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Silent is Golden

Fort Wayne gets a double dose of live silent film accompaniment

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


We often hear about how people crave something different and new in their entertainment diet. Of course, this is Fort Wayne; we don’t expect something new and exciting every night or even every weekend. But it’s not too much to ask that every once in a while, we get an alternative to the standard weekend fare.

Then what happens? We get two such similar events happening in the same week.

On Wednesday, September 27, the Devil Music Ensemble — a Boston-based music avant-garde music trio — stops by Cinema Center to perform its original score accompanying the silent 1920 film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore.

Then, on Saturday the 30th, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and the Embassy Theatre collaborate with organist Dennis James on the score to a screening of Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent film classic The General.

Both events take very different approaches to accompanying a silent film, and both are worth checking out.

The churlish among us might suggest that having two events featuring silent movie accompaniment in the same week shows a lack of foresight, planning, or communication among our arts organizations… that one event might cut into the other’s “draw.”

Maybe, but I don’t think we’re in danger of overloading on “interesting” here in Fort Wayne. And there’s no reason you can’t do both. In fact, if you’re a film fanatic, I expect you will. Either way, that’s an issue for another issue. For now, we hope the stories pique your interest.

Train Kept a Rollin’
The Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Dennis James take a ride on The General

Bradley Thachuk is a little nervous. As the Associate Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic with a professional resume thicker than the Auburn Yellow Pages, the man is certainly no slacker. But how would you feel charged with leading a 40+ piece orchestra and an organist through the score of a classic silent film while the film is playing? Loving a challenge is one thing, but this…

“Obviously, I love to conduct and I’ll do it any time I can,” Thachuk says. “But when the project was first brought up, it was one of those things where, in the back of my mind, I was thinking ‘maybe they’ll bring in someone else to do this.’”

Of course, he’s joking. Sort of. The fact is that when the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and organist Dennis James come together to accompany the film The General by performing the film’s original score, they are going to be taking on a pretty big challenge. “One of my philosophies of conducting is you kind of set things up, let the orchestra do things and step in where need be,” Thachuk says. “This is one of these times when the orchestra is completely reliant on the conductor because they can’t work as an ensemble and judge their own tempos. It’s going to be a very collaborative thing on all levels.”

He adds: “We’ll do our job right if you don’t realize how hard we’re working.”

The General is one of those movies that are raved about a lot — it ranks in the Internet Movie Database’s list of top films, and authorities from critic Roger Ebert to the American Film Institute rate it as one of the greats. Still, it’s doubtful that many people beyond the hardcore film geek — I mean film buffs — have actually seen it.

It’s more than worth your time. Some movies get called “classics” because they broke cinematic ground and have influenced generations of film makers, and that’s definitely true of The General; one of its final scenes, of a train crashing off a burning bridge, was the most expensive movie shot of its day and continues to be referenced nearly eight decades later. Some movies get called “classics” because they serve as a perfect showcase for the actor in the starring role, and in The General Buster Keaton turns in one of his best performances (the actor himself certainly thought so)…

But most of all, The General earns its classic status because it just gets so many things right. As a comedy, a classic chase film, and a romance, it transcends its interest as a cinematic period piece to appeal to a modern audience that wants to see a compelling story told well.

Set during the Civil War, The General stars Buster Keaton as Johnny Gray, a train engineer whose locomotive the General is hijacked by Union spies with his fiancée Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) on board. Keaton’s goes through all sorts of trials and tribulations to get his beloved train (and girl) back.

The General is set to a rousing score composed specifically for the film. Many movies of the era were accompanied by an organist or sometimes had scores composed for organ. The General’s score was made for a show orchestra. Organist Dennis James will be joining the Philharmonic and taking up his seat behind the massive and historic Grande Page Pipe Organ. Installed in 1928 (the year after The General was first released), the Grande Pipe is one of only three of its size built, and one of two still in its original home. With its banks of keys, switches, buttons and pedals, it resembles the command center of some contraption out of a Jules Verne novel as much as it resembles a musical instrument. “This sort of performance, with an orchestra, carries all the energy and excitement of the original version of film,” James says. “The General is a good representative, because silent films were collapsing at that point. This is the height of silent films.”

James began accompanying silent films back in 1969. His first performance with a full orchestra was as a student at Indiana University in 1971 for a movie called Broken Blossoms. James not only tracked down the film’s original score, he tracked down the original star — Lillian Gish (he toured with Gish for six years as her personal accompanist). Since then, he’s amassed a library of 37 revived scores, and has played with nearly 130 orchestras around the world.

