Dennis James Q&A

Dennis James

It’s one thing to have a passion for music, it’s another to want to protect it. Dennis James is an organist and historic preservationist. His passion for music has brought him to preserve the music of long ago eras, specifically in the genre of silent films.

Something that not many people know is that silent films weren’t completely silent. They were often accompanied by musical scores. These scores are what Dennis James aims to preserve.

This is an interview with Dennis James and Dylanna Fisher of Switching Styles.

How did you start in music?

I began my musical career at the age of seven by studying the “stomach-piano” (accordion) because it was the local instrument of choice for budding musicians in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957.  However, it was one day during Science Class in seventh grade that I had an epiphany that caused me to change instruments.  I had the realization that none of my classmates wanted to hear my renditions of Lady of Spain complete with bellows shake.

We had an electronic organ at home. I had previously embarrassed my older brother Rodger with competitive technique display in a bout of sibling rivalry when I was 9 and he was 12, so I guess it was a no-brainer for me to make the shift finally when I turned 12. I played my first pipe organ a few weeks later on a visit to my accordion teacher’s church where he served as the organist and I think it was at that visit the seed was planted.

Who inspired you within your music career?

Well, the very first was the brash, showy, ragtime/honky-tonk TV pianist Joanne Castle who played regularly on the 1950’s popular Lawrence Welk television show; a particular parental “family entertainment” favourite at the time.  In fact, I pestered my parents a lot about getting a piano, but with an organ having already been acquired for my brother, the suggestion was made that I consider imitating another TV show musician, Myron Floren, who was the accordionist on the Lawrence Welk show.

That bore fruit when, at age 6, I spotted an accordion in a pawn shop window near a favourite family restaurant in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. My parents bought it, surprised me with giving it to me as a present on my 7th birthday which led to my starting lessons immediately thereafter.

How did your family impact your musical career?

They were all very supportive, to the point that my Dad went so far as to build French door into the walls at the entrances to the room where the practice organ was located. Since it was difficult for the rest of the family to do anything (like watch TV) when I practiced, I’ll always remember when I would start a session I would hear those doors slide shut walling me in while everyone else went on about their business at home.

How do you think your life would have been different if you continued with the accordion?

I doubt if I would have stayed with music at all, likely pursuing my lifelong interest in oil painting or some other such.

When did your interest in the silent film soundtracks begin?

Gaylord Carter, the major touring film player at the time, flew in from Los Angeles to perform at the Tower Theatre’s Wurlitzer organ in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania (near to downtown Philadelphia).  The film was Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920 swashbuckling adventure drama “The Mark of Zorro” and Gaylord played his own quite thrilling score made up of a combination of published theatre organ generics used in the scorings in the 1920s plus his own inimitable improvisation cascades.

It was a sold-out house and 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!”  I went home that very night after the post-performance reception and pulled out some music paper and wrote out his entire score from memory.  And 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.

How old were you for your first organ plus orchestra screening at Indiana University?

My recollection is it was done in the spring of 1970 so I would have been 19

Can you describe your first experience in silent film performance with live music?

My first attempt to play my own prepared music to a silent film that starred a cross-eyed actor Larry Semon to be shown as an act within a high school variety show in 1967. I ended up stringing together a series of 1920’s popular songs as my score. It was a couple of years later, though, in the summer of 1969 that I saw and heard the first live music silent film show with accompaniment by a professional theatre pipe organ player.  It was during my first break after having begun freshman year studies at Indiana University.

How would you describe Gaylord Carter and his music?

Gaylord was not the “top” musician of his day. However, he is the silent film player that lived the longest – well into the revival era that enabled my career. He taught me such show business necessities as how to speak to an audience of 2,000-plus without a microphone. Since inevitably somewhere the microphone wouldn’t work; something has since happened to me several times!  He was a cliche player all wrapped up in cluing essential basic emotional reactions to the film in the audience and not very much concerned with the niceties of thematic applications, motives developments and the rest that go into true music composition.

What impact does music have in film?

Thinking in particular of the silent films, I think it was best outlined LA Times article from October 2014 tat I keep on file:

“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. As the late film authority William Everson explained several years ago, ‘The score minimized flaws, added punctuation and feeling, stretched the emotionalism and guided the audience into the right frame of mind. It’s a major crime, absolutely deadly, to show these films without the proper accompaniment.’ To enter this world is to understand why Mary Pickford, one of its biggest stars, famously said that “it would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talking instead of the other way around.”

(Quote from “Silent films and their soaring music are rediscovered” by Kenneth Turan, from the LA Times)

What appeal does a silent film with live music have to the audience?

