13 two-line stanzas, each of which ended with a refrain praising the Revolution. The dance was a form of farandole, the ancient chain dance of France. The Carmagnole was sung and danced at revolutionary gatherings, including festivals and executions.
I went online and found a midi file of the tune (solo melody, no chords or accomp), and found a YouTube video of a 1920 French 78rpm record. Below is the video and a link to the PDF I've made of the lead sheet (in case any other accompanist searched for this and wound up here).



Click here to download the PDF.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back to Film School: Actualities and Glimmerings of More

Back to "film school" today! Accompanied the "Actualities and Glimmerings of More" program at MoMA. Had a pretty big crowd, maybe 80-100 people.

I didn't keep count while I was playing, but am guessing it was at least 40 films. Since they were early actualities with little or no plot, and since even the story ones were so short, I was creating full melodies for each rather than doing the usual underscoring thing. The last few films on the program were a few mins long – like the infamous Rescued By Rover – and had more opportunities for my usual format. I did find a more melodramatic approach fit these films, and spontaneously found myself playing The Crafty Spy by Gaston Borch for the gypsy's scenes in Rover. Still it was a challenge creating that many complete melodies, and I was up for it. A nice change...and I get to do it all over again tomorrow.

Last week I noticed on the MoMA website's listing for the first "Auteurist" program there was a link to film notes on that program written by Charles Silver. MoMA stopped doing printed film notes in 2003, and is not resuming doing printed notes. I suggested to Charles that he look into having the notes projected on-screen while the audiences are entering the theater. I really like Charles' writing -- the intro he wrote and gave at one of our Arbuckle shows in 2006 was absolutely brilliant -- and it seemed a shame that people coming to the shows wouldn't get to see these new notes...unless they had an iPhone or web-enabled phone and it suddenly occured to them while waiting for the show to start that they should poke around the MoMA website to see if there were film notes. I arrived at the Bartos theater this afternoon before the audience came in and saw this:


All of Charles' notes are available online at this page. Go there and bookmark the page, as Charles' notes for each program will be added weekly, I believe.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"An Auterist History of Film" at MoMA begins

For those of you with weekday daytime availability, be sure to bookmark
this page on MoMA Film’s website for An Auteurist History of Film:



The first 6 or 7 months of this two-year film cycle at MoMA, curated by Charles Silver, is all silent film. A different program is shown each week on Weds, Thurs and Fri at 1:30 in Theater 3 (enter on W. 54th St). The cycle goes chronologically through the history of cinema, and showcases prints in MoMA’s collection. Piano accompaniment by yours truly at Weds and Thurs shows (no accomp on Fri). Just $10 each show (free if you’re a member, which is only $75 a year) to attend this excellent ersatz film history course.

Here are the programs scheduled so far, from Sept through Dec:
  • Sept 16, 17, 18 — actualities from 1890s made by Edison, Lumiere, Skladanowksky, and British Gaumont
  • Sept 23, 24, 25 — Edwin S. Porter doc “Before the Nickelodeon”, plus (unaccompanied) Porter shorts
  • Sept 30, Oct 1, 2 — pre-Griffith directors: films from 1902-1908 by Ferdinand Zecca, Alice Guy, J. Stuart Blackton and Wallace McCutcheon
  • Oct 7, 8, 9 — George Melies and his rivals: trick films from 1902-1908 by Melies, Zecca, and Velle
  • Oct 14, 15, 16 — D.W. Griffith at Biograph
  • Oct 21, 22, 23 — The Scandinavian Connection: “The Abyss” with Asta Nielsen and “Ingeborg Holm” dir. Victor Sjöstrom
  • Oct 28, 29, 30 — Two Danish Innovators: “The Student of Prague” and “The Mysterious X”
  • Nov 4, 5, 6 — Griffith Leaves Biograph: “Judith of Bethulia” and “The Avenging Conscience”
  • Nov 11, 12, 13 — “Cabiria” (Italy, 1914)
  • Nov 18, 19, 20 — “The Birth of a Nation”
  • Nov 25, 26, 27 — “Intolerance”
  • Dec 2, 3, 4 — Griffith’s Competitors: Ince and DeMille — “Custer’s Last Fight” and “The Cheat”
  • Dec 9, 10, 11 — More Competition: Neilan and Vidor — “Amarilly of Clothesline Alley” and “The Jackknife Man”
  • Dec 16, 17, 18 — And More Competition: Walsh and Tourneur — “Regeneration” and “The Blue Bird”
  • Dec 23, 24 — Send in the Clowns: comedy shorts with Linder, Chaplin, and Arbuckle

