Time Out: Playing in the dark

Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.
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Time Out: Playing in the dark

Unread post by silentfilm » Wed Jan 28, 2009 10:20 am

http://www.timeout.com/newyork/articles ... n-the-dark

Time Out New York / Issue 696 : Jan 29–Feb 4, 2009
Playing in the dark
MoMA salutes pianist Stuart Oderman’s 50 years as the one-man sound of silents.

By Joshua Rothkopf

Photograph: Amanda Berg
“I was 13 and running numbers in Newark for a man whose name I can’t mention,” Stuart Oderman recalls of his younger years. He’s obviously told this story a million times, but you can’t help but roll with him. “Let’s just say the guy’s last name begins with a Z. He was the bookie who discovered Jean Harlow—in her hotel room. Anyway, I was cutting school constantly.”

Suddenly, the story gets a lot less Goodfellas. “I was completely addicted to The New Yorker,” Oderman continues, “and I read that they were showing silent movies at the Museum of Modern Art. What a way to kill time, right? Admission was 50 cents.”

Cut to 56 years later and Oderman, 69, can now say he’s spent a lot of time in the front row. Actually, even closer: As the museum’s senior silent-film accompanist, the pianist, an amateur who trained on the job, has reached a professional plateau few can claim. MoMA will be celebrating his tenure with a special tribute, “A Salute to Stuart Oderman,” on Thursday 29, with the honoree playing along to a personal favorite, D.W. Griffith’s 1919 Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish.

“‘You belong in school,’ Lillian Gish told me when I met her,” says Oderman. “I was just this know-it-all kid sitting next to her. And I said, ‘I want to play the piano for silent films.’ Ms. Gish walked me down the aisle and told the pianist, Arthur Kleiner, ‘This is a young friend of mine. Will you be his teacher?’ He said yes.”

Oderman has fond memories of his apprenticeship, rooted in what he admits was an out-of-joint love for a particular era of filmmaking, dusty even then. “Most kids my age liked Elvis,” he recalls. “I wished I had been born earlier. Arthur was a metronome, very dramatic, very severe.” Oderman mimics a pendulum, hands chopping: “This. Is how. He was. Eins. Zwei. Drei.” He smiles. “But I owe him everything.”

As for the art of accompaniment itself, Oderman speaks with the wisdom of a seasoned jazz sessioner—one who eats at Katz’s a lot: “You are the mustard on the sandwich, not the pastrami. We’re playing in the dark. If you do your job well, they won’t notice you.”

Are there aspects to filmmaking that we’re missing out on today? Oderman laughs. “Modern audiences think an old film is Star Wars. Basic storytelling is learning how to tell a story in pictures first—like cavemen painting on the wall.” Given the success of Pixar’s WALL-E, largely silent for its first third, these lessons might not be as dated as they seem.

“It’s a little bit more work for your imagination,” says Ben Model, 46, another of NYC’s accompanists and the cofounder of the annual Silent Clowns Film Series. “But the rewards are greater. And what we do is tricky. The music should be comfortable, like an old sweater.”

Oderman concurs. Over a career that has included writing books (biographies of Gish and Fatty Arbuckle) and scoring documentaries, he’s rarely strayed from the life of the professional, content to toil on the periphery. And he’s quick to stress that he’s not retiring. “My final tribute is when I’m underground,” Oderman kids. “Gish kept going until she was 100. As far as I’m concerned, after 50 years I’m just at the beginning.”

“A Salute to Stuart Oderman” is at MoMA Thu 29.

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Unread post by boblipton » Wed Jan 28, 2009 10:45 am

Stuart's strength in accompanyment is the dramatic movie, and his genius is to know when to stop playing entirely. At the moments of greatest intensity, he knows when to stop playing and let the images carry the viewer.

