Hearing Silent Films with Ben Model

Bliss (1917), with a score by Ben Model
With most kids it’s dinosaurs or trucks or trains and with me, it was Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Ever since he first discovered them as a toddler, Ben Model has been captivated by silent films. But few silent film enthusiasts share the crucial role he plays in sharing these works: accompanying the films with piano scores of his own devising.

Silent films were never intended to be experienced silently. Over almost three decades—from the first public showing of films by the Lumière Brothers in Paris in 1895 to the widespread introduction of talkies with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927—thousands of silent films were produced for an eager audience of filmgoers. Music was integral to fostering the mood and contributing to the emotion of a film. The vast majority of films did not have scores composed specifically for them. Rather, they relied on local pianists or small orchestras to improvise music without the supervision of the studios and filmmakers. Now, Model carries on this tradition, completing the audiences’ experience of the silent era’s great works through music.

In the audio clip below you can hear more about Model’s method of composition, the dos and don’ts of the trade, and how the film dictates the music.

We also had a chance to talk with Model about his work here at MoMA and how he became a programmer and accompanist. Check out the interview below.

Tell me about your journey to silent films.

I had this trajectory that at some point later on, I realized this is almost something I was supposed to be doing. I am told by my parents that I discovered Charlie Chaplin on TV when I was a toddler. With most kids it’s dinosaurs or trucks or trains and with me, it was Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

When I was 12, I got a book as a gift called The Silent Clowns, written by Walter Kerr, who was the drama critic for The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times and was a huge silent-film fan. The Silent Clowns is all about silent film comedy, and I devoured this book instantly and just kept rereading it.

I had a book report I had to do for social studies about D. W. Griffith, and there was no way to see one of the Griffith films I needed to see. There was no way I was gonna buy a print of this. My folks remembered that Walter Kerr lived in our town and that they had read somewhere that he had a collection of 16-millimeter films. I wrote a letter telling him of my interest in silent film and my report, and he called me a few days later saying he was happy to show me the film. Throughout middle school and high school and even through college, I would go to his house a few times a year, always on Monday night because there was no theater for him to go in and review, and he would say, “Oh, what do you wanna see?”

How did you start accompanying silent films?

I was a film production major at NYU, and freshman year everybody had to take a basic film history class. The first semester was silent film. What film departments had at their disposal to show the students were 16-millimeter prints. Silent films distributed on 16-millimeter, for the most part, did not have tracks on them, so the films were shown in dead silence and it bothered me to watch these films that I loved bomb in front of film students every week. The music is really important. Even if it’s not the best track, it’s harder to concentrate.

I had been a piano player since I was five. I had not performed recitals or anything like that. I was excruciatingly uncomfortable in front of people, and yet I had this idea in my sophomore year to approach the head of the department about accompanying the silent film class because I think, secretly, I had always wanted to try it. I approached the head of the department, Brian Winston, and he loved the idea, so I began playing.

I still can’t believe I did this because...knowing how extremely uncomfortable I was at the time, playing and/or getting up in front of people for any reason. I really wanted to help these films work for an audience. And that’s really what I think drove me. And the next step was, how do I do this?

What is it you love about silent films?

I think that for me there’s something really satisfying and enjoyable about the participatory aspect of silent film. Because you’re involved filling in color, sound, dialogue. There’s this other plane of existence that you become bonded with in a silent film show, in particular. It’s much more experiential.

Kevin Brownlow, a very well-known film historian and restorationist, said in one of his books that with silent film, the audience is the final participant in the filmmaking process. This is also part of the core of what I teach in my class on silent film at Wesleyan, is that it’s precisely what’s missing.

What is your method for accompaniment?

The way I work primarily is through improvisation. It’s almost this flow that happens where I’m looking at the screen and I put my hands on the keys and music just comes out. It goes into my eyes and my brain comes out of my hands. I’m not even conscious of what the choices are. Part of that is informed by the time I spent many years ago performing improvisational comedy. Learning a lot of the basics of improv really informed my improvisatory technique.

Did silent films have scores written specifically for them?

Big super-productions might have a complete, written-out score. Whereas different companies made and released an amount of film so that your local cinema could change its programming two or three times a week. And because there was no way to compose, disseminate, rehearse, and sync up and perform that much music, what wound up happening is that, for most films, each movie theater built up a giant library of music—existing classical music, some pop tunes, one-steps, hymns, marches, folk tunes, what have you. Then, the main music publishers hired about a dozen or so composers to compose what we call a mood music cue. Some pianists would have stacks of music organized by mood. So, if there’s a chase scene, they pull a piece of chase music. And if there’s a love scene, they’d pull that down and play that. So, it was this one-size-fits-all kind of technique.

Tell us about how you came to participate in programming.

I’ve been co-programming film series on and off here at The Museum of Modern Art for...I guess since I first pitched doing a Roscoe Arbuckle retrospective, back in 2003. I eventually teamed up with Ron Magliozzi and my friend Steve Massa, who’s a film comedy historian. We did that and then over the last next several years a few different iterations of a series we called Cruel and Unusual Comedy, which was a way to showcase and highlight the obscure comedy shorts that are in MoMA’s collection. The hook is that we grouped each of the films by different aspects of society—depiction of the police or the medical profession or treatment of animals and kids, and so on.

You can see Ben Model at work as part of MoMA’s To Save and Project film series, running January 4–31, 2019.