Ben Model, silent film composer and accompanist extraordinaire


Ben Model is one of the leading silent film composer/accompanists working in the U.S. today, and has been creating and performing musical scores for silent movies for 30 years. He plays piano, theatre organ and has written orchestral scores as well. Model has been a resident silent film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC for nearly a quarter of a century. He  composes all his own scores, and performs in a style that is both evocative of the silent era and also aware of a contemporary (and younger) audience's awareness of music and expectations of film scoring. Read his full bio here.

After hearing Model play at various events featuring films by Alice Guy, including the Whitney retrospective in 2009-2010, I asked him for an interview. His answers are fascinating for any lover of silent film.

Let's start with a clip of Model's music for Alice Guy's Falling Leaves, from his blog:

Q: How did you start playing piano for silent films?

I was a film production major at New York University, and had grown up watching and being obsessed with silent movies.  Between the Killiam shows on public tv, the 8mm Blackhawk prints I bought and my knowing Walter Kerr who showed me silents in 16mm at his house, I got to see a lot of silent film for a kid in the suburbs in the pre-home video era.  The mandatory film history class we took at NYU freshman year ran the silents in 16mm without any music, since they were all double-perf silent prints.  This bothered me and I felt like I had to help these wonderful films, which were bombing in front of film students every week.  I had been playing piano since I was a kid, and probably secretly wanted to do this having heard Bill Perry on "The Silent Years" on public television, and had seen him perform at MoMA a few times.  

The following year I went to the head of the department and offered to play for the film class, and he was very enthusiastic about the idea.  I still don't know how I got myself to do this, considering that I'd hardly ever performed in front of an audience and was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea, plus I had done little or no improvising.  But I needed to help these wonderful movies out so they'd be as entertaining and moving as their makers had intended.  I found a mentor in Lee Erwin, the theatre organist (1908-2000) who was house organist at the Carnegie Hall Cinema at the time.  I approached him after a show and told him what I was doing and he and I became friends, and he answered all my questions, gave me advice, and passed on to me his philosophy of silent film accompaniment.  I also began playing for William K. Everson's classes, so that was two features a week, plus the intro to silent film class, for the next few years. Everson was the one who got the department to pay me, not just for playing at classes, but also for the time I spent screening the films and writing music.  So, I had these three older "godfathers" so to speak, who said "yes" and allowed me to follow this passion.  I've actually found one more, a silent film pianist named Harry Weiss -- he's 93 and still playing, and has the same philosophy about silent film accompaniment that Lee Erwin (who Harry knew from work in the recording industry in the '50s and '60s) and I also have.

Q: What special challenges does playing for silent films represent?

 I think my background as a filmmaker, as well my training in improvisational comedy, serve to inspire and inform my work as a film accompanist.  It's much more than just playing mood music.  You're decoding the film and helping the audience to do so as well.  A big part of my approach is to understand the director's style and to grasp on to their intent and point of view, to honor what they were trying to convey in order to move and entertain the audience.  Sometimes, especially with dramas made before WWI, there are things that aren't clear to a contemporary audience either because of unfocused direction and staging or because of archaic acting styles, or because of the more presentational style of filmmaking employed.  So, I find I have to look around the frame while the film is running, especially when "sight-reading" a film at a show, to find where the main information is, quicker than the audience can, and if necessary do things musically -- fluctuating tempo or using chord progressions or sculpting the melody to help mirror either action or emotion to help "point" an audience to where they're supposed to look in the frame.  

A contemporary audience is used to everything being clear visually and my need subliminal help, which can be provided musically.  A film like New Love and the Old  (dir: Guy Blaché, Solax, 1911) is basically a long interior sequence in which a son, his elderly mother, and his fiancée talk with one another, and the dialog is not reinforced with gesture the way it is in some other films.  I had to watch it twice before I played for it to really spot "who's got the ball", in terms of where the audience should look, so I could anticipate this in the music and make the underscoring's flow match the dramatic action of the dialog.

Just like in any conversation, the ball gets passed back and forth, depending on who's talking and whose reaction we should be looking at.  Because, especially for a novice audience, it's hard to tell where to look for information, the musical line and progression needs to match the dramatic action of the conversation, but not in a "mickey-mousing" way, rather by fluctuating tempo and having the chord progressions -- their tension and release -- fit the flow of the story.

Playing for this film was really about watching faces and their expressions, which -- coincidentally -- is a big part of how I play for Harry Langdon.  I think that with Langdon, the slapstick is going on inside his head, since so much of his humor is watching him think things over and try out several solutions in his head before he does anything.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the pianists who played music in nickelodeons when these films came out originally, in 1910 or 1913, etc?

