Ben Model pointed out, “1929 was a bad year to lose your job.” That year the stock market crashed, and millions lost their savings, possessions and professions. The American economy eventually recovered, but one job market would never return. In the era of silent films, theaters hired musicians to play live accompaniments. In 1927, the first “talkie” premier signaled the death knell for what many experts consider to be Hollywood’s most adventurous and pure era.
Last Thursday, Feb. 7, Vassar students and some gleeful Poughkeepsians had the pleasure of welcoming Museum of Modern Art silent film accompanist Ben Model to speak as a part of Modfest. Model has been in the silent film world since the 1970s when, as a middle school student, he discovered his passion for silent film. When Model began, he had to save up to buy copies in super 8mm film from a catalog. It was either that, or have an in with a collector of old film.
After a bit of research for a paper, he discovered that the legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr lived in his town. It was one of many lucky breaks, as Model puts it, he received in his career. He contacted Kerr, and a few days later, Model received an offer to explore his expansive film collection. Over the next two decades, Model would visit Kerr at his home to watch movies and talk about the craft.
Model’s composition career began when he was a second-year in college. When he learned that the silent films were being shown silent, he took the initiative, and although he was a novice, “I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew it had to be better than nothing,” he joked.
The lecture spanned the extent of the silent film era. In the early part of the 20th century, moviegoing was cheap. A ticket cost only a nickel (hence the term nickelodeon) and the upper class considered film impolite entertainment. Model explained that, “[If you were wealthy,] you wouldn’t be caught dead in a movie theatre.”
Although frowned upon by the wealthy, silent films were popular among a different demographic: Female musicians, to whom the genre offered opportunities. Traditional orchestras would not employ women, but theatres would hire female piano players. Model recalled, “I always hear people tell me that their grandmother played the piano for silent movies, more than hearing about men playing in orchestras.”
At first, movie scoring was not an exact science. Composers would write a piece to fit the drama or mood on the screen, and named them “Tension,” “Comedy” or “Magic.” Then, those compositions would be combined into sets and sold as folios to movie theatres. Shorter mood pieces sometimes lasted only a couple of minutes. Therefore, soloists had the freedom to improvise over the scenes. During the course of a week, you might see a movie multiple times at the same theatre with a different score each time.
Despite their creative liberty, musicians would often play to the exact action of the scene rather than support the underlying tension of the film. This technique is what influenced Model’s approach to scoring. Rather than reflect the moment, Model takes a step back to score the overall arch of the story.
Model used “Phantom of the Opera” (1925) as a way to contrast the two styles, showing the scene in which the phantom’s love interest finally makes him reveal his face. With the film running in the background, Model sat at the piano and played in a way that mirrored the onscreen action, showcasing his accompaniment skills live. In the movie, the Phantom plays the organ while Christine stands behind him, slowly reaching towards his mask. Model’s performance mirrored that tension unfolding onscreen. His piano intensified until the woman rips off the mask, revealing the phantom’s mutilated face. The phantom leaps up, and the woman collapses on the floor. Once again, Model’s accompaniment captured the terror of the scene and the frightening revelation of the face.
Then Model played his accompaniment, which is softer and sweeter. The piano grows intense, but in a way that suggests the brink of tragedy rather than horror. Finally, the phantom’s face is uncovered, and the piano takes on a dramatic yet devastated tone. The original score placed audience members in the woman’s shoes, inducing the sense that everyone in the room was about to uncover a scandalizing secret alongside her. Model’s version evoked a desperate and lonely man weighing the consequences of becoming vulnerable to a woman he loves—and failing. It seemed as though Model’s playing reacted to every twitch of the eye and tilt of the head.
After the lecture, Model allowed the audience to answer questions. When asked which on-screen cues prompted changes in his playing, he laughed, “I just see what’s happening, and I react to it.” He views the audience as the final participant in the movie and allows them to guide his performance.
In an email interview, attendee Eleanor Carter ’22 indicated that she was struck by the way such quick responses underscore films, particularly of the comedic persuasion: “I didn’t realize it until I went to the lecture, but silent films do a great job of accentuating the kind of playful and lighthearted physical comedy that used to be popular and now seems to be disappearing.” She went on to emphasize the significance of Model’s work, “I think there’s quite a bit of value in seeing silent films independent of them being silent, and I’m thankful someone like Model is using his skills to put those films in people’s lives again.”
Model echoed the idea that silent films are still pertinent. In response to a question concerning the future of silent film, he replied that children in Boise, ID laughed the same way at a Buster Keaton comedy as children in Norway did when he presented the film to school groups in both settings. In Model’s own simple terms, “Silent film is a universal language.”
[Correction (Tuesday, Mar. 12): The original version of this article included several inaccuracies and misquotes, noted here: The phrase “Museum of Modern Art archivist and composer Ben Model” should read “Museum of Modern Art silent film accompanist Ben Model”; The phrase “he discovered his passion for scoring film” should read “he discovered his passion for silent film”; the phrase “buy the thin 8mm tapes sold at his local store” should read “buy copies in super 8mm film from a catalog”; the phrase “New York Times film and drama critic Walter Kerr” should read “Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr”; the phrase “was a first-year in college” should read “was a second-year in college”; the phrase “When the film needed scores” should read “When he learned that the silent films were being shown silent”; the quote “‘there was no better option’” should read “‘I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew it had to be better than nothing’”; the quote “‘I always hear people tell me that their grandmother accompanied movies. I almost never hear of men doing it’” should read “‘I always hear people tell me that their grandmother played the piano for silent movies, more than hearing about men playing in orchestras’”; the phrase “Therefore, composers had the freedom to improvise over the scene” should read “Therefore, soloists had the freedom to improvise over the scenes”; the phrase “Model sat at the piano and played its original score” should read “Model sat at the piano and played in a way that mirrored the onscreen action”; the phrase “the phantom plays piano while the woman stands behind him” should read “the Phantom plays the organ while Christine stands behind him”; and the phrase “children in Boise, ID laugh the same way at the same jokes as children in Norway” should read “children in Boise, ID laughed the same way at a Buster Keaton comedy as children in Norway did when he presented the film to school groups in both settings.”]