There seems, in my now 50 plus years experience doing this, there is always a marvelling new fascination possible among the younger viewing generations towards the live music component of what is now a nearly forgotten part of the original practice of exhibiting film; recreating those nearly 100 years ago days in my specialty approach of performing stylistically authentic and period-appropriate live musical accompaniments at the film screenings.  This original matching music to the period images facilitated the audience’s emotional responses in a manner already quite highly developed in the industry. There is a similar continuity to the present day with modern performances of other historically fully developed, music-enhanced theatrical music forms: opera, operetta, Broadway shows, ballet, vaudeville and so many others.

My passion stems, I guess, by that I like the concept that it would have been more logical, thinking of film as an art form progression, for the silent film to have evolved from the sound film.  To experience in live real-time experience movies the way they were meant to be. As performed in a large communal setting with the film image exactly as seen now 80 to 100 years ago, and heard with historically accurate original musical accompaniment performed with a thorough and fully realized respect for the past and with full confidence of serving the presentation desires of the filmmakers themselves. 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.

Do you think that the appeal of silent films will change over the years?

Of course, those shifts in appeal are what enables the survival and periodic revivals for most all of the successful presentation art forms down through the years. I am certain that what people see and hear at the Metropolitan Opera today when a Mozart Opera is presented is quite far from the original 18th c. original conceptions and productions, if only from the changes in the instruments used and the stylistic nuances of the players.

You’ve performed the soundtrack for Jekyll and Hyde, and Nosferatu, among others. Which of them stands out as a favourite?

Well, my favourite career silent film scoring memory, dates back to 1993. I was living in Berkeley, California and renowned film preservationist and cultural philanthropist David W. Packard engaged me to play to the “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” silent film as my debut performance at his humanities foundation’s Wurlitzer pipe organ-equipped restored Stanford Theatre in somewhat nearby Palo Alto down on the Peninsula.

I had already performed to the popular silent film version of the Heidelberg story under the auspices of film collector Paul Killiam at a film festival in the Midwest a few years previous, so I found the score in my storage files and preparations went along just fine. That is, until the day before the Palo Alto performance. David phoned and asked for any final setup details, arrival time and such, and during the conversation, he happened to mention that he was really looking forward to seeing Norma Shearer in the film. I flippingly replied that Norma Shearer wasn’t in the film. It was Dorothy Gish. A bit heatedly David said, “No, it is Norma Shearer with Ramon Navarro”. I said that I really didn’t want to argue about it. however, this 1916 film stars Dorothy Gish and Wallace Reid.

There was this long pause and then we both realized that there must have been two silent film versions of the same story, and David said he was screening the MGM 1928 one directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Well, that version was a film I had not yet seen nor known about hitherto. So, David gently asked what we could do and I asked to think about it a moment. Then I asked if he already had the print and was told the print was already in the booth.

So, I told him to call in the projectionist and get him a room in a nearby hotel preparing for what I envisioned would be an all-nighter project. Then I asked him to set up a standard 6’ folding table in the theatre, bring in a photocopy machine, two cans of rubber cement, a ream of photocopy paper plus a paper cutter and a 1 1/2″ three-ring notebook. I said I’d be there in 45 minutes to begin and I stopped in at the Stanford University music library on the way to get ahold of the Sigmund Romberg operetta’s vocal score. So, that’s what we did – and it indeed took a straight-through 23 hours and 15 minutes work session without any breaks to create an entirely new, precisely synchronized, all-Romberg plus period generics source music compilation score following the historical period practices of the scoring professionals as practiced in the silent film industry.

This was predominantly assembled out of the operetta material just as I’d done with the earlier film starring Dorothy Gish titled, “In Old Heidelberg.” That film, however, was entirely different in every way from the Lubitsch 1928 version based on the same material, so all of that prior scoring work was entirely unusable. David sat up with me all night in the little theatre office upstairs watching me work and observing closely, step by step, everything that I did.  We would screen a scene of the film, and then I’d think about it a bit, scan through the entire Romberg operetta score for possibilities considering plot sequence, character assignments, scene atmospherics, emotional cues and implications, all while weighing the music styles and key orientations.

When finding something that fit, I would place it my mind and play it through together with my memory of the images while conducting myself along to make sure that it synchronized, and then pasted it up to assemble into the notebook to then call the projectionist in again to run the next scene. We did that progressively, scene by scene, through the whole night and right on through into the next day. Finishing up the score assembly just 12 minutes before the start of my debut performance left no time to permit my actually playing any of it in advance. so the niceties of organ registration and key manipulations had to be done ‘on the fly.’