Visit the website for the series for individual program info and film titles at
http://moma.org/visit/calendar/films/989.

* * * * *

An Auteurist History of Film
September 9, 2009–Ongoing


This two-year screening cycle is intended to serve as both an exploration of the richness of the Museum’s film collection and a basic introduction to the emergence of cinema as the predominant art form of the twentieth century. The auteurist approach to film—articulated by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s and brought to America by Andrew Sarris—contends that, despite the collaborative nature of the medium, the director is the primary force behind the creation of a film. This exhibition takes this theory as its point of departure, charting the careers of several key figures not in order to establish a formal canon, but to develop one picture of cinematic history.


Organized by Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film.
Yamaha Modus H1 piano generously provided through Yamaha Artist Services, New York.

"Headless Horseman" at Hudson River Museum - Sun 9/13

The newly revamped Hudson room at the Hudson River Museum does not have its grand piano available just yet, so I brought up my Kurweil PC2, OnStage keyboard stand and a few audio cable and adapters for this show. Being able to bring a keyboard is occasionally a factor in some shows, and being audio-tech-savvy comes in handy as well. This show was teched by someone deployed by Sound Associates in Yonkers (they're also in NYC), so I arrived to find everything all set, with a 1/4" cable plugged into a D.I. box all set and ready. Sometimes my knowledge of operating a Mackie mixer and owning a variety of attenuating audio adapters has been useful at certain venues, but wasn't needed this time. I picked up a few tips on assembling a 9x12 fast-fold screen from the tech while we were waiting for the show to start, so that was another plus for me.

It was a glorious day outside, and so we had about 25 people, mostly seniors and a couple families. The film went over quite well, and my brief intro talk was on Will Rogers' career in silent pictures. The film was shown as part of the "Dutch New York" exhibit.

I have to say Mark Roth's DVD (available from his label ReelclassicDVD) looked really good projected. No noticeable artifacts, and image quality was pretty good considering it was a transfer from a good 16mm print. I noticed a lot of artifacts in the Kino DVD of "The Ring of the Nibelungen" which I played for at Bard in August...surprising considering that release is on dual-layer discs.


A closer view of my Kurz set-up. folding chair was a little low for me, but manageable.


This historic 1800's house is part of the original museum; the show was held
in the newer building, very modern-looking (like something out of "Sleeper")



A view out the window/terrace at the back of the meeting room the show was in,
giving you a pretty good idea where most Yonkers-ites were instead of at the show.


Washington Irving exhibit in the hall outside the Hudson room.


Closer view of one of the images on the wall.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fall 2009 kicks off

Here's a snapshot of what's what with me. It's going to be a very busy and exciting fall, with 15-20 shows each month. I'll try to be better about posting, and will try to retro-actively post about the shows I did in August bit by bit.

I'm back in NYC, after a great week in Tromsø, Norway. At right you see me with Martha Otte, festival director of "Stumfilmdager i Tromsø", on opening night. I accompanied MoMA's new print of The Mark of Zorro on the Miditzer, and the film brought the house down, and everyone was wowed by the sound of the theater organ. Probably the 2nd time the sound of the Wurlitzer has been heard at a silent film in Norway (the first being my accompaniment last year in Tromsø of Nell Shipman's Something New).

In Norway when an audience's applause builds and builds, it morphs into a rhythmic clapping (about 120bpm, quasi march tempo). It just does that. All by itself. I should ask about that one of these days...

