‘Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot.’
‘A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does thing funny.’
- Buster Keaton
World-class pianist and Gershwin virtuoso Kevin Cole will be lighting up the stage at Bay City Players as he marries his musical creativity with the vintage magic of Silent Movies in the opening performance of Players’ 103rd season. Suitably titled Cole Plays Silent Movies, this streaming-only performance will run from October 23-25th and will thread together Cole’s expressive live accompaniment to a trio of hilariously spooky silent film classics.
Opening with two of the earliest horror shorts ever put onto film, Cole will tickle the ivories through The House of the Devil (1896) and The Haunted Castle (1897), with the main event featuring funnyman Buster Keaton as he attempts to solve a mystery and get the girl in Sherlock Jr., which premiered back in 1924.
This streaming-only performance will be taped by Snow Productions and has posed some intriguing challenges. “Typically when a silent movie is showcased the pianist will be in front of the stage looking up at the screen as the creates the accompaniment,” explains Kevin. “In this case because we have no live audience, we’ll be featuring an upright piano onstage. Audiences will see me in the left corner of their screen on stage playing along to these two short films; and then they’ll start to see just the movie on their screens for the main feature, while in the left corner will be a little box showing my hands traveling across the keyboard.”
“This way audiences can watch my hands; and I think this is a pretty novel way to approach this project, as people always seem to want to come and watch me do somersaults all over the piano,” he laughs.
As Cole puts it, ‘This is an interesting time to be a musician.’ Since the statewide lockdown precipitated by the COVID pandemic last March, Cole has been approached by three different arts organizations to film video concert fundraisers: one for Arts Saginaw that premiered in August; one for the Beaver Island Arts Festival called ‘Baroque on Beaver’; and one for the Ravinia Arts Festival in Chicago, which is the oldest summer music festival in the country, starting back in 1904.
“Usually Ravinia will draw 7000 people and I’ve performed there for 13 out of their last 20 Summer Season, which they cancelled their year and replaced with a virtual lawn party. There was nobody in the audience, but I was filmed on stage and they were using drones and all this stuff.”.
Considering that much of the magic & energy that fuels a live performance emanates from the imminent physical exchange that goes on between performer and audience, has this transition to solitary virtual performing been hard for Cole?
“What I learned recording these few concerts over the past summer is that my imagination is really good,” he reflects. “While I’m performing in my head I’m picturing an audience; and usually when I perform the audience is quiet and you can hear a pin drop, so I’m not really missing anything in that sense. I just visualize the audience in my head, because music affects me when I play it. Whether there is humor or sadness to it, my job is to connect what I’m feeling through what I’m playing, so I feel that I’m still connecting common ground whether performing live or virtually.”
When approaching a creative project such as weaving music together with silent film within an immediate live context, how does Cole go about scoring silent films - many of which were created over 100 years ago?
“My approach is to watch the film as much as I can ahead of time so I can establish a time line and know what the characters are doing and when I have to perform each segment,” he explains. “While watching the film I’ll get an overall impression of the mood of the film and feel my job is to understand what the director intended, as well as what the actors portrayed within the director’s intention. I try to get in the head of the director & performers and see where choices were made. Once I understand those choices, I’ll watch the film again on my phone or laptop and start improvising. If I like something or develop a little theme for a certain character, I’ll jot 8-bars of it down so I don’t forget it, use that to define that particular character, and then move on.”
“Some films I know the roadmap well enough that I can do pure improvisation,” he continues. “I know the mood to set for each scene. With this particular Keaton film there are re-occurring things that Keaton does that call out for different themes. However, the thing you have to be careful of with this approach is to not repeat yourself every time somebody does a pratfall or flies down a bannister; otherwise you can detract from the film if you’re trying to make a sound effect on the piano for every little thing happening in the film. The audience sees what’s going on, so you don’t want to get too mechanical or predictable with your performance.”
Back during the silent film era when these films would be showcased in movie palaces across the country, did the pianists or organists at these theatres also improvise the scores, or did the filmmakers send out scores for each pianist to follow?
“It worked both ways,” notes Kevin. “In the early days of the 1920s, which was the height of silent movies, most neighborhood film houses had someone who could improvise. Pianists in these small towns didn’t have a chance to see the film first; or they might be able to view it once, so they didn’t really have a chance to create a roadmap for the score and would need to improvise. Sometimes they would play popular songs of the day instead of improvising.”
“Several pianists that were really good at improvising in the larger cities started writing down music for different scenes, or would find folk music and compile these encyclopedias of thematic music, so you could find 8 bars of what to play for an airplane scene, or what to play for a humorous moment just by turning the page really fast for these excerpts.”
“Another way of doing it would be for the film studios to commission composers or conductors to create a score that would feature 10 ensembles or a full-orchestra, with the music all scored out, which was made to be a perfect marriage of music to film. So all three of these approaches existed.”
“I had an aunt on my father’s side, Dursa Powell Cole, who played piano for silent movies close to my family’s home here in Bay City from her late teens to her early 20s,” adds Kevin. “I never got to hear her play, but one of the times that I was living in California I had the good fortune to get associated with Bob Mitchell, who had the Bob Mitchell Boys Choir. He was featured in the film Going My Way and whenever Hollywood films needed to feature a boys choir, it was always his choir they would feature. He lived to be almost 100, but when I was living in L.A. at that time he was in his 80s. Back in the day he played accompaniment for all the silent movies that would premiere in Los Angeles, which was the movie capitol of the world; and I got to talk with a little bit about how he approached his scoring. It was fun to actually talk to someone that was there at the time making their livelihood from this artform.”
When asked the most challenging component involved with this type of musical translation, Kevin responds with one word: ‘Stamina’. “There’s no let up and everything is constant, so you have to keep really focused for 50 to 70 minutes.
Interestingly enough, October happens to be the birthday month for Buster Keaton, who would have been 125 years-old this year.”
“I should also mention that in this film Sherlock Jr. Keaton’s father Joe Keaton makes an appearance. Buster Keaton had a huge Michigan connection because his parents started an artist colony just north of Muskegon. He would spend his summers at this arts colony in Michigan that his parents ran.”
To get an even better idea about what you can expect, check out Kevin's commentary here.
Tickets for ‘Cole Plays Silent Movies’ are available by visiting baycityplayers.org/tickets/
Enjoy these three classic films accompanied by the ever-inventive Kevin Cole streamed with ease directly to your tablet, smart TV, or other device!
16th November, 2023