Music for Silent Movies

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival recently got together with SFJazz to sponsor a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film “The Kid.”  Marc Ribot played guitar at the event, held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts here in San Francisco.  For the first time, I heard a solo, steel-string acoustic guitar played to a silent film.  Although it took some time getting used to a guitar as an accompanying instrument — I’m used to hearing an organ or a piano — Ribot settled into a fine interpretation of the story.  He used a light touch but could also make the guitar sound very full when necessary.

The film itself has moments of great emotion as well as full fantasy scenes.  Ribot conveyed these changes so well that nothing seemed jarring.  Through music, silent film offers a frame for the viewer’s imagination.  Over the years, I’ve heard rock bands, electronic music, chamber orchestras and choirs accompany silent movies.  It’s nice to know that a simple solo guitar can also provide that frame.

In a discussion last year about silent film music, well-known organist Dennis James explained that he tries to always stay true to the music of the silent movie period.  Most silent films do not come with scores, and theoretically, the accompanist can play anything from Bach to Led Zeppelin.  James said he never plays the William Tell Overture, since everyone knows that’s the Lone Ranger Theme.

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