James has been to Fort Wayne several times, accompanying The Phantom if the Opera on his own. Playing with an orchestra is something completely different. “My major function is that I ‘spell’ the orchestra,” he says. “In other words, they do two or three pieces, and I come in and do one of those pieces solo while they take a break. So it just gives orchestral musicians a chance to breath, because these movies, they zip right along.”

His other function is enhancement. Theater organs were designed to emulate the sound of a full orchestra, so … “When the organ joins a 40-piece orchestra, if it’s done judiciously and accurately, it gives the impression that the orchestra seems like 150 players,” James says. He’ll add a massive swell of strings for the big romantic scenes, or really lay on the pedals and bass for the heavy dramatic moments. The audience loves it. “It’s very effective,” he adds. “It just makes the place rumble.”

But precision is everything, and like the train of the title, the film doesn’t slow down for you. “Because the movies are time-coded and this is the original score, we have very little room,” says Thachuk, who assisted on a live accompaniment while he was in Cincinnati. “So I have to sit there with a click in my ear and follow the tempo of the movie. You don’t want the villain music playing when the heroine is being rescued. You have a half to quarter second’s variance from beginning to end, and that’s about it.”

J.L. Nave, the Philharmonic’s Executive Director, also accompanied a silent film with a full orchestra during his time with the National Symphony. He knows how challenging it can be. “I expect you’re not going to see Brad doing a lot of flowery conductor moves,” he jokes. “It’s going to be very crisp and clear, the orchestra has to be right there. When you’re conducting, you’re really trying to get that emotion out of the orchestra in a performance, and that’s a lot of what’s going on. With this, it’s got to be ready to go.”

Events where live music accompanies a classic silent film have become very popular in the last decade or so. Part of the appeal is the sheer spectacle of it. It’s not like watching something on your iPOD — when the live sound and picture are perfectly in synch and all your senses are engaged, even a gigantic screen and state-of-the-art surround sound don’t quite measure up. There’s also the vicarious thrill of seeing something that requires such incredible precision and skill pulled off with consummate proficiency.

And yet another reason audiences seem to enjoy these kinds of events is that on some level it gives us a feeling of ownership over our past.

“It’s the reason why in New York, for example, you have a period instrument ensembles and they play the original instruments,” adds J.L. Nave. “The instruments are out of tune, but people go because that’s how the composer and the audience heard the piece being performed, on these very primitive instruments without the tuning slides or valves… It just reconnects with how everything was originally.”

The performance of The General at the Embassy won’t be as primitive as that, but it is a chance to experience the movie as it was meant to be seen back in 1928. In the 20s, a movie was an event, meant to be watched in a theater much like the Embassy, with your friends and neighbors and accompanied by live music. “This is one of those ways where we can put ourselves in a bygone area,” Thachuk says. “It’s nice to get a slice of a different time where everything wasn’t presented to you immediately.”

The Devil Inside
The Devil Music Ensemble provides the soundtrack for the bizarre tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

During the early days of film, stars didn’t get much bigger than legendary Shakespearean actor John Barrymore. Though he is known primarily for his stage work (or as Drew’s grandfather, depending on who you talk to), Barrymore made somewhere around 60 films, and in 1920, when he starred in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the first feature length film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ode to the devil inside, he was huge. “This guy was the rock star of the world, and caught a lot of flack for doing this film because he played such a brutal character,” says Jonah Rapino of the Devil Music Ensemble. “He was playing King Lear at the same time the movie was being shot. One night he’d be in this Shakespeare play and the next night he’d be this ghoulish freak.”

Rapino’s group provides the accompaniment to a screening of the silent film classic at Cinema Center on September 27th. Unlike The General, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t come with an original score; the soundtrack for the event is an original work by the DME. Based in Boston, the Devil Music Ensemble is a trio that in addition to composing and performing soundtracks to silent films is at times an experimental rock band, an avant-garde classical music combo, an Eastern European folk band, a house band for live theater…

In fact, describing all that the Devil Music Ensemble does can make your head spin, so I ask Rapino what his response is when people ask him what the band does. “How about ‘undescribable’?” he laughs. “The thing we strive for is to always be presenting something new. Even every local show we played, we would try to present some new sounds, new songs, new performance aspect. We’d always try to be as original as we can and give a little bit of something else each time that someone comes out to see us.” The three members of the Devil Music Ensemble — Rapino; Brandon Woods; and drummer/percussionist Tim Nylander — are all multi-instrumentalists who studied music and have been playing together since 1999.