Film lovers are sick people.
-- Francois Truffaut

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Unread post by silentfilm » Sat Feb 14, 2009 3:03 pm

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/nyreg ... .html?_r=1

At the Piano, Keeping the Era of Silent Films Alive

Published: February 14, 2009

Stuart Oderman, who has performed alongside the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin, leaned against a piano at the Museum of Modern Art and reminisced about some numbers from the 1950s.

“The numbers were all written on betting slips, and I’d put the slips on the bottom of a bag, and then I’d put some doughnuts on top of the slips and some powdered sugar on top of the doughnuts and go make my drop, because who is going to stop a 13-year-old kid carrying a bag of doughnuts?” he said. “The mob guy I worked for, every time he saw how well I hid those numbers, he would say, ‘That kid, he’s got some real talent.’ ”

By the time Mr. Oderman was running numbers along Belmont Avenue in Newark, where he grew up, he had already developed another talent — at the keyboard.

“The mob guy I worked for knew I had been taking piano lessons since I was a kid, and so he would often let me play at a neighborhood bar he owned,” said Mr. Oderman, 69. “I’d play Sinatra song after Sinatra song, and if I played ‘I’m in the Mood for Love,’ that was a signal that meant get out quick, something’s not kosher.”’

Mr. Oderman’s descent into the underworld was halted at 14 thanks to a chance encounter with — of all people — the actress Lillian Gish at a showing of one of her most famous movies, “Broken Blossoms,” and for the last half century, he has been an accompanist and composer for silent films. Now one of the few remaining masters of that almost-lost art, he has written four books related to the silent era, which he cannot stop talking about.

“I fell in love with silent films at a very young age,” he said. “In these films, there is a directness and an honesty between actor and audience, all done through gestures and raw emotion, that became a lost art when the talkies began arriving in the late 1920s.”

Mr. Oderman arrived at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1 at the Modern on Feb. 5 to time the score of a coming film. The bright red seats were empty, but he still wore a dark blue dinner jacket. Before long, he was describing that scene from 1954, the one that turned his life around.

“I cut school one day so that I could come to this very theater to watch ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ” he said. “I was only 14 years old. I sit in my seat, look to my left and Ms. Gish is sitting right next to me.

“ ‘You belong in school,’ she said to me.

“We started talking, and I told her that I loved silent movies and that I would love to have a job like Arthur Kleiner, who was the silent film pianist here at that time. Ms. Gish takes me right over to Mr. Kleiner, who took me under his wing and gave me piano lessons for the next two years.”

Mr. Oderman, who lives in East Orange, N.J., with his wife, Janet Sovey, enrolled at Newark State College (now Kean University), where he majored in English and wrote about music and art for the college newspaper. In his spare time, he played piano “anywhere to make a buck,” he said — “birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, strip clubs, you name it.”

During what he called “the Dirty Dancing era,” he performed alongside comedians like Henny Youngman and Jack Carter in what he described as “B-circuit hotels” in the Catskills.

For far less money, or even no money, he pursued his calling, providing musical accompaniment for silent films at libraries and museums, and eventually writing scores for some of the pictures. In 1968, Mr. Oderman received a call from the Museum of Modern Art. “They asked me to come in and be the silent theater pianist,” he said. “It’s the one job I had always wanted.”

The actress June Havoc, 96, who appeared in silent pictures as a child, sang Mr. Oderman’s praises.

“I have always admired Stuart’s use of his considerable talents as a musician and a writer to serve the art he loves — the art of silent film,” Ms. Havoc, who lives in Stamford, Conn., said through a personal assistant.

Mr. Oderman, who was honored by the museum last month for his 50 years of work with silent pictures, will next perform at the Brooklyn Public Library on March 1, accompanying the 1923 film “The Extra Girl,” starring Mabel Normand.

Ken Gordon, a film curator who heads the silent film program at the library, called Mr. Oderman “a torchbearer from another era.”

“Most of the people who starred in these silent movies are gone,” Mr. Gordon said. “But through his fine piano playing, Stuart Oderman has kept their work alive.”

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