Toronto Star: Putting song to silent films

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Toronto Star: Putting song to silent films

Unread post by silentfilm » Sun Feb 01, 2009 3:03 pm

Putting song to silent films - Music - Putting song to silent films

William O'Meara will be at the keys Feb. 6, 2009 to accompany the screening of "The Passion of Joan of Arc" at Cinematheque Ontario. The Toronto musician will also play on four more Carl Theodor Dreyer films at the theatre.
Musician is one of a few who can improvise live music for entire movies

February 01, 2009
Susan Walker

In the 1920s, before anyone imagined that movies might have soundtracks, the Rudolf Wurlitzer Company did a steady trade in installing pipe organs in theatres where silent films were playing.

The advent of the theatre accompanist, first organists and then pianists, was a boon to keyboardists, says William O'Meara. The Eastman School of Music in Rochester actually began as a training centre for theatre accompanists.

Today O'Meara is one of the few classically trained musicians with the skills to improvise the live accompaniment for an entire movie. He'll be at the keys on Friday when Cinematheque Ontario ( presents the first of two screenings of Carl Theodor Dreyer's magnificent The Passion of Joan of Arc, made in 1928. And he'll be playing for subsequent screenings of Dreyer films including The Master of the House (1925), The Parson's Widow (1921), Leaves From Satan's Book (1919-1921) and Love One Another (1922).

"I've always improvised the accompaniments," says the Toronto musician. "That's what happened in the silent film era. Only the major films in the major cities would have a full orchestral score." Or any score at all. Sometimes the players were given a line of melody and a cue sheet to match up with moments in the movie.

When you've trained as hard and been playing as long as O'Meara – more than 30 years – it's not so hard, he says, to improvise a musical line for a 90-minute picture. He has been Cinematheque's accompanist since 1998 and estimates he's performed for as many as 250 screenings.

"You aim to have it sound like an actual soundtrack," he says. He tries to screen the films in advance, but creates the music in his head. "It's important to keep a distance, so the music doesn't become simplistic portrayal. You save the big movements for the big moments in the film."

Dreyer (1889-1968) is a cineaste's and an accompanist's dream. The Danish director made films with such directness and black-and-white artistry that he is looked upon as one of the outstanding 20th-century masters of the medium. Filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Lars von Trier regard him as their artistic forebear.

"It's a joy to play for his films, because he deals with such elevated topics: human anguish, suffering and persecution," says O'Meara. "They are inspiring and allow for more abstract interpretation."

The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Dreyer consulted the documents of the 1431 trial of the 19-year-old Jeanne d'Arc to compose an emotion-filled account of the last eight hours in the young visionary's life. Maria Falconetti plays the lead role of a frightened young woman whose faith is tested to the limit.

The actors, including the poet and performer Antonin Artaud, wear no makeup. The set depicting the prison and court where the Maid of Orleans meets her fate is austere. Dreyer's strange camera angles frame drama, conveyed in sparse dialogue and feelings imprinted on an unforgettable gallery of faces.

O'Meara follows the pacing of the film, with its long, slow pans alternating with short, staccato edits, to create his accompaniment. He makes music that sounds natural to a present-day listener. The filmgoer quickly forgets O'Meara's there.

"Melody comes second nature now," says O'Meara. "I think more about what kinds of musical textures – rhythms, chordal patterns – will suit the images.

Contemporary cinema uses music to highlight important developments. In the silent era, the music ran throughout the film. O'Meara likens his task to a journey with peaks and valleys.

"I find the mountains and the valleys take care of themselves."

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