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Silent movie pianist Bernie Anderson plays in Chatham
By Lisa D. Connell
Monday, July 11, 2011 1:43 AM EDT
CHATHAM — When Bernie Anderson does his job right, no one knows.
That’s because as a pianist whose specialties include musical accompaniment to silent movies, Anderson’s goal is to be, truly, a silent partner.
“The tone of the piano accompanies and does not overpower the action on screen,” Anderson said several days before his July 9 complement to “The General” and “Dog Shy” at the Crandell Theatre.
A meeting earlier in his musical life with the late Lee Erwin — considered by musicians and movie buffs to be the dean of silent film scoring — sparked Anderson’s interest. Erwin died in 2000 at 93, according to the website silentera.com.
“It was near and dear to his heart,” Anderson said.
Anderson absorbed all of the musical knowledge that he could from Erwin. Key to the tutelage: That “the emphasis wasn’t on me, it was on the movie,” Anderson said.
For the last 15 years, in gigs across New York and other states, Anderson’s work has literally spoken for itself. Anderson said he accompanies silent films at least one a month. His booking at the Crandell will be a chance for him to play in a small community.
The 37-year-old explains that silent film comedies are harder to score. Shorts, comedies lasting as the name suggests, less than 15 minutes, leave less time for character development through notes and chords.
The aim is to develop the range of music — from low to high notes and flourishes in between — and to tell the story through sound.
Storytelling is at the heart of it all. Anderson develops the narrative story line and creates themes for different moods and motives of the characters.
Move away from what he considers the stereotypical image of silent movie organ or piano accompaniments: What can be a heavy-handed da, da, de-da-da of a “Phantom of the Opera” parody, for example.
“A lot of people have this preconceived notion in their head about what a silent film is,” he said, adding,“You can’t just play anything. You have to play music that honors the drama.”
And, key to accompaniment, is to play music that people don’t know. If the melody can be recognized in the first few notes it distracts viewers from the action on the screen.
The playing of the music itself should not be funny. The film should be respected.
This lesson is nothing new, Anderson said.
Before the “talkies” emerged, discussion in the 1920s centered on the music honoring the on-screen action. The best accompaniment develops the actor’s personality and captures the film’s theme. Moviegoers will glean insights from the film without ever hearing a spoken word.
By the claps emanating throughout Saturday night’s packed theatre, Anderson accomplished his goal.
Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.