I’m happy to report that that score turned out so perfectly that I still perform it exactly as I assembled it that hectic all night session in 1993!

How do you choose the songs or soundtracks to perform?

The way I work primarily is through performance of either the original published scores that were distributed along with the film prints or scores I assemble faithfully following the compilation scoring guides sent along with the films to assemble scores from original period-published music intended for cueing purposes.

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. The visual cues go into my eyes and my brain processes the combination of audience reactions underway, the performance needs of the instrument at hand and the calculations for precision timings for the music tempos related to the unfolding scene contents and outcomes the scoring in a fully synchronous spontaneity. 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.

The basis of it all is informed by the time I spent many years ago working with veteran professional silent film scorers such as Lee Erwin, Gaylord Carter and Dr. C. A. J. Parmentier, all of whom were still active in the 1960s and 70’s when I was coming to the profession. Learning a lot of the basics of period stylistic revival and essential professional procedures really informed my nascent developing technique.

As in the case of Broken Blossoms (1919), you’ve been called a musical detective. How did that start?

My interest in finding and preserving historical film scores grew out of my discovery that there were actual original scores prepared for silent film accompanists to use back in the original exhibitions period.  This discovery came about by my seeing the first page of the conductor’s part to Louis F. Gottschalk’s published full orchestra score to D. W. Griffith’s 1919 film Broken Blossoms. This was used for illustration in the seminal motion picture theatre architectural history book, The Best Remaining Seats, published in the 1960s.

I chased down the author, Ben M. Hall who was based in New York City and then working as Time magazine’s film critic. He led me to an archive contact that held both the complete musical score with full orchestral parts, and a bit more hunting led me to a completely preserved theatrical print of the film.  So, I decided to present my first organ plus orchestra screening at Indiana University with a performance that filled the 3,800 seat I.U. Auditorium accomplished with me at the organ together with a fellow student conducting the local Bloomington Symphony Orchestra.

Can you tell me more about the film, Broken Blossoms (1919)?

Here’s some information I have on file:

“Broken Blossoms”, which stars Lillian Gish as a poor girl from London’s seedy Limehouse district who’s brutally abused her father and later falls in love with a Chinese man, is often regarded and dismissed as filmmaker D. W. Griffith’s apology for his celebration of the Klu Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation. Because Broken Blossoms is so earnest a portraiture of an impossible love between the races, it’s tempting to accept Griffith’s claims that he didn’t mean any harm with The Birth of a Nation. Griffith, of course, was too smart to allow a film like Broken Blossoms to be taken as a simple blanket apology. Via the film’s poetic intertitles, Griffith not only addresses the complicated love between Lucy Burrows (Gish) and Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), but the critics who accused him of racism with “the whip of unkind words and deeds.”

The love story at the center of Broken Blossoms is deliberately overstuffed, but unmistakably coloured with infinite shades of biting irony and social critique. Griffith painstakingly evokes China as a serene Buddhist paradise, but Cheng’s philosophy of life is really no different than that of any good Christian. (Cheng tells a group of skylarking sailors: “What thou dost not want others to do to thee, do thou not to others.”) Cheng arrives in the godless streets of London and is soon seen as just another “chink storekeeper.” He’s handed a book about the perils of hell from a group of missionaries leaving for China on their way to convert so-called heathens, though they’re clearly oblivious to the horrors that reside within their own “scarlet house of sin.”

The film’s feminist appeal lies in Griffith’s photojournalistic evocation of the Limehouse district as a deathtrap for women. Lucy is advised against marriage by a woman who washes clothes for a roomful of sweaty children and later bumps into a couple of prostitutes outside. Just as Griffith felt he was falsely accused of racism, the film’s heroine constantly suffers the scorn of her vicious father. Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is a monster, but Griffith understands the man’s frustrated desire to lash out against something in the face of economic and masculine defeat. So horrible is Lucy’s torture at the hands of her father that she has to literally sculpt a smile from her perpetually downtrodden expression using the tips of her fingers. Beaten to a pulp by Battling, Lucy seeks refuge inside Cheng’s shop. She faints on the rug like a broken flower and awakens as his White Blossom.