I'd encourage anyone interested in this to pick up a copy of Rick Altman's excellent book Silent Film Sound, which is a good read and incredibly specific and well-researched.  Altman debunks the myth that silent films were never really silent, and shows that throughout the nickelodeon era films were shown without accompaniment in most cases, and the music heard in cinemas was that of illustrated songs, sung and performed between the films.  That is not to say films were universally unaccompanied. Kathy Helgesen Fuller Seeley has told me of a husband and wife team who not only did illustrated songs but the wife also accompanied the moving pictures that were shown.  Altman says that in 1913 there was a movement industry-wide to abolish the illustrated song from the movie theaters.  Around this time is when trade papers show criticism of poor accompaniments to films and request for proper music, and that the music fit the films.  That year also saw the publication of the first Sam Fox Folio of picture music, composed by J.S. Zamecnik.  This entire folio is available for download on Rodney Sauer's Mont Alto website at this page: . From 1915 onward, spurred by the whopping success of "The Birth of a Nation" and its full orchestral score, music publishers jumped on the bandwagon and began publishing mood music for silent films.  

As far as the pianists themselves, once accompaniment became more prevalent, they were from a wide range of skills, from conservatory-trained to anyone who could play and was looking for paid work.  The thing to remember is that orchestras, in the theaters that had ensembles from five pieces up to a full symphony, employed men only.  Soloists, on the other hand, tended to be of either sex.  I've met a lot of people who told me their grandmother or great aunt played piano or organ in the movie theater, but the published guides from the era -- such as the one Erno Rapée wrote -- describes the orchestral breakdown in terms of how many men one should have of each instrument.

Q: You also score music for silent films.

Actually, all my music scoring work is for silent films.  I do this full time, and have anywhere from 12 to 25 shows a month, plus occasional recording for Kino or one of the smaller labels.  Plus I have four orchestral scores that I license, three of which I've reworked for high school band.


Q: What kind of impressions Alice Guy's films made on you, now that you have played music for a few of them?

As a filmmaker, I have to say I was really struck by Alice Guy's use of exteriors.  Her interior scenes seem like the actors are in a compressed space and move laterally if at all in terms of blocking, but when she takes a scene outdoors it's almost like she's completed liberated.  Her choice of and use of the spaces is extremely creative and deliberate, and reminded me of Swedish cinema of the same era.  Guy's outdoor scenes find actors moving from background to foreground, or vice versa, on a 30-degree angle to the forward line from the camera, where most other filmmakers of the era stick to lateral movement or an angle that is maybe 10 degrees or so off the perpendicular.  I find this true of films like the  Chez Ie marechal-ferrant [At the Blacksmith's], (Gaumont, 1899) in which there are two blacksmithing stations seen, with one slightly behind and to frame right of the main one, the way the mattress chase moves through the frame back to front in  Le Matelas alcoolique or Le Matelas épileptique [The Alcoholic Mattress or The Epileptic Mattress], (Gaumont, 1906,) in the exteriors of the Matrimony's Speed Limit (Solax, 1913), and the exteriors of The Ocean Waif  (International Film Service, 1916) and The Great Adventure  (Pathé, 1918) are so inventive and beautiful.

I also enjoyed the richness of the female characters in all her films. They're more three-dimensional and active than in a lot of other films from the same era.  As an accompanist you have to work harder to supply and underscore drama when there's a deficiency of it onscreen.

Q. Tell us more about your musical style.

I don't use existing or recognizable music, unless it's specifically called for in the film, and I don't do "song title puns" or sound effects (playing a sharp cluster of notes when someone falls, etc).  I use leitmotifs. Even when I'm playing for a film I've never seen I'll make up a few themes during the show and try hard to remember them and use them again during the score, but I don't overuse them because then they become recognizable music to the audience.  It's an odd profession to be in, because it's really not about you, and you're the one performing.  I always feel funny about it if I get a bigger hand than the film(s) at the end of a show.  When people talk with me after I've played, they usually talk with me about the film, and when they bring up things I did in the score I get concerned that they noticed something in the music when they're supposed to be sucked in to the movie.  Silent film music should be like an old sweater, it should be comfortable to an audience and should fit the film well. Lee Erwin always said the best thing you can hear from someone after a show is "I forgot you were playing."

My music and scoring technique is always evolving, and I try hard to make improvements in my playing and improvising year after year.  My technique is informed by how I feel shows went, from occasionally listening to recordings I've made of shows (I use the Zoom H4 digital recorder) which is often painful, and sometimes from colleagues whose opinions I respect.  Like any artist I'm rarely completely satisfied, but I never let myself get comfortable with the level of what I'm doing, and every time I sit down to play a show (or pace in the back of the theater, another part of my pre-show ritual) I try to think of things I could do better from the last show in general or the last time I'd played for a particular film.  

If you visit his website you can read about scores Model has available for rent.