In today’s guest essay, we learn from the legendary silent film accompanist and composer Jon Mirsalis as he shares the process of scoring live music for a silent feature. He will bring his talents, some planned and some improv, to several high-profile and rare silent films at this year’s Library of Congress Festival of Film & Sound, June 15-18, 2023, at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Jon has been performing live for over 45 years and shares some fascinating insight as he prepares for this year’s Festival.
Prepping the Music for a Major Film Festival by Jon C. Mirsalis
When I was contacted about performing for the upcoming Library of Congress Festival of Film & Sound (June 15-18, 2023), my immediate response was, “Yes!” As an afterthought, I asked, “What will you want me to play?” This is typical for major festivals, where I go in knowing I will see a lot of beautiful restorations of silent and sound films, and I don’t care so much what the titles are. But preparing for a festival of archival rarities can be a challenge. It’s not uncommon that I’m walking in to play for a film that I’ve never seen before, and have no more preparation than having read a one-paragraph summary of the film. I have played for some films in the past where, as the lights are dimming, I turn to someone and say, “What is this anyway?” A response such as “society melodrama,” or “typical action western,” is enough to get me through.
For this year’s festival, I at least have some advance notice of what is coming: “The Lady” (1925), a terrific Frank Borzage tearjerker that I last saw in 1994, that was an incomplete print at the time, has now been restored to full length by the Library of Congress; “So’s Your Old Man (1926), a funny W.C. Fields comedy I last saw in 2003; “Submarine” (1928), a ripping good Frank Capra action thriller that I have in my own film collection and am pretty familiar with; and “Memory Lane” (1926), a John Stahl film that I have never seen, but the AFI Catalog classifies it as a “romantic drama,” and adds the keywords: Courtship. Marriage. Abduction. Self-sacrifice. OK, I can work with that.
If the archive has time, they can scan a print to provide a digital copy and then I can actually do some real preparation, but that isn’t always feasible. (As of this writing, I don’t know if I will get screener copies of any of the films to be shown at this year’s festival). If not, there are other resources to turn to.
In the teens, exhibitor publications such as “Moving Picture World,” “Moving Picture Weekly” or “Motography” would provide suggestions of themes to use for major characters in films, or they might compile a list of tunes that would be appropriate. By the early 1920s, most major studios prepared “cue sheets,” a collection of tunes that they recommended to use for the film. These were typically well known themes that the average musician would know, but to help them out, they would provide the first few bars to refresh the accompanist’s memory. There would be a cue such as a title or scene (“Mary goes to window”), a musical recommendation (Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do”) and a time (2½ min.).
I’m not a big fan of cue sheets. I have used them to get ideas of the flow of the picture, but I rarely take the recommendation of what tunes to play. Cue sheets are essentially the equivalent of a mix tape…lots of popular, hummable–and very familiar–tunes. If the audience starts focusing on what 1920s pop tune I’m playing, then they aren’t watching the picture. Music should augment the film, not call attention to itself.
The exception to this rule is when a film was associated with a very popular theme. Just as “Casablanca” wouldn’t be the same without “As Time Goes By,” several silents had tunes that eclipsed the film itself in popularity including “Charmaine” from “What Price Glory?”(1926), “Diane” from “Seventh Heaven” (1927); “Angela Mia” from “Street Angel” (1928), “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time” from “Lilac Time” (1928); and “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” from the 1928 film of the same name.
There are books with recommended themes, like Erno Rapee’s “Motion Picture Moods,” which bills itself as “A Rapid-Reference Collection of Selected Pieces.” Besides including an assortment of pieces referenced as “Battle,” “Chase,” “Festival,” “Fire-Fighting,” “Happiness,” “Horror,” “Humor,” “Hunting,” “Lullabies,” “Oriental,” “Purity” and “Sadness,” it has numerous national anthems, and, yes, “Orgies,” an absolute necessity for the next time I play a big Cecil B. De Mille epic.
I like to integrate all these options together and come up with an original score of my own. For a first-time film, this will be a highly improvised score that I am mostly making up as I go. For a long-time favorite classic that I’ve played a dozen or more times before like “The Big Parade,” “The Kid Brother,” or “Peter Pan,” you will hear pretty much the same score every time I play it.
Then there’s the question of instrument. At the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, the home of this year’s Festival of Film & Sound, we will have the benefit of a properly maintained, vintage Yamaha B3 spinet, but that isn’t always the case. I’ve spent far too many shows playing out-of-tune spinets with broken keys and rattling soundboards. Whenever possible, I bring along my own Kurzweil PC2/X digital keyboard, which has 512 instruments (with sounds licensed from the Boston Symphony). This requires me to pre-orchestrate the entire film, assigning different instruments to individual scenes: piano, orchestra and solo cello for a sad scene; French horn and drums for majestic military; bass clarinet, strings and an ethereal choir for horror. For this approach, being able to pre-screen the film is a must, though in some cases I have orchestrated on the fly for a film I’ve never seen before. The challenge when playing at a festival outside of driving range (AFI Theatre in Maryland is 2,848 miles from my house) is transporting the keyboard on an airline, where my 72-lbs. keyboard just exceeds the 70-lb limit for standard domestic luggage.
As I am just now starting to put together the musical program for the festival, I am as much in the dark as everyone else as to what will ultimately reach your ears, but I have hopes that I will be able to pull together a musical program worthy of this terrific event. Hope to see you all in June!
Dr. Jon Mirsalis is a scientist, historian, film collector and musician based in the San Francisco Bay area. He has been performing for silent films for over 45 years.
The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the Library of Congress.
To purchase passes, and to learn more about these films and all of the scheduled events at this year’s Festival of Film & Sound visit www.loc.gov/filmsoundfestival.