March 4, 2014 > A not-so-silent Saturday night
A not-so-silent Saturday night
By Kristina Schenck
While Charlie Chaplin and Charley Chase star in films that play without sound, Saturday night shows at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum are anything but silent. A pianist performs live accompaniment during each show; the result is a marriage between sights of the past and sounds of the present that captivates audiences every weekend in the Edison Theater.
Historically, silent films and sound are inseparable. In ÒSilent Film Sound,Ó author Rick Altman writes that silent film experts insist that music has always been a part of the experience, especially during a public screening. Whether it was an orchestra, a pianist or a soundtrack, critics argue that the concept of silent films did not exist without a sound component, and the pianists at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum continue that tradition today.
Judy Rosenberg and Bruce Loeb play regularly at the theater in Niles. Both started playing for film after contacting the Pacific Film Archive, an organization within the University of California, Berkeley that screens films and also manages a film library.
Loeb, of Berkeley, who appeared most recently at the February 15 ÒValentino for ValentineÕs DayÓ show, described playing accompaniment for film as a Òmarathon performance.Ó ÒOne person holds the music for two or three hours so itÕs about pacing,Ó he said. ÒYou have to have a visual sense of connecting whatÕs on the screen. You donÕt really play for the movie, what you do is you play to make the movie available to people; to provide what the audience needs to enjoy the movie.Ó
When a band played during a scene in ÒThe Tango Tangles,Ó Loeb used the piano to cue the different sounds of the actorsÕ instruments. When Chaplin stumbles on screen, the music rolls across the keys and notes grow lower in pitch. Ominous music indicates trouble.
Improvisation is a key component for pianists Rosenberg and Loeb; neither read from sheet music during their performances, nor do they follow a set score. In fact, most silent films have not had scores written for them, said Museum President Dorothy Bradley. The ability to improvise is what sets silent film accompaniment apart from a traditional pianist, leaving much room for creativity.
ÒEvery pianist has his or her own story,Ó Bradley said. She has seen the same film multiple times at the Edison Theater with different pianists performing accompaniment, and she said that no two are identical.
A performance can also be a combination of composition and improvisation. ÒSometimes alternating between improvisation and a piece of music that I can play without improvising changes the feeling and pace,Ó Loeb said. ÒShifting what IÕm doing helps keep it fresh.Ó
Rosenberg, of Oakland, who appeared most recently at the February 8, 2014 show, said to improvise on the piano is to create a piece with integrity and cohesiveness. She began playing for silent film in 2001 after she attended a silent film festival at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. She introduced herself to Edith Kramer, the film curator and director of the archive at the time, and began playing for a film class at UC Berkeley not long after. In addition to playing at the theater in Niles, she also plays at Pacific Film Archive and will play at CineFest, an international silent film festival, in Liverpool, New York, this March.
ÒThere are moments that just feel so right,Ó Rosenberg said of playing for film. ÒMy hands almost take on a life of their own.Ó
Other pianists who play at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum include Greg Pane and Frederick Hodges.
The Edison Theater, which has hosted silent film screenings every Saturday for the past nine years, draws guests from all over the Bay Area as well as locals. Attendance can range anywhere from 50 to 100 people; the theater is unique in that it is one of the few places where one can see silent films and hear live accompaniment.
True to its name, all pictures at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum are projected from film, not DVD. In this high-tech age, the appeal of silent film is one of entertainment and historical value, Bradley said. ÒSilent film is really a different art form than todayÕs talkie cinema. Really good movies are timeless because they are relevant to the human condition.Ó
The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; the Saturday night screenings start at 7:30 p.m. at 37417 Niles Boulevard in Fremont. The doors open at 7:00 p.m. and it is suggested that patrons reserve tickets online or over the telephone in advance. Free parking is available in the lot across the street. For information about shows, volunteering, or financial contributions, call (510) 494-1411 or visit www.nilesfilmmuseum.org. Showings are also listed in the Tri-City Voice ÒItÕs A DateÓ calendar of events.