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Greatness in silent-film music is right at home
Susan Trien 7:32 a.m. EDT October 24, 2015
(Photo: Todd Coleman)
George Eastman Museum’s resident musician and internationally renowned silent film accompanist Philip C. Carli keeps theatrical experience alive for modern audiences as he pounds the ivories with great emotion most Tuesday evenings for the museum's "Silent Tuesdays, Silent Film" series.
Carli, who has been at George Eastman Museum since 1989, was drawn to silent film from the start. He began piano lessons at the tender age of 6. By age 13, he provided his first piano accompaniment for the silent film classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (1923).
“I set up a projector at my school auditorium and the audience was me, my sister and a friend,” recalls Carli.
A few teachers had wandered in and out of the auditorium while he played, but he didn’t think much about. Several days later, one of the teachers asked if he could repeat the performance for the entire school. He did, and to such great success, that he and his parents (who were administrators at two San Diego community colleges), collaborated and put on a summer silent film series.
“I’d program and play for it,” he says, “and we did it for close to 30 years.”
Carli is considered one of the best musicians specializing in the music of silent films. He is a resident musician at Italy’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, among the world’s leading festivals dedicated to silent film; he conducts film orchestras at national and international film festivals; and he has written and recorded orchestral scores for Turner Classic Movies and the Mary Pickford Foundation, among others. He also teaches film history at the Eastman School of Music and holds a class at the George Eastman Museum on Tuesdays, followed by a silent film screening in the Dryden.
The Policeman ( A recently rediscovered Japanese silent
The Policeman ( A recently rediscovered Japanese silent film to be screened after the annual James Card Memorial lecture on Oct. 27. (Photo: Courtesy of George Eastman Museum)
“Philip is a larger than life guy,” says spokewswoman Kellie Fraver, of George Eastman Museum. “To see him in action is a real treat for visitors.”
Carli describes himself as an “interlocutor” (or middle man) between the movie and the audience. “Music deepens the emotional backdrop, enriches what is there, heightens and sharpens the experience—like accompanying a singer. It’s a partnership.”
Most of the music accompanying silent films was done improvisationally—and that’s what Carli loves about it. “In order to accompany films” says Carli, “you have to be flexible and cinematically knowledgeable.”
He doesn’t always see a film before sitting down at the piano and compares his advance preparation to studying a racing sheet: “You have to know if the film is an American or Scandinavian or Japanese film, who the director is, and who are the stars and the camera man.” While the film is running, he responds musically to the lighting and the set. “Sometimes you play to the frame—if there’s just one figure in a room, you musically emphasize the vastness of space. My mind is like a computer ticking. I don’t think about what’s on the screen—I have to think ahead. There are only so many ways a film can go and you can change (the music) as you are working. You shouldn’t be thinking too much about yourself. You have to immerse yourself in the film.”
The Outlaw and His Wife, a classic of Swedish cinema
The Outlaw and His Wife, a classic of Swedish cinema (1918) was screened on Oct. 20. (Photo: Courtesy of George Eastman Museum)
One of the challenges of accompanying a silent film is that there are no physical breaks. You can play anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours or more. “There is no other musical field where you have to have this much physical and mental endurance,” says Carli. When he was 16, he recalls with a laugh, he accompanied the D.W. Griffith film “Orphans of the Storm” at his dad’s college. As Lillian and Dorothy Gish were being hauled off to the guillotine, the then-teenager hoped to take a lavatory break between reel changes during the two hour and 40 minute film. “My dad turned to the audience and asked if we should take a break, and they yelled, ‘No’. So the projector was threaded and at the end of it, was one of my most exciting finishes. I took the fastest bow ever and ran out.”
Carli says he still gets very nervous on performance days, “because I want to do a good job and the best for the audience. Every performance is like new.” Silent movies are “fascinating and wonderful emotionally and cinematically, like a new book by an old author.”
Jeff Vincent, a piano tuner from Brighton, couldn’t agree more. He goes to Silent Tuesdays screenings every chance he gets because it provides a great window into the past. He especially enjoys Carli’s introductory talks prior to each film screening and finds the intensity of the experience and Carli’s endurance amazing to watch: “He sometimes plays for two hours straight while looking up at the screen and not even looking at the keyboard.”
Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) The earliest known
Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) The earliest known surviving feature with a cast of black actors, to be screened Nov.10. (Photo: Courtesy of George Eastman Museum)
Most of the films selected for Silent Tuesdays come from the George Eastman Museum’s collection. Some are borrowed from major collections around the world. According to Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator of Moving Image at George Eastman Museum, the museum is a mecca for silent film study.
“We have several thousand silent films, one of the finest collections in the world. We conserve, restore and present them in the best possible way, in the original 35mm format, and in a theatre that is perfectly equipped with a special projector. We are faithful to the presentation as silent film was experienced.”
While the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the British Film Institute in London also show silent films, he says, The George Eastman Museum shows them on a regular basis, and weekly the major part of the year. “Only two places in the world can say that,” says Cherchi Usai, “the Royal Film Archive of Belgium is one, and the other is us.”
“We are lucky to have one of the very best musicians specializing in the music of silent films,” says Cherchi Usai. “I am co-founder in Italy of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Over the years we have selected a group of the best music specialists in the art form as resident musicians—and Phil is one of them. There is no exaggeration in saying that he is one of the 10 best musicians in the world for silent cinema.”
My Best Girl (1927), The movie that concluded silent
My Best Girl (1927), The movie that concluded silent movie queen Mary Pickford's 15 year career (to be screened Nov. 24.) (Photo: Courtesy of George Eastman Museum)
If you go
What: George Eastman Museum “Silent Tuesdays” film series
Where: Dryden Theatre, 900 East Avenue
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays; Oct. 27 features a special James Card Memorial Lecture by film studies scholar David Bordwell, followed by a screening of Policeman, a recently-discovered Japanese silent film.
More: General Admission: $8 Members: $6 Students (with ID): $4. Check eastman.org/film-series for weekly show schedule details.
Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.