The Docks of New York is little gem of a chamber film. I can remember the first time I accompanied the film on piano at the Pacific Film Archive and how popular Tin Pan Alley tunes from the 20's seemed to engage the audience in the mood of the image. The lyrics are silent beneath the melodies but seem to express what the actors are feeling: "Someone To Watch Over Me", "Don't Ever Leave Me", "Why Was I Born?" Subconsciously the audience is drawn into the mood that is associated with the melody. It's an art that works to create a feeling of space and possibility for the imagination and emotions.
Music for movies like movies themselves were in a rapid rate of development as an art form during the silent era. The Nickelodeon era started around 1908 in smaller theaters which were often converted store-fronts. By the 1920's the premier movie experience was to hear an orchestra or a theater organ in an exotic and sumptuous Movie Palace. Movies were never silent and by the end of the silent era somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 musicians across the country were employed regularly as accompanists. A small town or neighborhood theater might have very modest musical means. The bare respectable minimum was a decent piano and pianist. But in the heyday of silent movies a big premier production could tour the top theaters in major cities across the country with it's own traveling orchestra.
The Silent Movie was a re-creative art and just like a traditional concert requires live musical performance to be truly experienced. Playing with Musica Marin is a special opportunity to make the movie come alive with exceptionally talented musicians who are highly skilled in ensemble playing. The ensemble we are using for DOCKS OF NEW YORK (Violin/Viola, Piano, String Bass and Percussion) gives variety to the lyrical and rhythmic elements in the film. The ensemble is intimate and fits the scale of the movie. The score is purposely left open to allow the interplay of the performers to bring out moments of dialogue, transition and dramatic tension. Unlike a sound-track that is added to a silent movie, our performance is meant for and is responsive to the presence of a live audience.
Not only were movies always shown with live music, but they were made with live music when they were being shot in the studio and on location. Silent movie cameras were hand cranked. Since there was no necessity to synchronize a sound-track this gave the cameraman a subtle flexibility to create a rhythm of shooting that helped to shape the flow of the film. The music pulled everyone on the set into feeling the scene in common and working together to capture it. For a Hollywood production a small portable organ and violinist was common. Some stars got special treatment. Marian Davies was famous for having a string quartet play when she was filming. Hollywood was a draw for top-talent from across the country and there is no doubt that musicians who played for major studios were of the first rank.
There is not a single correct way to play for a silent movie. The world was much less standardized then. What matters is to clarify the structure of the film, to support its mood and atmosphere and to soften and balance the mechanical nature of the film which is being shown at a set speed. It was not until synchronized sound was developed that film speed became standardized at 24 frames per second. In the beginning film speed was slower. Theaters projectors had variable speed control and the projectionist would oftentimes adjust the speed to get the best flow and sometimes just to squeeze in more shows.
Seeing a silent film in it's original presentation with live music let's us experience the timelessness of great art and the roots of a cinematic language which we now take for granted. It is a chance to time-travel and inhabit the emotional worldview in which our parents and grandparents grew up.
Bruce Loeb - Silent Film Pianist and Historian