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Pianist excels at the silent treatment
Rick Friend adds musical depth to films from early Hollywood era
Michael D. Reid, Times Colonist
Published: Monday, April 21, 2008
When someone gives you the silent treatment, a natural impulse is to get upset.
The opposite occurs when you get it from Rick Friend, a guy for whom silence is golden.
The California composer and pianist has parlayed his passion for silent films into an esoteric career. He's the go-to guy for orchestras seeking a soloist to provide live musical accompaniment for silent film screenings.
"I love it all, every bit of it, and I take it very seriously," says the film aficionado, who on Friday will join conductor Giuseppe Pietraroia and the Victoria Symphony to provide orchestral accompaniment for The Mark of Zorro at the University of Victoria's Farquhar Auditorium.
The 1920 Douglas Fairbanks classic, to be introduced by Duncan Regehr, the actor and artist who played the masked hero in New World Television's Zorro TV series in the 1990s, will unspool to Friend's compositions as well as excerpts from classics by Brahms and Albeniz.
The New Jersey native got interested in silent film in high school after he rented the 1927 Buster Keaton classic The General. Intrigued, he began improvising music on his piano. He has been hooked ever since.
"It's a memory that will never go away. It was an electric discovery, to be able to feel so good playing music," says Friend, who has collaborated with orchestras from Regina to Fort Worth, Texas. Highlights include D.W. Griffiths's Intolerance, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc and F.W. Murnau's Faust.
"Faust was most fulfilling," Friend, 62, says. "It comes from a master of movie-making. It's like taking part in work of art."
Another highlight was performing a half original, half classical score for 1925's Phantom of the Opera.
"It's a potboiler, but Lon Chaney carries the movie in a grand way. He evoked more sympathy than any other I've seen."
It was after Friend, a graduate of Ohio's Oberlin College, eventually moved to Los Angeles that his career took off.
After landing a job as a projectionist at a Los Angeles movie theatre in 1981, he heard about plans for a festival of vintage films and volunteered to play live music. For his audition, he performed music to the short The Charleston.
"It was a real oddity, an early silent film about a spaceship that lands, and a person gets out and dances the Charleston."
Friend had also performed with the Toronto International Film Festival's Open Vault series and was involved with the Toronto Film Society and Cinematheque Ontario in the years following his move to Canada in 1970.
That's where his Victoria connection comes in. Describing himself as "a wandering hippie" who left the U.S. because "we felt this American revolution was going to get fired up," he befriended film producer David Gordian in Toronto.
Industry watchers will recall that after Gordian and his wife, writer-director Joan Carr-Wiggin, moved to Victoria, they made Sleeping With Strangers, a romantic comedy starring the late Adrienne Shelly and filmed at Sooke Harbour House.
Although Friend didn't score the film, Gordian consulted him on some musical issues.
There are similarities and differences between scoring a mainstream feature and a silent film, Friend says.
"The preparation is the same. For the composer, you're watching the video or final cut many times. You get the impression and you're taking note of surprising things to be prepared for. The rest of it is sitting there and letting it flow."
Doing musical accompaniment for silent films, with the improv element, is "very much like jazz," he adds.
"The improvisational stuff is involved in the performance. I write cues for certain scenes I've spotted in the movie."
One "uphill" challenge that stands out was creating music for Murnau's 1922 vampire classic Nosferatu.
Resisting the temptation to create over-the-top "horror movie" music was part of it.
"I couldn't treat it like a professional composer might, to enhance the dark places without falling in and getting trapped," says Friend, who also teaches music in L.A. and plays improv piano at Hollywood's Silent Movie Theater.
"It's always tempting, but Nosferatu is a subtle movie. The creepiness gets under your skin. It's not up front."
Friend says he usually looks for something to "connect to" in a film he's creating music for.
For The Mark of Zorro it was the "good vs. evil" elements and the swashbuckler -- "a hero who had no fears."
It's challenging for orchestras to play music to a movie, he says. They need to be on their toes to avoid missing cues.
"I worked with one conductor whose face was white with fear," Friend recalls, laughing. "The cues were all lined up and then he realized he could see all these cues as a movie. But every conductor's been able to figure it out."
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
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