The sounds for silence

Pianists improvise live music for old movies

By Craig D. Lindsey - Staff Writer

Published: Fri, Mar. 13, 2009 12:00AM

Modified Fri, Mar. 13, 2009 01:51AM

It's that time of year again, when Laura Boyes welcomes one of her out-of-state kinfolk into her home.

The film curator for the N.C. Museum of Art will have her brother David Drazin as a guest this weekend. And he is a very special guest, for tonight, he will once again offer his services as a pianist to the museum.

It goes like this: Drazin, 52, is what is known as a silent film photoplay pianist. He is also a musician, known for playing blues and jazz and playing piano at a ballet school during the day. But the man is mostly known for adding live, improvised accompaniment to old, silent movies.

Drazin, who lives in Evanston, Ill., does most of his celluloid piano-playing in Chicago. (According to Chicago Magazine, which recently named him one of the 29 people who make films happen in the Windy City, he improvises as many as 12 live scores a month at the Gene Siskel Film Center and other venues). He's been coming to Raleigh for the past eight or nine years to help his older sister out and tickle the ivories when she needs music for a film she's playing.

Tonight, he'll add accompaniment to the 1928 film "The Man Who Laughs," starring Conrad Veidt as a royal heir with a horribly disfigured face (think The Joker). Boyes, who calls the soundtrack to the film "a horrible, sentimental, really terrible accompaniment," needed some fresh music if this was going to play in her auditorium.

Enter David.

"David's a very agreeable person, you know," Boyes says.

"If I ask him to play something, he's always happy to do it. I try not to be bossy, you know. As an older sister, it's hard to avoid sometimes," she says, starting to crack up. "I try not to be."

Playing the museum isn't his only gig in North Carolina this weekend. He'll do on-the-spot scoring for two screenings of "The Son of the Sheik," starring Rudolph Valentino, on Saturday at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines. (The Sunrise folk piggy-back with Boyes in bringing Drazin down here.)

Drazin doesn't mind coming to the Tar Heel State and entertaining moviegoers, considering he's been doing his type of performing since he was a senior in high school, when he played music during silent films screened by his old-time radio club.

"One time, at a library," Drazin recalls in a phone interview, " they were showing 'The Mark of Zorro,' and there was a piano right next to the screen. So, I just asked if it would be all right if I tried to play. And since they weren't going to use records or anything, they said, 'OK, go ahead. Try it.'"

Since he began playing for silent films professionally in the mid-'80s, Drazin has provided music for the biggies of the silent era: Keaton, Fairbanks, Pickford, Lang, Hart. When he has seen the movie in advance, he knows what he's going to play. When he hasn't seen the movie, he just wings it. Either way, Drazin is a man who can play nonstop, off the top of the dome, for hours. He was called on to add piano to "Les Vampires," a 10-part serial from 1915. "And I played for that in one day," he remembers. "It's like 9 1/2 hours hours." He also played 4 1/2 hours straight for outtakes from "¡Que viva México!," a Sergei Eisenstein film he never finished.

While taking on gigs like this could be seen as draining, even insane, Drazin takes particular glee in noticing how much audiences dig it. "Well, the feeling I get is that when people see it, they're sort of, in a way, shocked that they like it as much as they do. It's like, in a way, they're starved to see something like that, because if it isn't shown, how do you know that it exists?"

Drazin isn't the only player who's known that particular thrill. Carrboro filmmaker Nic Beery has been playing silent films with live musical accompaniment for a couple of seasons now at the Century Center Cinema in Carrboro with Chapel Hill musician Erich Lieth, 51, extemporaneously scoring the flicks.

In fact, Lieth will be performing alongside "College," another Keaton film, on March 28.

Beery, 45, has nothing but praise for his in-house composer, calling him a godsend since he filled in at the last minute to play for his first silent-film showing (Buster Keaton's "The General," one of Beery's favorites) in 2007. "He said, 'Well, I've never done that kind of thing before; I'm not sure if I can,'" Beery recalls. "I looked at his card and I said, 'But Erich, it says here you do music for all occasions.'"

After a couple of hours of thinking about it, Lieth accepted the job.

It's been a great relationship for the two. Lieth has scored one of Beery's short films, "Veronica Always," and Lieth plays silent movies for Beery twice a season. Before every screening, Beery gives him a DVD of the movie so he can work out what he'll do.

"When I improvise, and I have done totally improvised programs even on solo piano, usually I am the originator of ideas, right?" says Lieth. "In this case, I've gotta do something that's consistent with ideas that are up there."

Lieth has discovered that once the lights goes down and he starts playing, he becomes a newly integral part of the movie. "I found, actually, partly in doing 'The General,' that I can help to elicit some of the audience responses by doing certain things on the piano, creating tension or allowing some silence between somewhere."

Lieth finds that the audience appreciates it as well. "One of the most rewarding comments that I had from someone at one of these screenings that we did, telling me afterward that once the movie started they just totally forgot about the piano. And I consider that to be kind of an important aspect of what I do -- that it disappears. It becomes one with what's on the screen. It's not a separate thing."

While live musical accompaniment for a movie is still seen as a novelty, especially around these parts, film enthusiasts such as Boyes and Beery find that there's something illuminating, something memorable, something, well, special about playing a silent movie with live music for a contemporary audience.

"When I see 8-year-old boys and girls with their parents," says Beery, "and their parents have brought their parents, we're talking three generations watching something that is special and, maybe for those 8-year-olds, they've never seen before."

As for Boyes, who's been thinking about bringing Ethan Uslan, another silent-movie pianist from Charlotte, to the museum to live-score a film, she can't get enough of how it all comes together once it happens.

"It's completely of the moment," she says. "A collaboration between the musician, the film and the audience."