Have hit the ground running and am catching up on emails from theaters, orchestras, etc and tidying up travel arrangements for out-of-town shows between now and Xmas. I think we're going to be able to route the Miditzer through a different/better sound system at the Lincoln this year and be able to access the sub-woofers under the stage, so those 16' bass notes will be felt as well as heard. The Yamaha HO1 Modus piano (left) has arrived at MoMA's Bartos theatre, and will be there for the duration of Charles Silver's An Auteurist History of Film -- well, for the 6 months of silents anyway.

Down-to-the-wire...we have now at long last secured a venue for the Silent Clowns Film Series, the Arclight Theatre on W 71st, just off Bway (no link here because the theater has no website). It's a church basement theater, but much nicer than what you're probably picturing. We have to bring in and hang our own screen and I'll come in a couple times this month to rassle with their upright to get it in shape, but at least we've got a place to hang our hats. This space hunt was a real nail-biter, and I've been looking for a venue since February. Having to relocate is an added stress to our usual pre-season prep, and the lack of venues (esp the affordable kind) in the Upper West Side made for a heck of a challenge. We'd hoped to return to the West Side Y's "Little Theater", now that it's all beautifully renovated, but they want $1,000 a show (!). We will present our holiday/Dec show in partnership with the Museum of the City of NY, which works out well since Dec 6 wasn't avilable at the Arclight.

This Sunday I'll accompany The Headless Horseman, starring Will Rogers, at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. They'd wanted to do something to tie in with their "Dutch New York" exhibit, and I suggested this film since it was also shot in the Hudson Valley, and since the DVD edition already has my score credit on it. The museum worked out a license with Mark Roth at ReelclassicDVD for the show, and will cover my transportation since I have to bring my Kurzweil (their acoustic grand is unavailable right now). This is my 3rd or 4th show for the Hudson River Museum.

Okay...my time's up. Gotta go! See you at the silents!

Ben

Saturday, August 29, 2009

ReelclassicDVD now accepts online orders!

ReelclassicDVD now accepts orders online with payments by credit card or PayPal. Up to now orders had to be placed by emailing or phoning in your CC info, but the company's just upgraded their website so customers can buy directly over the website and pay securely online as well.

ReelclassicDVD has released many rare silents over the last few years. I've been scoring for Mark Roth's fine DVD-R label from the beginning some years back. Unlike most of the other DVD-R labels, Mark's initiative has always been to release silents with new scores from us accompanists, rather than create a pastiche of music from instrumental recordings. He's put out a lot of great stuff that is too small-potatoes for Kino to spend time on but are important enough for us silent film fans to want to have in our collections.

Click here to check out ReelclassicDVD's long list of releases.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vermont radio interview

I was on the Mark Johnson Show on WDEV on Thursday morning, Aug 13, for about half an hour at the top of the show. I was promoting the Chaplin show in Manchester VT (Aug 15) and the Lloyd show in Rupert VT (Aug 23), among other things. Listen in!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Steamboat Bill in Culpeper

I know, I know...haven't posted in a long time. This is gonna be a quickie, 'cause I'm running off to Culpeper and D.C. for a weekend of shows. Steamboat Bill Jr at the LOC Packard Campus theater in Culpeper VA on Sat 7/25 and The Gaucho at the NGA on Sun 7/26. It's a restored U.A. feature weekend!

Here's a link to a real nice article in the Culpeper newspaper that I was interviewed for. Click here to read it.

See you at the silents!

Ben

Thursday, June 18, 2009

music scanning and other progress

June 18 -- My brains and time are primarily occupied with any and all work on finishing up the sheet music book these days, and I've managed to wedge in time to check out a piano for MoMA's Bartos theater, and have been working out details for my August shows in VT and a couple new film series for the fall. [I'm writing this while scanning in piece after piece of vintage photoplay sheet music; at this very moment it's The Bold Riders by Gerard Carbonara.]

