When the first Silent Film Festival takes place this weekend at the restored Tybee Post Theater, it will afford attendees the chance to not only view a handful of widely acknowledged classic examples of the early cinematic arts, but to also experience a live, simultaneous musical performance by one of the most celebrated adherents of this filmic genre alive today.
Multi-instrumentalist Dennis James is known internationally as perhaps the most dedicated, period-accurate musical accompanist specializing in the live scoring of films which were designed with such accompaniment in mind. A gifted musician since his early teenage years, this historic preservationist has, through dogged perseverance, accumulated what has been described as one of the largest private libraries of authentic instrument scores and genuine silent film music in existence today. He uses this extensive collection of vintage documents when painstakingly restoring and recreating the original scores for a wide variety of early films.
From the late 1960s through to the present day, James has traveled far and wide, performing alongside all manner of silent films in some of the most famous and iconic movie theaters and show palaces around the world — uncovering and preserving rare scores and sheet music along the way. This two-night event marks his first visit to our area, although he has performed numerous times over the past four decades in Atlanta at the Fabulous Fox Theatre and High Museum.
The first night at this intimate, 1930s-era, 200-seat venue finds James performing solo on piano and sound effects in tandem with a collection of four short film comedies starring iconic early movie stars Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. That showcase runs two hours in total, including intermission. The second night sees James joined by locally based performers Jared Hall and Jane Ogle for a “fully staged” group effort to accompany the famed feature-length 1928 romantic-comedy “Show People.”
James spoke to me from his hotel in Columbia, S.C., just before making the drive to Tybee to begin rehearsals for this special engagement.
What is it about this unusual pursuit that most intrigues or animates you — both as a musician and as a lover of cinema?
Dennis James: People today don’t realize that these historical films from the pre-sound, printed-on-film era were never really silent and that they only came to be called that, and so often as a pejorative as dismissal to be thought as ineffective, when the later movies (or, as they were known at first, “talkies”) arrived in 1926.
I’ve always had a marveling fascination for what is now a nearly forgotten part of the original practice of exhibiting film ... Those days of stylistically authentic and period-appropriate live musical accompaniment at each film screening that facilitated the communal audience’s emotional response in a manner already highly developed from opera, musical theater, Broadway shows, ballet, vaudeville, music hall and all of the other pre-existing music-accompanied presentation art forms.
I first saw and heard “silent” films performed by a veteran master of the form when I was a teenager and the visceral impact of that experience inspires me to do this myself ever since.
For folks who may have never seen a silent film, besides the lack of a recorded soundtrack, what would you say is the main difference between films of that period and later efforts made with synchronized sound?
James: If one accepts film in general today as an art form, then one must consider the early period of the silent films in their live performance-in-presentation with their accompanying music as a valued and important part of (the art form’s) development. Film from the very beginning of its public exhibition had live music to accompany it ... With music scoring, along with some punctuation sound effect elements, as the sound accompaniment, it all becomes an extraordinary vehicle for the imagination to take hold and, for many people, permit the internal invention of the “sound” of dialogue and, in many cases, to even add a full-color experience of the black and white images.
Much in the same way that radio dramas properly presented and heard result in the listener experiencing a literal “alternate reality.” To experience (these) movies in live, real-time experience the way they were meant to be viewed, in a communal setting with the film image seen in its proper proportions, speed and original image quality and heard with stylistically preserved, period-original sourced musical accompaniment performed with a thorough and fully realized respect for the past and with full confidence of serving the presentation desires of the filmmakers themselves ... If one loves movies, as do most moviegoers today, seeing and hearing them as they were originally intended to be experienced should not be missed.
For films which no original transcribed or published score still exists, how do you create a new score which is believed to be similar in tone or substance to what was likely heard during its original theatrical release?
James: Following professional period procedures well documented in trade publications and professional film scoring manuals published in the 1910s through the 1920s, I initially view the film in its entirety to get a sense of the whole work.
When the original score survives, I then practice each scene with each unit of music to accomplish the transcription to solo performance, plus establish much more detailed sight cueing than was generally indicated in the scores. When the original score does not survive, I set about researching what clues I can establish as to the original performance characteristics — plus I begin to assemble tentative choices of thematic materials from my own collection. I then view the film scene by scene, and write up an emotion-guided reaction script to the film to serve as an outline guide for my score assembly.
I take each scene and set the music to it, establishing just which pre-selections are valid or substituting yet more choices when necessary. I work out the details of the “road map” for performance, noting where to repeat sections, where to cadence, where to thread links to following compositions and the like. I then rehearse the score through several times with the film, finally assembling it all in sequential order.
The second night here features local vocalists performing as well. Is this unusual for you?
James: I often work with fellow instrumentalists, vocalists and theatrical performers to bring about recreations of historical film presentations which are as complete as possible. You must remember that film was presented initially as an element of a cabaret-styled music hall multi-performance segment experience in a Parisian cafe on Dec. 28, 1895. That newly established tradition of incorporating other performance elements within a movie-going experience was highly developed throughout the 1910s and 1920s in all presentation venues, from the large metropolitan cinemas (with full orchestras, vocalists, ballet companies, staged revues, vaudeville performances and audience participation segments) on through to the village cinemas (complete with audience sing-alongs, master of ceremonies/vocalists acting as hosts, solo musical performances and even amateur contests presented before the screenings).
I most enjoy performing with our second evening’s feature title “Show People,” because it is MGM film studio’s fond farewell to silent pictures, providing an affectionate tribute to the entire industry and its participant figures, and an overall marvelous feature film-length comedy as well.
How much, if any, musical improvisation will take place on your part over the course of this event?
James: When I prepare these compiled scores from surviving historical instruction elements, the improvisatory element is minimal. When I prepare my own scores without any surviving historical elements, then the improvisation varies according to the type of film and the content represented.
For instance, in comedies I do quite a bit of improvisation to match the physical elements portrayed, while both supporting and enhancing the local audience’s reaction to the film in a given performance. I also pay careful attention to and incorporate both my own emerging emotions plus my own reactions to the subtle cues of audience response to guide the expression in my performance. The result is a dedicated attempt to make the score the most appropriate for the film at the given performance and, especially, for the audience in the particular venue.
IF YOU GO
What: Silent Film Fest featuring Dennis James
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 16-17
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.
Cost: $15 per night; $13.50 for members; $10 for students; two-day advance pass is $22.50
Info: www.tybeeposttheater.org or 912-472-4790 for advance pass