Film Q&A - Not-So-Silent-Cinema plays along with silent film classics

New scores to Buster Keaton classics will be performed at Eyedrum

The New York-based musicians of Not-So-Silent-Cinema, which creates scores for classic silent films, will visit Atlanta's Eyedrum Gallery this week to present a program of classic Buster Keaton shorts with original music. We caught up with Brendan Cooney, the group's founder and organizer, to ask him a bit about the screening, the process of putting music to the show, and the enduring appeal of Buster Keaton.

Tell us a little bit about the films the audience will see at your event.

We're screening four Buster Keaton films from the early days of his career. He was one of the big celebrities of the silent film comedy era. He didn't survive into the talkie period like Charlie Chaplin did, so his name didn't stay as well-known later, but he was really 10 times the acrobat and stuntman that Chaplin or the other comedians at the time were.

How did you originally get into composing and playing music for silent films?

I got into it by total accident. A friend of mine had asked me to take over a gig she didn't want to have, playing a score for a screening of Nosferatu. I'd never done that before. I'd never even watched a silent film all the way through. But I had a great time doing the gig. I was really impressed with the film, and it seemed like a new way of making music. I'd been a composer, a musician, an improvisor, but I'd never really thought of this as a medium. I was able to communicate ideas to an audience in a very different way. It made the music a little less abstract for an audience.

How did you go about creating music for these particular movies?

Buster Keaton's films are all great historic pieces. They're all set in early '20s urban American landscape. There's a real fascination with automobiles and trains, but you also have horses and buggies in the street at the same time. You have this interest in modernity and the idea of home. You get a real sense of the changing pace of American life. Anyway, I'm trying to capture a lot of that spirit in the soundtrack. I'm using a lot of music we associate with the '20s; hot jazz, ragtime, blues, klezmer music. It's a real mix of those styles. Buster Keaton films have been some of the easiest films for me to write music for because he has a real musical timing to his directing. There's a very clear sense of tempo in scenes, and scenes have a clear arc, where there's this mounting tension toward some physical stunt or gag or fall or explosion. It lends itself naturally to writing music.

When these films were released, they weren't usually linked with a specific score, so a lot of the musicians who played along basically did what you're doing. Is what you're doing a recreation of their process?

A lot of pianists at that time would often be seeing the film for the first time when they were playing along to it. A lot of times they would be improvising. Or what was often really common were books of stock music, popular or classical music, organized by themes — romantic music or chase music or drunken or sleepy music. The pianist would quickly flip from page to page as the movie progressed. It was atmospheric music. Also, it was probably not common to hear a lot of different popular music styles being played along with films. I think a lot of those things like jazz and ragtime and blues were not considered appropriate for mainstream audiences, but were considered a little risque and edgy. You were more likely to hear sentimental or classical music excerpts. The music I'm doing isn't necessarily "historical." I'm not trying to capture the exact music you heard in a movie theater in 1920, some people do that. It's not really what I'm interested in. I'm interested more in capturing the spirit of that time. Nowadays when we look back on the '20s, we look at the most important music of that time: jazz and blues and ragtime and Klezmer music.

We've had a few shows like this in the Atlanta area recently, featuring live music with silent films. Do you think there's been a revival of interest and why do you think that might be?

The Artist and Hugo brought this era back to the popular consciousness. But I also think the concept of what a movie is and how we watch movies is changing a lot. It means there are niche markets opening for people looking for different ways of experiencing movies, especially new reasons to go out and see a "live" movie. There's something very unique about seeing a movie with musicians playing along. It really draws the audience into the experience. We're all doing something together in this room.

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