On Wednesday, after finishing up going through sheet music in the collection of MoMA's film department, I went to the Yamaha showroom on Fifth Avenue (the former Aeolian building) to take a look at a piano for the Celeste Bartos theater at MoMA. Thus far, silent film exhibition in that theater (in the new Educ bldg) has been very sparse, and I've used the Miditzer for those shows. However, starting in mid-September I will be accompanying silents twice a week going into April 2010 for An Auteurist History of Film. The first 4 or 5 months' programs are films that may be best suited by piano accompaniment, and so we are trying to work out a way to get a piano into the theater. What we looked at was this "Modus" model. It's based on the slim-line Clavinova and it plays and sounds great. Plus it looks like it should be in the home of Mr. & Mrs. Arpel in Tati's Mon Oncle. I don't know what we'll ultimately wind up using, but I thought you'd get a kick out of seeing this instrument. Click here to go to Yamaha's page for the instrument for info and media clips. The series, which we're all referring to as "The History Cycle", is organized (MoMA's word for "curated") by Charles Silver, and will actually go on for a couple years but the silents end in the spring.

[Now I'm scanning "Storm, Strife or Tempest" by Charles Ancliffe…]

Another series brewing is at the Baptist Temple in Brooklyn, a couple blocks from BAM. There is a gorgeous Steere & Sons orchestral organ in there, and the church and local chapter of the AGO (American Guild of Organists) are collaborating to make the series happen. When I started playing the organ several years ago, this was an instrument I was able to practice on several times. An orchestral organ's sound is somewhere between a church organ and a theatre organ. It has the flutey sounds of a church organ and a lot of the reed and string-ey sounds of a theatre organ, plus some more modest-sounding brass and tuned percussions (harp and chimes) and doesn't have the show-y sounds of a theatre organ (tibias, bright brass, etc.). In spite of the theatre organ's being called a unit orchestra, this Steere & Sons probably leans more toward an orchestral sound than a Wurlitzer often does. The instrument's in great shape, thanks to Keith Bigger who has lovingly and with great dedication maintained and repaired it for many years. Click here to go to the AGO's web page for more info and pics of the organ and the church. We're working out film titles and dates, and once this is all solidified I'll post here and list the shows on my regular website.

[…scanning "Allegro Scintillante" by Kempinski now...]

In the last week or two I've selected the August film programs I'm doing in Hamilton (The Kid Brother), Manchester Center VT (Chaplin Mutual shorts) and in Rupert VT (Grandma's Boy plus two shorts). The latter two are 16mm, my prints. The Rupert show is in the oldest church in Vermont, where there is a beautful 2-manual Estey organ with a big TPO-like tremolo, and is being co-sponsored by the local chapter of the AGO.

The rest of June is gobbled up by frantic rewrites on the book's text, last-minute scanning, plus shows of Biograph shorts (Neversink Valley Area Museum), The Birth of a Nation (MoMA), and Chaplin's The Kid (C.A.C.).

See you at the silents (or the asylum)!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes, with John Barrymore

June 7 -- I was hired by Kino in March to record a score for the silent film of Sherlock Holmes (1922) starring John Barrymore, and got my promo copy of the Barrymore box set that it's part of the other day. Packaging and esp the artwork is very nice, and this should prove to be a nice set for the overlooked silent film work of John Barrymore.

One thing I appreciated about the call was the request that I do the score on theatre organ. This was another opportunity to help make the sound of the organ part of the silent-film-on-DVD landscape as well as to show off the Miditzer. The other scores on the set are by Bill Perry (piano) on Beloved Rogue, Mont Alto on Dr. Jekyll.

Sherlock Holmes is not necessarily The Last Command or Orphans of the Storm or Wings, but it is definitely worth seeing. Plus it's got a great cast that includes a young mustache-free William Powell, plus Roland Young, Gustave von Seyffertitz, Reginald Denny, and the pretty-although-not-much-in-the-acting-department Carole Dempster (who I'm guessing is the reason the GEH restoration has a funding credit to Hugh Hefner).

My process for scoring a feature for DVD usually involves watching the film a few times once I get the MOS screener. First time is to watch the picture (or revisit it, if it's a familiar film), and the second and/or third is to make mental and written notes about scenes and mood shifts. If there's time, I then put it aside for a few days to digest the film and think about what the film's dramatic themes are and about the main character's journey. It's also time used to figure out the musical feel of the score, and often this is impacted by factors like transfer speed where the film will need a little more or different help.

