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Live Music at Silent Film Courses

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When I started accompanying films it was still common practice to show silent films, well…silent. They were only available in 16mm prints that had no music tracks. That’s changed thanks to DVDs and Blu-rays and video projection, but having live accompaniment in a film class is still important.

I play at a silent film class once a semester at a few universities. What I’ve heard from professors, and from the students on the occasions where we’ve crossed paths years later, is that that class session was their favorite one of the course. 

This had happened a number of times over the years, and just when I was starting to wonder how common this response actually was, it happened again this past March. A friend of my daughter’s, as it turned out later, was in the NYU Cinema Studies class I played at, and told her this exact same comment about that class session. 

It’s not a comment about my music, it’s about the fact that the music was performed live in the room.

Silent film is experiential, it’s not just movies with no sound. As great as it is that there are good scores for the films on the DVDs and Blu-rays being shown, the performance element of the live score makes you pay attention in a different way. You are engaged with the film in a different way, probably in a closer and intimate way than with a recorded score.

Granted, if you’re reading this, the paragraph above is not news to you at all. However, if you teach a silent film course at a university film program or communications department, I heartily encourage you to find a way to have live accompaniment. I know, the semester’s just started and it may be too late budget-wise to make it happen (maybe not) but you can start looking for the money — and an accompanist — for next semester or for the next school year.

If you need help finding a good accompanist in your area, email me — I may know someone.

And if you’re a film accompanist, see if you can find a university film program in your area with a silent film or overview course where the feeling about having live music is mutual. Heck…lots of high school have filmmaking programs, and I don’t think there’s a better medium to demonstrate the visual aspect of cinema’s storytelling language than silent film.

Ben Model seated at his virtual theatre organ, accompanying The Docks of New York for a film history course at Wesleyan University. Image sourced from the Film Studies program’s Instagram feed — @WesCFILM

Earlier this week I was at Wesleyan University, accompanying Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York for the course “FILM 307: The Language of Hollywood”. There were about 140-150 students in the Goldsmith Family Theater. During my Q&A after the screening, I asked how many of them had never seen a silent film with live music, and nearly all the hands went up.

Now, not only have they seen a silent film, they get silent film.

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