Rapino, a Toledo, Ohio native whose duties with the trio include electric violin, analog synthesizer, bass and vibraphone, says that the group sort of stumbled into what he calls “the silent film accompaniment world.” Several years ago, the Devil Music Ensemble was scheduled to perform at a community center in Rhode Island. The venue had a film projector, so guitar player Brandon Woods brought along Jean Cocteau’s 1930 silent film Blood of a Poet. “We played and ended up interacting with the film,” Rapino says. “We had such a good time with the film at the show, (Woods) started kicking around the idea of trying to do more of this (film scoring).” Ironically, it wasn’t until after that initial Rhode Island show that Woods found out his grandfather used to accompany silent films back in the 20s and 30s. When a theater eventually approached them about doing a show, they jumped at the chance. They scored a film, got a fantastic reception from the audience, and the Devil Music Ensemble added “silent film accompaniment” to its already extensive repertoire.

Since then, they’ve toured behind scores for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu, among others. Rapino says delving into the world of old silent films is both fascinating and… well, not so fascinating. “So many titles sound so good, and you just imagine it would be the best movie ever and then it’s nothing but sappy melodrama romance,” he laughs. But on the other side are the bizarre films made when it was all new and anything could find an audience. “There are so many amazing, dark bizarre silent films that now people wouldn’t even have the gumption to make. It would be considered way too far out. But back in the day, it was like an amusement park ride. Audiences were just blown away by the fact that something could capture reality.”

That first show in Rhode Island was an improvisational event; the Devil Music Ensemble is a lot more disciplined about film scoring these days. “We’re very, extremely highly composed,” Rapino says. “Every moment is structured in some way, mostly in a very concrete way — melodies, harmonies, exact timing, how many beats until this scene happens so that this exact chord change is going to happen right here… We spend a lot of time before tour putting together our parts.”

Still, working as a three-piece and using an original score allows the Devil Music Ensemble a little room for improvisation. “We always try to leave a little open space for the soundtrack to grow, places where we know what key we’re in, we know how long it’s going to be, what we’re generally going to do, but we’ll have a solo here or we’ll all be doing something slightly unpredictable together that will them evolve into the next sequence.”

Rapino continues: “One of the most fun things is that the movie’s rhythm never changes and our rhythm does a little bit, so it’s always a concentrated challenge each night to match our tempos. It becomes almost a game to see how many edits we can nail right on.”

As noted above, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t have an original score. In fact, few films in the 20s would have gotten the treatment that a film like The General got, with a full score composed for an ensemble. More likely, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was accompanied by someone improvising on a piano with a “fake” book, quoting popular tunes and more well-known classical stuff. But to hear Rapino tell it, it sounds as though some of the DME’s score is the way they wish it could have been. A student of classical music, Rapino explains that during the 20s and 30s, when these films were being made, there was an explosion of ground-breaking contemporary classical music. “You had all the greats — Sternberg, Stravinsky, all these far out revolutionary composers which we’re (the DME) definitely inspired by,” Rapino says. “This music was made at the same time of those silent films, but you would never hear that music back then. So I feel like we have the opportunity to present those silent films with a little bit of the music of that time.”

“We’re getting a pretty good grasp on what’s tasteful as far as lending itself to film,” Rapino adds. “It’s very important to us that the music — in our own twisted, individual way — lends itself to blending with the film. Some things might sound very bizarre, but we’ve customized it so much it has become this harmonious collaboration between two things (the film and the music). It just clicks.”

At the end of the interview, I tell Rapino about the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s event that takes place a few nights later. “A whole orchestra? That’s a huge undertaking,” he says. “But that’s pretty exciting. Fort Wayne’s got a lot of opportunities to see something interesting.”

The General:
The Embassy Theatre and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic present the classic silent film The General, accompanied by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic orchestra and silent film organist Dennis James
Saturday, September 30, 2006, 8 p.m., at the Embassy Theatre,
125 W. Jefferson Blvd
$35 for VIP, $25 general; $15 for students
Tickets on sale at the Embassy Theatre box office, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic box office, fortwaynephilharmonic.com, all Ticketmaster locations and ticketmaster.com

The Devil Music Ensemble presents Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde
Wednesday, September 27 at Cinema Center @ Indiana Tech, 7:30PM
Tickets are $12. General Admission, $10.
Tickets are available at either Cinema Center location during box office hours. (Box office is open 30 min. before each show)

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