Piano Music for Silent Movie

» Posted by on Oct 25, 2013 in Piano Gigs | 0 comments

Piano Music for Silent Movie

Last month I had the treat (and challenge) of accompanying a silent film on piano. The event was a book signing for a new graphic novel called Bluffton by Matt Phelan. The movie was Buster Keaton’s The General from 1926, which lasts 75 minutes and is thoroughly entertaining! I arranged the score using mostly pieces from the Civil War era, when the film took place.

Never having done anything like this before, I didn’t have much of a plan but as I watched the movie and tried playing over it, I realized that having themes would make good sense. I designated four themes total: the protagonist, the fair maiden, the Confederates and the Union soldiers. When any of these characters was precarious situation, I played a minor version of their theme (which mostly involves changing I and IV chords to minor, and V7 chords to V7b9 !), and basically tried to reflect whatever other emotions they were conveying in how I was playing. This was a little tricky, but way fun!

Even with four themes and several variations on each one, hearing them over and over for 75 minutes can be repetitive, so I had a few other tunes for various scenes. On the first chase scene on a train, I basically improvised on basic ragtime for 10 minutes straight.

My great uncle, organist Eddy Hanson

My great uncle, silent film organist Eddy Hanson

Most people I talked to afterwards said that they thought it was really cool, but then quickly became so immersed in the film that they forgot the music was live, which I guess is what I should shoot for!

My mom/family-history-expert reminded me that my great uncle was a famous organist for silent movies in Chicago. He also wrote the Wisconsin State Polka and several other pieces that survive today. We never met, but nevertheless I’m happy to carry on the family tradition.