I set up the Miditzer and improvised and worked out themes for a while, and then recorded the score in three sections. Sometimes I can get all the way through at one shot, and sometimes I hit a couple of really awfully wrong notes and will stop, back up and start recording another segment. I've learned to musically resolve what I'm playing on a fade-out, so that I have a clean edit point if I need it.

The DVD comes out in July 7th, and you can order it on Amazon by clicking here. I hope people like the score, but more importantly, I hope people like the film because of it.

Here are some frame grabs from the screener (you'll see the VTC, or visual timecode, at the bottom).

Cruel & Unusual: shows #1 - #4

Our first four Cruel and Unusual Comedy shows at MoMA have gone extremely well. We've had great houses – I'd guestimate 200+ people, and lots of new (and younger!) faces – at every program. Eileen Bowser came to our first show, and will be guest speaker at our last show on June 1st. It's the automobile program, which she spoke at when we did our class in Nov/Dec; when we were coming up with show concepts we wanted Eileen to speak and, at the time, was writing something about Mack Sennett and Henry Ford, and Sennett's adopting the assembly-line production techniques of the automobile factory. So that became one of our shows.

The films have gotten lots of laughs, especially the last two. The Gratuitous Violence and Kids and Animals programs have a lot more out-and-out slapstick in them than the drag and race programs' films did. The Violence show went extremely well, with Mack Sennett frying Ford Sterling in the electric chair and Paul Parrott and Kalla Pasha attacking each other and vomiting being big hits.

We've had great publicity as well, with Dave Kehr mentioning the series at the top of his regular Thursday "Film Series and Movie Listings" column two weeks in a row, plus the Village Voice, and several blogs including the Sundance Channel's.

Musically, it's been a little trying but having survived every single Slapsticon I've gotten used to playing for several programs of non-stop slapstick. During the pause between each film, if I haven't come up with something beforehand as a main theme to weave through the score for a short, something will either pop into my head in a split-second or sometime I just put my hands on the keys and a tune just comes out. Often I'll try to create a melody that fits the rhythm of how you'd say the title of the film, as if a piece of popular sheet music had come from/for the film. [My score for The Wonders of Magnetism on the Edison set uses a theme that goes "Tho-o-o-ma-a-as ED-i-son...hey, he's a real smart guy!"]

Sometimes, because there are only so many things one can do with comedy music, a familiar melody accidentally gets improvised in the heat of the moment. A friend who was at the 4pm show on Weds 5/27 told me afterward he caught me stuck on a theme that bore a striking (though totally inadvertent) resemblance to "What Would We Do Without You?" from Sondheim's "Company", and I've avoided the rhythm of that piece ever since, just to be safe. Sometimes you improvise something that sounds familiar to you and get right off it, and sometime it sounds similar to something someone in the audience, even without trying. At the April 19th Silent Clowns' Chaplin program someone asked me if I'd played a theme from Limelight during one of the films (I hadn't).

One happy accident that fit another one happened at the first show. In the brief pause before the Arbuckle Good Night Nurse was to start, I was trying to come up with a theme to play, and the theme I'd written years ago for the Lupino Lane Good Night Nurse popped into my head and I began playing it. I looked up from the keys to see to my -- and everyone's -- surprise...the Lupino Lane Good Night Nurse (with foreign flash titles). I heard a little groan from the audience, but didn't want to stop the show. I stopped playing for a moment and announced to the audience that this was another silent comedy called Good Night Nurse, starring Lupino Lane, and that it was really funny. Which it was, and it played really well. WDidn't really bother us, as the Arbuckle is on DVD and the Lupino Lane is rarely shown . A number of people came up to Steve and me aftwards asking about Lupino Lane and telling us how much they liked the short. We've sorted this all out now, ordered the Arbuckle, and this will open our last show so we can include this in the series.

Can't believe the series will be over on Monday!

See you at the silents!