At their best, music and film work hand in glove. Try to imagine “The Godfather” without Giovanni “Nino” Rota’s score. Or “Vertigo” without Bernard Herrmann’s music, or “Gone With The Wind” without Max Steiner.
But when films first emerged more than a hundred years ago, they rolled into town with no sound and few cues for the pianists, violinists or other musicians asked to accompany them. And they left behind few resources for those who followed them in the next town — or in the next century.
Denver pianist Hank Troy is among a small group of Colorado musicians who know that challenge well. He has been accompanying silent films for more than 40 years, and he understands that accompaniment for silent films can be ephemeral, that every screening of a silent film is different from all the others and that his own performance is gone the moment he finishes.
Like sidewalk chalk art, Burning Man or Buddhist sand painting, each show is unique and meant to be here and gone.
“That’s certainly true in my case,” he says. “Others may put together a score, so it’s less so for them, but even with a written score, notes and timing change in performance. I don’t have to worry about that.”
He says he feels no sense of loss when he’s finished.
“With every performance the feeling lingers, but it’s gone,” Troy says. “It’s bittersweet. There’s a wispy nostalgia about saying goodbye. And there’s a liberating aspect to it. Best to turn ‘em loose.”
As a jazz musician, his love and his genius are for improvisation. A friend of his once said that for Troy, a film goes into his eyes, and out through his hands to the piano — “by way of his heart.”
His response to films is immediate and instinctual. He prefers the word “improvisation,” but admits that what happens when he accompanies a movie is a mystery.
“There’s some instinct,” he says. “But also some technique and skill. I know how to do things. There are harmonic and tempo techniques I draw on.”
His goal, Troy says, “is to try to detect what the director had in mind, and I try to enhance it with music. I’m secondary. The highest compliment I can get is ‘I forgot you were playing.’”
When Troy was new to working with silent film, he learned from pianist William Perry from The Museum of Modern Art in New York, who did scores for films that played on television in the 1970s.
“He was masterful at being second,” Troy says. “That’s maybe where I got the idea that scores should never be obtrusive. I got that idea from him subliminally — I never talked to him.”
Troy still pays attention to what other accompanists are doing.
“Donald Sosin. Rodney Sauer. I want to see what’s going on,” he says.
He recently listened to a score for piano, violin and cello for the 1926 “La Bohème,” directed by Henry King. In Sosin, Troy sees “a master musician; he’s so accomplished. What I hear in his work is the harmonic complexity he can bring to it.”
Rodney Sauer, leader of The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra in Louisville, Colorado, and admired internationally, puts together silent film scores in pretty much a traditional way.
“I don’t compose,” he says, “I compile.”
That’s how it was typically done in the silent film era. When expensive productions showed in the movie palaces, they might be accompanied by orchestras playing original compositions, but most of the time scores were arranged out of already written music.
“Musicians took theme music, three to five minutes long, all arranged for orchestras,” Sauer says. “I watch a film in advance, look at what kinds of scenes are in the film — storms, dances, concerts — and then at what kinds of emotional music I’ll need.” From those collections, “I select; I don’t compose.”
Those collections are long out of print. Sauer first encountered one in the music library at the University of Colorado donated by a man who’d run early theaters in Colorado.
Two collections of movie music were brought to Sauer from people who knew him via the Internet. He got a truckload of material from the famed composer/accompanist Robert Israel, who fell in love, then moved from Los Angeles to the Czech Republic and sold his collection to Sauer.
But Sauer also finds other musical elements to add to his scores, sometimes in the movie itself. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1920 “Why Change Your Wife?” shows the labels on the phonograph records characters play, so Sauer includes fragments of those tunes in the accompaniment.
The history of silent film
Because I direct The Denver Silent Film Festival, which features live music with every film, I get asked about music for silent film, and the more I learn about silent film music, the harder it gets to answer the questions before people’s eyes glaze over and I get exhausted.
The quick and not completely accurate response is that movies had no sound tracks or synchronized sound (meaning dialogue) from the first films in the 1890s until roughly 1929.
The first movie shown in theaters with synchronized sound was “The Jazz Singer” in the fall of 1927. But it took until 1929 for sound production to ramp up and for theaters to retrofit their equipment for sound. Until then, movies often — but not always — had live musicians in the theater accompanying the films.
Standard wisdom has it that movies were never shown silent. I’ve said it myself, but it’s not true. The first movie program ever presented on a screen in something like a theater took place on Dec. 28, 1895, in the Grand Café in Paris.
The films were 50-second “actualities” filmed by Louis and August Lumière. There was music. But in the years after that, starting with peep shows in “nickelodeons” in America, then storefront theaters and finally theaters, there would likely be music but not necessarily. Newspapers report customers dissatisfied that there was no music in some theaters — and later unhappy that the music was lousy.
SILENT FILM: If you want to see silent film in a good setting with big audiences and music by Hank Troy, The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and others, check out the series presented by The Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder.
