The Sounds of Silents

On February 15 I accompanied Champagne, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, at the Detroit Film Theater, so it might be a good time to try to set down the experience of what it’s like to accompany a silent picture while the impressions are fresh.
Composer and pianist David Drazin has built a national reputation for his brilliant accompaniment of silent films.

But first, here’s a giant oversimplification. If you start at middle C on the piano and count up the white and black keys until you reach the next C, you’ll find that there are 12 notes until the pattern of notes repeats. It’s not that it’s so hard to memorize 12 notes. It’s a matter of: is the note you want high, middle, or low; how fast is it traveling to the next note; what other notes are occurring at the same time; and how fast are the notes moving, and why? Is it a moment that’s totally improvised, or is it an actual song or piece? The experience morphs from one thing to the next.

When the experience is up and running, it’s mostly two things: strangely private and also self-conscious. Depending on where the piano is situated, once the lights go off, it’s just me and the movie. At the NCMA it’s more continuously self-conscious because the piano is on stage with the movie. At other venues the piano may be off to one side, or down in an orchestra pit, so that even though I can always be seen by the audience when they choose, the direction of my attention to the screen can exclude my perceiving the audience for a time after the start, and thus I experience the strange privacy in which I’m “locked in” to what a picture is. In some cases this can go on for practically the whole film. Yet I can “feel” and hear the audience.

It’s inevitable when playing for a picture to play “clinkers,” and I wonder if anyone recalls them or whether they just become absorbed and dismissed due to the duration. It’s most important for me to be careful near a picture’s ending, and so it becomes the area of greatest risk. Yet being reckless when playing the piano is a prime ingredient for me. It’s the “mystery note” that I’m after; the weird confluence of sound and events that I’m reaching for to hit the mark that’s so elusive. Naturally, the better the picture, the better the chance.

With a classic comedy, it’s so exhilarating to fly along on the big laughs. I love that! There’s nothing better than the big laughs, which seem never to fail in the great comedies.

I’ll always remember the “gasp” of the audience near the end of Pandora’s Box at Raleigh’s Rialto Theater, when Jack the Ripper drops his knife on the steps leading up to Louise Brooks’s attic hovel; the incredible rush of cheering near the end of The Man Who Laughs in 2009 at the NCMA; the amazing roars of laughter during the two shows of The General at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines–and I could go on and on. But most of all, since I love playing for the creative insanity of silent comedy, I’m looking forward to an exciting new experience coming up soon at the NCMA.

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