It all started when Dennis James was young. But it didn’t begin with the organ instead it was something altogether smaller. The “Stomach Piano” or accordion was the first instrument he ever played. It was the “local instrument of choice for budding musicians in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957”.
Myron Floren was a television show accordion player, who played on The Lawrence Welk Show between 1950 and 1980. Floren inspired a young 6-year-old Dennis James with a love for music. This inspiration became reality when Hames passed by a pawn shop with an accordion in the window. His parents bought it for him as a birthday present and his lessons started immediately afterwards.
Junior high school changed it, as it does most things. There was a moment of realization that maybe the accordion was not the coolest instrument. He recognized that “none of my classmates wanted to hear my renditions of Lady of Spain complete with bellows shake.”
Shifting to the pipe organ at the age of 12 has since been a consistent part of his life. This change from accordion to the organ was overall a benefit to both James’s career and his audience. Looking back, he admits that he probably wouldn’t have stayed with music and instead pursued another interest namely oil painting. Instead of Dennis James the oil painter, he is currently known internationally as a professional organist and a historic preservationist.
Dennis James performs Richard A. Whiting’s “Hooray for Hollywood” at Allen Organs’ Octave Hall.
In the summer of 1969, he watched his first silent film with live accompaniment by a professional theatre pipe organist, Gaylord Cater. During Cater’s major tour at the time, he performed at the Tower Theatre’s Wurlitzer organ in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The accompanied film is the action-packed drama “The Mark of Zorro” starring Douglas Fairbanks. His accompanied score was created using several published theatre organ generics used in the 1920s with his own “inimitable improvisation cascades”.
Thinking back to that day, James remembers, “It was a sold-out house and I remember eagerly turning to my dad at the end, being thoroughly impressed by the cheers and standing ovation from the sellout crowd, and saying to him those fateful words; ‘I can do that!’ To this day, as a sort of tribute to Gaylord Carter, I build my own score around Gaylord’s work, preserving about 20% of his efforts encased in my own historical revival work.”
The main genre he preserves is silent films. Silent film accompanists used music in the original showings of the films. This means that silent films weren’t entirely silent. Accompanists ranged from a single pianist to a small orchestra either with composed scores or improvisation.
James creates his performed works faithfully preserving the original scores. His scores use the same style and methods as the original silent film accompaniments throughout the 1890s and 1930s. At the time, film studios released enough for cinemas to have a variety of films and to change their showings several times a week. Having a fully composed, published, and rehearsed instrumental ensemble for each film was not feasible. It would take too much time that the studios and the cinemas simply didn’t have. The solution was to create a score within each cinema. Each theatre musician built libraries of music. This included a huge array of styles; classical music, current tunes, folk songs, foxtrots, hymns, marches, one-steps, two-steps. Organized by key, and emotional content, these were repurposed towards the scoring of the film. If there was a chase scene, the musician would modulate into a different key, usually d minor. Thus they would construct a sequence of chase music with allegros, hurries and agitatos. The same goes for other emotions such as love or joy, or despair. The musician would go through the library and find music that matches the emotional cue.
“It was this carefully tailored assembly kind of music scoring technique that was heard both from the solo keyboard players in the theatres and on an expanded scale, existing right along with through-composed newly composed scorings for fully rehearsed instrumental ensembles,” James explains.
Using either the published original scores or compilation scoring guides (guides sent along with the film intended for assisting with cues), he creates a score true to the original as opposed to a historical revival.
“There is this remarkable flow that happens where I’m looking at the screen and reading my carefully prepared and rehearsed music that causes the music to come out as a continuously synchronous emotion sequence matching the visuals like a perfectly fit glove on a hand,” describes James.
However, it’s more than just creating a score and presenting it. It’s a performance. There are visual real-time cues from the audience’s reaction and the film itself that need to be taken into account. This results in a kind of “fully-synchronous spontaneity”. Working with professionals in the field such as Lee Erwin, Gaylord Carter and Dr. C. A. J. Parmentier, has provided James with the ability to improvise when need be.“I’m not even conscious of what the added expressive choices are in the real-time of performance having now been continually doing this for over fifty years.” He explains.
His first silent film score debut came about during the peak of the Vietnam War protest era, this was a time with a real need and chance for some tension relief. Dennis James provided it with his silent film scoring debut.
As a sophomore at the university, James had access to the new Schantz-built concert pipe organ within the school’s 3,800 seat I. U. Auditorium. The film he chose was “phantom of the opera” just in time for Halloween. James collaborated with New York based silent film organist Lee Erwin to create the score for the accompaniment. as well, a fellow student conducted the local Bloomington Symphony Orchestra.
Leading up to the big debut, James took the time to print and hand stamp 400 tickets. This film lends itself to clever marketing with the phrase ‘The Phantom is Coming!’ littering the campus on posters, hung notes from trees, chalked announcements on empty classrooms’ chalkboards, stickers on toilet seat covers, and so much more. It was all counting down to Halloween, all counting down the big debut.
Only 40 tickets were sold in advance but over 4,000 people showed up at the doors. Wearing a mask and a cape from the university’s theatre department, James went on stage and performed his newly composed score to thousands of people.
“The energy of the occasion was so great, and I was so inspired, I almost immediately abandoned my carefully prepared composition to improvise something ever so much more appropriate to that event on the spot. Quite the thrilling way to begin what has turned out to be a full-length career.”
That was Jame’s first silent film accompaniment, but it was not the last. He’s travelled around the world performing live music for silent films, opera performances, as well as a range of concerts including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Hollywood film scorings, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and the Tanglewood Festival with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Dennis James performing ‘Butterflies in the Rain’ to demonstrate the organ in the beautifully restored Missouri Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, at the 2012 Blind Boone Ragtime Festival.
With over five decades of experience, James has seen the appeal that silent films. It’s a sense of marvel, of fascination for recreating something a century old.
When asked about the impact of music on film, James referenced a quote that best outlines his sentiments.
“Mocked, ignored, the victim of a massive cultural disinformation campaign that insisted these movies were too primitive to take seriously, silent film has managed to outwit history. Not only is there a phoenix-like rebirth of interest in the medium, but the films themselves and the artifacts surrounding them are constantly coming to light in rich and unexpected ways. To be seen to their best advantage, however, silent films should be experienced, as they were in the medium’s glory days, with live musical accompaniment. To understand what makes silent film so special, the central place of music can’t be avoided. The live music enhances what we see, bringing us inside the film.”
“Silent films and their soaring music are rediscovered” by Kenneth Turan, from the LA Times
This appeal comes from the authenticity of it, both in a historical and a cultural aspect. When he performs, he wants it to be accurate to the original.
James explains that this is the way that silent films are meant to be experienced exactly as it was seen a century ago, “If one loves movies as do most moviegoers today, seeing and hearing, them as they were originally intended to be experienced simply should not be missed.”