Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Score one for the teacher

It all started last year when Penny Lazarus saw the old piano off to the side of the aisle of the Screening Room, sparking an image of the old days of silent films, when every theater had a pianist who would give context to the films they would accompany. She didn’t know that the piano was more of a showpiece than a working instrument or that the last major workout the instrument had seen was about a decade before, when Tiger Saw used it at the debut of the Port indie music collective’s original soundtrack for “Nosferatu,” the eerie F.W. Munaru silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” tale. She also didn’t realize that, for whatever reason —  accessibility of the films thanks to format changes, the hip factor of putting a new spin on something classic and familiar  — writing original scores for silent and out-of-copyright films had become a cottage industry, whether it’s Alloy Orchestra’s take on “Metropolis,” the Fritz Lang film or the Devil Music Ensemble’s score for “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or, taking it to the extreme, punk pioneers Pere Ubu’s treatment of “Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” the kitchy horror film that, strictly speaking, was not a silent film until the band stripped its soundtrack to make way for its score. But Lazarus, wife of Port playwright Joshua Faigen who has been teaching piano in the city since moving here from Pittsburgh about a decade ago, did recognize an opportunity in that piano at the Screening Room — a way to “keep it interesting” for her students.

She started with the preliminaries, lining up a time to use the State Street screen for what will be a very different kind of recital: Lights, camera, music. And Lazarus, also a singer who studied with Martha Peabody and performs with the Newburyport Choral Society, who made her solo singing debut last year at The Governor’s Academy, also lined up Richard Hughes, a pianist who has compiled silent movie scores from the 1920s and has released a DVD with original scores for three films by Charlie Chaplin, to talk to her students about “mood music,” as he calls it, during a workshop at the library. Ironically it took place at the same time as cellist Kristen Miller was performing her original scores for three experimental films by 1940s filmmaker Maya Deren at the Actors Studio. And, by the end of the workshop, some of the students were taking a crack at it, using “memory pieces,” and working with it, adjusting the emotional register of the music to fit the action on the big screen behind them. “It’s not just notes on the page,” says Lazarus. “They also have to think about emotions and action on the screen. They have to choose music to convey it and adjust their performance to fit.”

And now the real work begins. Her 40 students, who range from  single digits to high school age, are working on scores to accompany sections of silent films — Chaplin, Keaton, “Phantom of the Opera,” the Keystone Kops — in an April 11 show at the Screening Room.  “We’re down to the real work now,” says Lazarus. “Now it’s exciting. Now I  know it’s going to work.” The event takes place at 11 a.m. April 10 at the Screening Room, 82 State St., Newburyport. Tickets are $7, or $5 for students and seniors. For more information, call 978.462.3456.

1 comment:

  1. With Penny's creative teaching and our kids' beautiful playing, it will be a great event. I'm so proud of our kids for making music for the silent movies.

    Adrienne Montezinos