The notion to have music in the first place likely came from vaudeville, which had music for the various acts, and also from theater, melodramas in particular (melo means music) which had music accompanying the shows. The public was used to having music with on-stage entertainment, and movies fit that category.
Who played the music, and what they played, could be anything. Once feature-length films appeared on the scene around 1915, the movies with big enough budgets showing in the new movie palaces in New York or Chicago or San Francisco might — might — be accompanied by an orchestra.
When the movie reached smaller cities, there could be a smaller group. By the time the picture reached Julesburg, the orchestra likely dwindled to a single musician — perhaps a pianist, maybe a fiddler.
And what would she or he play? Again, big theaters in big cities could have a score. Sometimes a movie arrived with a cue sheet that suggested musical themes cued to title cards.
So when “the boy” says “Let’s dance,” the cue sheet might indicate a few bars of “The Blue Danube,” or a fox trot, or whatever. If no cue sheet arrived, the local musician might have a copy of a book with movie music suggestions.
Some of those books had an index on the edge of every page, so if a fight started on screen, the musician could look down the page to “fight music,” and turn to whatever fight music the book offered. My favorite on those lists has always been the selections for “stealthy movement in the dark.”
And if even the book were missing, what would the musician(s) do? They’d wing it. If the musician cared, she would watch the screen and play something that for her connected to the movie. If the accompanist didn’t care, he might simply play whatever entered his head. Some early theaters faced the piano against the back wall, where the musician could not see the screen.
So much for matching music to movie.
After he played for the 1926 version of “The Scarlet Letter” a few years ago, Troy was asked how he prepared. He laughed. “There was no way to screen the film,” he said, “but I saw the movie a few years ago. And I’ve read the book.”
When he was asked to accompany Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 masterpiece “The Gold Rush,” Troy noticed that when Chaplin does the famous “dance of the rolls” with dinner rolls on a fork, a title card says he’ll do the “Oceana Roll.” That was a popular song at the time, so Troy plays that with Chaplin’s “dance.”
Unlike Troy or Sauer, Niki Tredinnick is relatively new to silent film accompaniment, but her goal is like that of most accompanists: “It’s to carry the audience into the film, to play with their imagination.”
As leader of Denver’s The Dollhouse Thieves, she develops melodies and themes that go to character.
“I don’t want the music to distract,” she says.
For “The Blot,” a film by Lois Weber, one of the three major American filmmakers in the late 1910s, Tredinnick says, “I introduced every character, and each had her own (musical) story. I gave each character a theme and an instrument.” She laughs, and adds, “Like ‘Peter and the Wolf.’”
“I want to breathe life into the film (especially) for people who don’t know silent film,” Tredinnick says.
Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.
Tredinnick describes a silent film situation that confronts musicians and audiences now, but not when these films were made. It’s a rich and complex problem of perception and attitude, as well as history and the present.
Now, we go intentionally to a “silent film.” It’s a special event, and a deliberate choice. In 1918, no one went to a “silent film.” They went to the movies. And now, because silent film screenings are infrequent and out of the norm, audiences need to be enticed.
The potential silent film viewers Tredinnick knows have little or no experience with silent film. They’ve often not heard even of Chaplin or Keaton, so she does her best to lure them in to those pleasures with contemporary sounds and a range of instruments.
“I want to break down the norm and the expectation of the honky-tonk piano,” she says.
Composer/accompanist Donald Sosin performs for silent films all over the world. He does workshops with young musicians on silent film accompaniment at festivals from Denver to Pordenone, Italy, to Bangkok, using pianos, synthesizers, horns, violins and laptops. He says straight out: there is and was no such thing as normal.
And one of the marvels of silent film music is that it’s usually a one-time thing. If you see Douglas Fairbanks in “The Thief of Bagdad” a second time, it’ll be a new experience because the music will be different. “Felix the Cat” cartoons accompanied by The Dollhouse Thieves are not the same films if Hank Troy is on piano.
There’s a story about Willie Rouff, the first American jazz musician to perform in The People’s Republic of China. One of his hosts lamented that an improvised jazz performance vanishes — it’s here and it’s gone. That’s the same with most silent film accompaniment.
Silent film with live music is always changing — and always alive.
All history is revisionist. That’s good, because historians constantly find new documents or artifacts, and because as times and ideas change, our understanding of the past also has to adjust.
Film history shifts dramatically as new evidence is uncovered, and silent film history changes even more drastically because historians not only find documents and records, but previously unknown films are still cropping up, almost out of the blue.
Somewhere around 70% to 80% of all films made in the silent period have been lost. In 1978, over 350 titles — short films from the early 1910s — thought vanished were found in an abandoned swimming pool in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada.
Bill Morrison gives a dreamy account of the films and the discovery in his lovely 2016 film “Dawson City: Frozen Time.” In 2010, 75 American silent films were found in a shed owned by the New Zealand Film Archive (see “A Happy Homecoming for Long-Lost Silent Films”).
So, if the situation is this volatile, you’d better be careful what you say about silent film, because it’s probably not going to be definitive. Our knowledge of silent film music is even sketchier.