We fade in to a multi-purpose room in a California junior high school in 1976, where the silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame is being screened.
At the school-issue upright Baldwin is 13-year-old Philip Carli, giving his first ever accompaniment to a silent movie. The audience consists of just two people.
“A friend of mine who was projecting,” recalls Carli, “and his sister who was going to drive us home. I just did it to see if I could do it.”
He could. Since that day, Carli, 49, has developed an international reputation as a silent film accompanist. He tours the world giving live performances at silent film festivals, teaches masterclasses in silent film accompaniment, and records music for silent movie soundtracks.
“I try to play with a historically informed style and an awareness of the film in front of me,” he says.
Not a Job for the Ego-Driven
An alumnus of the Indiana University and Eastman music schools, Carli has the two traits a silent film accompanist needs—prodigious musical skills, and a willingness to let the film get the attention.
“Some musicians,” he says, “take [accompanying] as an excuse to show more of themselves than the film.”
At its best, when you have a really good film and you feel like you’ve clicked into the groove . . . it’s an enormous exhilaration to play for silent films. It’s dancing with a wonderful partner.
“The way I always look at it is, the music is a support and a complement to the film, with the object of making a link between the audience and the film, rather than my own music being the principal object.”
Swimming Through Lead
As Carli performs, he splits his attention between the action onscreen and the audience’s mood.
“I take a lot of my cuing from the audience. Any performer can sense what the audience is like. ‘How are they responding to the film?’ You can sense electricity, or dislike.”
And when the audience dislikes, you can bet he knows it.
“I’ve played a couple of films to an audience that really hated the film. It’s like swimming through lead.”
Playing Ahead of the Film
Unlike modern movie composers, who record music from a written score, Carli improvises as he plays. But rather than improvise as one might expect—along with the action—he plays ahead of it.
“Improvisation for the film isn’t a matter of playing along with what you’ve got,” he says. “You actually have to assess what’s coming up before you play it so that it informs what you’re playing.”
“So if you’re ahead of the film, you’re actually playing with the film. But if you actually play with the film, you are behind the film. It has to be a preemptive kind of approach.”
Like Betting on a Horse Race
Sometimes he has to accompany a film he’s never seen before. He prepares for that eventuality by researching the film and making an educated guess about its plot.
“There are only so many stories in the world. You assemble as much information as you can beforehand. Most obvious is if you can get a synopsis [of the film].”
He likens the process to using a racing form to bet on a horse race—taking into account the film’s director, cast, year it was made, and country of origin.
“I can usually guess to a certain degree what the film’s going to be like in terms of pacing, scenic design, and acting esthetic. Just from a little bit of information.”
Silent Cinema Lives
Carli’s biggest fear is that he’ll repeat himself, so he strives to make each performance different. Even so, he relies on certain tropes. For a chase scene in a drama, he’ll play rapid triplets, while a comedic chase calls for ragtime style.
“Even if it’s a really bad film,” he says, “you try to make the audience enjoy it. You try to give it its best light.”
Some eighty years ago, the advent of sound movies was thought to be the silent cinema’s death knell. But today the public’s interest in silent movies runs high—fueled in part by unprecedented access to silents via DVDs and the Internet.
And as long as there are dedicated musicians like Philip Carli, the silent cinema will never entirely fade out.