Larry Schanker often gushes over the improvisational art of silent film accompaniment.
So when Coastline Children's Film Festival founder Leslie Sullivan approached the 53-year-old pianist with the idea of including some classic silent films in the third-year showcase, Schanker eagerly agreed to lend his own soundtrack.
"We've worked together for a while and she knows how much I enjoy silent film," says Schanker, who has taught music the past 15 years at the Brookview School in Benton Harbor. "As she was planning the festival she asked my advice and wanted to know if I would be willing to play. Of course I said yes. I would do this every night of the week if I could."
As part of the final weekend of the 10-day Coastline Children's Film Festival, Schanker will provide piano accompaniment for Charlie Chaplin's 1936 classic "Modern Times" on Friday at The Citadel Dance & Music Center, and Buster Keaton's 1924 film "Sherlock Jr." on Saturday at The Acorn Theater. On Sunday, he will perform his original score for 1924's "Peter Pan" alongside harpist Megan Barrett at the Krasl Art Center.
Since moving to St. Joseph with his wife, Jenny, whom he met at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, Schanker has composed numerous pieces for programs at The Citadel Dance & Music Center, including music for "Fantastical," the company's Spring Concert of Dance. He debuted his "Concerto for Jazz Piano" in October 2011 at SMSO's Whirlpool Celebration concert, and has collaborated with a multitude of area musicians and vocalists.
In 2006, Schanker provided live music for a Charlie Chaplin film festival at the State Theatre in Benton Harbor, and he has participated in the Sounds of Silent Film Festival at the Vickers Theatre on several occasions.
Q You've mentioned to me before how people are somewhat baffled about how this kind of accompaniment works. Can you describe some of the techniques you use in terms of emotion and underscoring action?
A When someone is tiptoeing upstairs or sneaking around or there's a car chase, my job is to play music that will underscore that and also sound a little familiar. It's still improvised but it has to have a certain character to it. On another level, I'm dealing with the actual mood of the actors. I have some great partners with the actors on the screen. I watch their face and I watch their eyes and I try to get at what that character is feeling and illuminate that part of the film for the audience. If I can make the audience see something that they might not otherwise see in the film then I'm really doing my job. And if I can make that happen without drawing their attention and making them look toward the piano then I'm doing my job even better. It always has to be done with humility as to not steal too much focus from the screen.
Q Since this is the Coastline Children's Film Festival, does the age of the audience affect how you might approach the score?
A That's an interesting thought to ponder. How the age of the audience will affect what I'm doing - because I'm sure it will. I really hadn't consciously thought about that but it brings up the sort of philosophical question of the audience's role in all this. I'm sure with children watching, it will affect the way I approach the music. Every giggle feeds back into what I'm doing so I then feed the music back in their direction.
"Peter Pan" was totally catered to children in the first place when it was commissioned, but "Modern Times" will be more interesting to see how the presence of the children affects it. Buster Keaton's (film "Sherlock Jr.") is a little more slapstick. Comedy is comedy whether someone is 5 years old or 80.
Q You originally composed the score for the 1924 version of "Peter Pan" through a commission from the University of Notre Dame. How did that come about?
A Jon Vickers was running the cinema at the time (2010) and he got me started with silent films with the Sound of Silent Film Festival at the Vickers Theatre. He always wanted a piano and harp score for that film. So the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center commissioned me to write that score. It was an interesting challenge because working with silent film, the music needs to be malleable and somewhat improvised. But a piano and harp can't play together without some scripted music and a lot of planning. So when the harp and piano are playing together the music is all pre-composed. In between those episodes the piano is improvising. Also written into the harp part are different sections where she's watching the film and needs to play off what's going on.
Q Are you taking the same approach with the other two films, "Sherlock Jr." and "Modern Times"?
A No. They are completely improvised. I played "Sherlock Jr." for the Southwest Michigan Symphony's evening of silent films at the Heritage Center this summer. So it's great to get another crack at it. It's really fun. It's a film way ahead of its time. There's a dream sequence and a chase scene and a completely bizarre plot. Buster Keaton's character is a movie theater projectionist studying to be a detective thrust into solving this crime of a stolen watch.
With "Modern Times," Charlie Chaplin considered making it a talkie but changed his mind. He felt like if his character, The Tramp, talked it would ruin the whole environment and the character he set up all those years. "Modern Times" does have some talking. Chaplin also sings a song late in the film. So I have this challenge to do what I usually do but also capture the feeling of this voice coming through the screen because you can't separate it out. There's also a lot of sound effects in the film so it straddles the line between silent film and talkies, which makes for an interesting challenge..
Q I know you don't like listening to previous scores to silent films because you believe it will influence what you do, but you made an exception for "Modern Times." Why?
A That's because Chaplin actually wrote the music to this that was then orchestrated by David Raksin and Edward B. Powell. I normally don't dare listen to the music before a performance, but this time I thought, "Well, this is Charlie Chaplin here writing his own music for his own film so I think I better take a few listens." So I listened to the music and although I'm not planning on reproducing it, I will probably honor the character of Chaplin's music.
-- WHAT: "Modern Times," "Sherlock Jr.," and "Peter Pan" featuring live original score performed by pianist Larry Schanker as part of the Coastline Children's Film Festival
-- WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday ("Modern Times"); 1 p.m. Saturday ("Sherlock Jr.") and 4 p.m. Sunday ("Peter Pan")
-- WHERE: The Citadel Dance & Music Center, 91 Hinkley St., Benton Harbor; The Acorn Theater, 107 Generations Drive, Three Oaks; and Krasl Art Center, 707 Lake Blvd., St. Joseph
-- HOW MUCH: $1 suggested donation
-- CONTACT: 925-3544 or www.brookviewschool.org