Students learn to improvise music for silent films

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By Maia Bronfman ’24

It is important, if you improvise to accompany a silent film on an organ, not to distort the theme on the screen.

Peter Krasinski, a renowned secular and sacred organist, taught this lesson and others Thursday night at Memorial Chapel in a masterclass with students of Alcee Chris, assistant professor of music. Chriss asked his students to choose each of the silent films to accompany during the masterclass.

Accompanying silent film organists are rarities in themselves, with 75 percent of the genre having been lost, according to the Library of Congress.

Chriss, also an organist but inclined towards jazz and gospel, called Krasinski “one of the great pedagogues of improvisation”.

Acclaimed organist Peter Krasinski speaks to students during a masterclass on organ accompaniment for silent films

Krasinski didn’t start out as an improviser. Although it was part of the French Catholic Romantic tradition, Krasinski said, it was not part of his early tutelage. Even when this became his career, it took him years to win the American Guild of Organists’ annual improv competition. Krasinski is now a “Maestro,” Chriss said.

Charlie Kauffman ’24 starred in a 1907 film, “Dancing Pig.” The dancing pig was presumably a human in a pig costume, given the agility with which he fought, then was stripped naked and then celebrated in rhythm with a woman in a lace dress and hat Edwardian.

After dancing synchronously with tendril sticks, the woman grabbed the pig’s tail and scrolled it in circles. Both then exited through a curtain at the center of the stage. The pig walked in like a bride, as the woman patted and lifted layers of muslin from the pig’s skirt.

Accordingly, without detracting from the on-screen theme, Kauffman played a waltz. “Dissonance makes things interesting,” Krasinski told Kauffman, suggesting experimenting with melodies and note intervals while improvising.

“Salvation is just one step away,” Krasinski said, quoting another renowned organist.

Audrey Nelson ’25 starred alongside ‘The Tipsy Playboy of One AM’, a Charlie Chaplin film. After getting his foot stuck in a large stuffed cat, Chaplin climbs a flight of stairs, falls down those stairs after being hit by the pendulum, walks through the door the pendulum guards, and after more antics goes to bed drunk.

Even before the pendulum entered the frame, Nelson had been pedaling to his visual rhythm. Krasinski also noted Nelson’s madrigalisms, his notes climbing like Chaplin. On one page she had written moods for certain time stamps. It’s a common practice in the improvisational organ community, which Chriss suggested to his students.

Nelson’s page reminded Krasinski of the thick book entitled “Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists”, a 1924 copyright republished in 1974, which he had brought to show the students. “It’s for people without improvisational talent to accompany the films,” Krasinski explained.

“This collection is intended to eliminate the aforementioned random music collection and its use to synchronize images,” writes Erno Rapée in the foreword.

Lampton Enochs ’25 played alongside a Takashi Ito film, contemporary and experimental and the first with color. Asa Schiller ’25 followed with “Metropolis,” a German Expressionist sci-fi drama about life forces in robots.

Krasinski played for the first time after Schiller, in the film he accompanied many times. “Scarcity is hard, but it’s always the right choice,” Krasinski said. To accompany the mad scientist scene, the sound had to be saved so that the pipes could explode more forcefully when the time came.

Omri Riss Chbarbi ’25 played the last of “The Evocation of Mephisto” from 1926. As Krasinski had taken a step back for the other students, he joined Riss Chbarbi, changing the recordings with his hands and feet. The tune from the pipes sounded exactly as it should for a silent film adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust”.

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