Ben Model acts as a translator, helping the audience interpret subtle shifts in mood and plot onscreen.
Contemporary audiences know how to spot good music synchs—remember those decadent few weeks in February when everyone was humming Harry Nilsson’s jaunty “Gotta Get Up,” which was featured prominently and repeatedly in the Natasha Lyonne Netflix show “Russian Doll”? Today, the art of setting a scene into motion with the perfect pop progression is so widely recognized that there even is an Emmy for it—and the latest New Yorker video explores the original, early-twentieth-century version of the cinematic synch deal: an organist matching his live tunes to the latest (silent) film.
Ben Model is one of a small number of silent-film accompanists in the U.S. He discovered the field that would become his career when he was a film student. He was sitting in a film-history class, “listening to people snore and drink coffee,” while silent films, faithful to the quiet that names them, blinked on. He volunteered to start playing piano in classes to help keep his peers awake and interested. He sees adding a dramatic score as the key to helping insure that these old films continue to find audiences (and keep them awake). These days, Model lugs a couple of keyboards, a tangle of wires, pedals, and a laptop—loaded with high-end samples of a real Wurlitzer Theatre Organ—to theatres in New York City and beyond, where he creates live, improvised scores for silent films.
Model’s accompaniments constitute a collaboration between the filmmaker, the musician, and the audience. “I’m constantly watching the screen for clues, and sculpting and customizing what I’m playing to fit the vibe in the room,” he says. And so, as a member of the audience, your gurgling guffaw, your stifled cough, become a part of the soundtrack—not only because you are physically there but also because Model is watching and listening as much as he is playing. It’s “not so much about . . . my wonderful score,” the composer says. Model acts as a translator, helping the audience interpret subtle shifts in mood and plot onscreen and drawing the audience into the ongoing creation and re-creation of the art work.
The combination of extemporaneous performance and preëxisting art form enacts a trust across time and space. In the heyday of silent pictures, filmmakers expected that their movies would be scored by a live musician, and thus silent films have always been a sort of incomplete form, waiting patiently for the act of creation to happen anew each time the film is shown. Much as a confident playwright needn’t clutter her script with too much stage direction, lest the players and the director find the text too stifling to interpret freely, silent filmmakers left room for accompanists like Model to unspool the work as their instruments and audiences see fit. In an era that seems defined by the outstanding asynchronous communications—unanswered texts and unacknowledged Instagrams—that stream beneath all our moments, it’s a challenge to simply be present. But there’s a welcome chance to press Pause in the soundless void left by silent filmmakers, where something compelling can happen, in real time.