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David Drazin: More recently I've met [film] archivists and researchers, who have given me ideas on what to play. For instance, I met a woman who was going to show [Josef] von Sternberg's Underworld (1927), and she had the original piano score. That was the first silent-film score I'd ever read.
Ben Sachs: How often were full scores written for silent films?
Usually scores weren't written, but rather compiled from existing music. There were even some marginal composers who created a whole encyclopedia of movie moods. It was called Motion Picture Moods, and it was edited by Ernö Rapée, who led the orchestra at the Paramount Theater in New York. It's this huge book, and it has hundreds of excerpts. These composers just wrote tons and tons of music, and they'd have notes, like, This is a chase. Or, This can be used for a battle.
So, if you were an accompanist in the silent era, did theater owners just expect you to have this book?
I can't say if they were expected to have it, but it is a really cool book. Every piece is indexed on both sides of the paper with all the other possible moods [it can lead into]. So, if you're playing something for a love scene, you can skim your eyes down and see how it would transition into, say, a battle scene. This is great if you're a person who can operate only by reading. If you're more of an improv person, you can take certain things and make up others.
The other complete score I read was for [the World War I drama] The Big Parade (1925), courtesy of Leah Jacobs and Ben Brewster at the University of Wisconsin. Leah studies [director] King Vidor, and so she had his papers. [Vidor] had a piano reduction of the Big Parade score, and I got to read it before accompanying the film. That was the most I'd ever relied on a score in my accompaniment. The weird thing about it, though, was that for the first half of the movie, the score was compiled in the usual way from preexisting things, and the second half, which has all the battles, was composed by somebody. But I wouldn't want to follow a score for battle scenes, because battle scenes are some of the best things that I do!
I used everything [written] for the first half of the picture, up until the huge fights. After that, there were things I didn't want to use. For instance, when [the soldiers] first start their march in the Belleau Wood, [the score] said to play a George M. Cohan song. I thought that wasn't right for the scene because it's a terribly tense scene. In his autobiography, Vidor claims that he choreographed it to drums so that everybody would be marching at the same tempo.
Everybody in the [silent] days had the option to use or not use what they were offered. The major studios had cue sheets that would be coordinated with titles in the picture. The sheets would say something like, "Play 'Ain't She Sweet' for two and a half minutes, until you see the title that says, 'I have to be going now.' Now play such and such for a minute and a half."
When you improvise alongside a movie, I imagine you have work within a particular musical vocabulary. Like, even if you're not drawing on these cue sheets or Motion Picture Moods, you still have to sound like you are, or else the music will sound anachronistic.
Well, there's a realm where you have art musicians who like to play whatever they want while a [silent] film is shown. My feeling on this is, I can listen to that [music] and watch that [film] at the same time, but I know that they're not on the same time-space continuum. It's what I call "the impulse to curate." Like, I once attended a showing of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) where the musician accompanying the movie said, "I'm using my music to fill the blank spots in the frame." But the problem with that is there are people who love Lon Chaney and they want to see the movie as his original fans did. They're not into music at all.
Are there any movies you enjoy accompanying most of all? Or do you approach accompaniment in terms of scenes? For instance, you say you enjoy playing for battle scenes a lot.
It would depend on the movie. One I love to play for is Buster Keaton's The General (1927). What's interesting about that one is that when Keaton's on the screen it's comedy, but when he's not on the screen it's a drama. That means you get the best opportunity for contrast. I've done that movie so many more times than I thought possible. It used to be that when I'd accompany a silent movie, I'd think it was the only time I'd get to see it—I wouldn't even want to blink! But once it came to be that anyone could own practically any movie, things became really different.
What are some other movies you've accompanied more times than you thought you would?
Wings (1927), The Big Parade, and Underworld are the first that come to mind.
On a related note, which movies do you consider the hardest you've had to accompany?
I think The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) might be the one silent film that no one should accompany. That movie achieves its miracle purely visually—any attempt to accompany it is kind of doomed. Some high-profile guys have done it, but that doesn't necessarily prove anything.
How many times have you had to attempt it?
The first time was at the old Film Center. When it was over, some of the audience was up in arms, hollering insults at me. I was depressed on the one hand and weirdly elated on the other, since I'd taken part in the type of art event I'd only read about. It was like the riot at the first performance of The Rite of Spring—though on a much smaller scale, of course. It was after that that I started to think maybe they should reserve this one to be totally silent . . . but I did play for it again. I seemed not to make much of an impression that time, so I guess I slipped through.
One film you're actually not allowed to play for is [Abel Gance's] Napoleon (1927). If it's shown, the venue is legally bound to play the  Carmine Coppola score with it. You're not allowed to accompany Charlie Chaplin's [silent] films from after Mutual [Film Corporation, where Chaplin worked until 1917] either. The Chaplin estate is rigorous about stopping people from attempting to play for those, though you can play for The Gold Rush (1925) if it's a print that doesn't have a soundtrack.
You talk about accompanying some exotic silent films in the 80s. Did any of them seem so alien to you that you had trouble coming up with a tone that fit?
One time I played to four and a half hours of outtakes from [Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished film] Que Viva Mexico! It really took me a while to figure out what to do, since it was all raw takes. You'd see the same thing ten times . . . most of it didn't go anywhere. I remember there were about 15 minutes where the camera was situated behind a phony bull head and going around a stadium: What's the musical equivalent of that?
Did you just do a lot of vamping then?
Well, I tried to make something of it. After four and a half hours, though, I felt like I just came out of an acid trip. I've accompanied some other very long screenings. I played for the [Louis Feuillade] serials Les Vampires (1916) and Judex (1917). I even did Les Vampires all in one day. The theater showed the first five chapters in the afternoon, took a break for dinner, and then played the rest in the evening. That was rough—I love the movie, though.
Now, the Russian silents often establish a really intense rhythm—for instance, [Aleksandr Dovzhenko's] Arsenal (1929) and [Vladimir Pudovkin's] Storm Over Asia (1928). I've read one book that argues that Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and the others were the true successors to Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky, even though they weren't musicians. That means you have quite a task when you have to improvise over their movies.
Sure, because the movies already are music.
A movie like Arsenal is just incredible. At first you're just baffled by the intensity. Visually it seems to keep up with our horrible era, in terms of the rapidity with which the shots and viewpoints and meanings are alternating. I'll always remember the end of Arsenal, where that one character rips open his shirt and yells "Shoot! You can't kill me!" And they can't kill him, because he's the spirit of the revolution. It's symbolic. You could say the film's characters aren't real people, but principles.
It seems like audiences in the silent era just accepted that movies could move between realism and symbolism. In that regard, today's audiences are more rigid in their tastes.
I never thought about that. But if that's the case, then maybe it improves the prospects for silent pictures. It means there are more people to discover this alternate way of viewing things.