“Her beauty so long hidden shines out like a poem,” declares one the film’s intertitles, and Griffith recognizes the simple yet incredible power of an unforced smile. Cheng feeds this beauty with the rays he steals from the lyric moon. Because cinematic convention forbade physical contact between his actors, Griffith had to settle for grand poetic gestures and dramatic artifice to evoke the rapturous, nurturing love between Lucy and Cheng. For Griffith, Broken Blossoms was intended in part as a supreme act of reconciliation, but the film works less self-consciously as an ode to misdirected contempt, selfless love, and various modes of worship. Just as the film’s extended boxing sequence is an act of brutal masculine reverence, Griffith recognizes Cheng’s love for Lucy as an act of holy worship. Because social convention forbids their love, Lucy and Cheng persevere in death. And Griffith lovingly and hauntingly evokes this transcendence via a shot of a man worshipping in a Buddhist temple and ships dancing in the distant horizon.

(This information comes from a film essay “Broken Blossoms” By Ed Gonzalez)

When did you start performing for a live audience?

Let’s see, I think that began in around 1966 or so when we bought a little Kinsman-brand “rock style,” very heavy, two manual Italian spinet organ device (this is before the single row of keys so-called “Keyboard” rock band instrument devices) that we used to drag around for my forays into pop music garage bands quite popular for dance-playing in my South Jersey high school years. My first successful band was called ‘Vicious Omelette’ with the yolk half of the name came from the coats inherited from an earlier band called ‘The Yellow Jackets.’

I say success because the other one was an ONLY-covers band. I found that out one night at a dance when I’d got really fed up with playing that same organ solo from “Light My Fire” over and over again, so I made up my own and played it on the spot. The lead singer who was in charge of the band stopped the song and ordered me to play the solo just like it was on the record or quit — so I quit.

I met him again 25 years later at my high school reunion, and he apologized, mentioning he thought I was the only really musically talented one, this after he was told that next night I was flying to LA to be on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno performing in the backup band with Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

Anyway, I wanted to call our new group ‘Vociferous Omelette,’ but the drummer couldn’t fit in all the letters when trying to paint it onto the bass drum, so we did a random page opening and finger point into a dictionary to find the shorter word Vicious. And that also gave us a great logo opportunity to have drawn a quite menacing angry omelette to go with the lettering. Our audition for Atlantic Records (one of our members had an uncle who worked there) went nowhere, but we did do a lot of gigs and met a lot of girls.

How old were you when you started ‘Vicious Omelette’?

That was a high school band, formed by my recollection in junior year, so I would have been 16

Can you describe ‘Vicious Omelette’ a bit more?

Just a typical “Garage Band” of the day; lead guitar (who also sang), rhythm guitar, bass guitar, organ and drums.

Funny memory is that the lead singer was rail-thin, and he had a pretty girlfriend who had red hair chewed gum all of the time. When I went to my 25th high school reunion this middle-aged couple came up to speak to me — the guy was a balding and kind of chunky guy whom I did not recognize until noticing his wife had red hair and was chewing gum! Sure enough, they’d gotten married after high school. We chatted a bit remembering when I’d gotten thrown out of the band in the middle of one of our high school dance performances.

We were doing a cover of “Light My Fire” and I’d gotten tired of playing the famous lengthy organ solo within that classic arrangement and had decided to make up something of my own. Our lead singer stopped the piece, yelled at me and fired me on the spot! At that 25th reunion, he said he always thought that I was the talented one and would be the one to go on into music as a profession! And, the very next day after that encounter I flew to Los Angeles (from New Jersey), and appeared with Linda Ronstadt playing my glass armonica on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show. So I guess he was correct!

Why do you think the audition for Atlantic Records went nowhere?

Oh, we were terrible — a typical high school band really playing just to meet girls.

What is one of your funniest stories about performing?

Well, not in performing, but in studying with my first “serious” teacher, Leonard MacLain in Philadelphia. There was this one lesson when he told me the story of Louis Vierne, the famous 19th c. French cathedral organist, who was felled by a fatal heart attack while playing the organ during a service. He’d collapsed down onto the keys and so the organ roared out a cacophony of organ pipes playing simultaneously at full volume. So, they had to send someone up the little access stair path to the organ loft to pull the body off the console.

And Leonard said to me, “Now, THAT’S the way we organists all want to go!”

Well, he’d told me that story, and the very next week I walked in the downtown Philadelphia studio entry door for my lesson, and there was Leonard slumped over the keys of the Hammond electric organ! I knew he had been having heart problems and by then always taught with a little wheeled and mask-equipped portable oxygen tank by his side. So, his head was down on the keys and I ran over to him and shook him. He sat up and drowsily said, “Oh, uhm, sorry . . . I fell asleep.” Such drama!

Do you have a favourite concert that you’ve performed at?

I guess that would be the story of my very first “big” solo concert. My teacher did finally have a really big heart attack that slammed him into the hospital. This was just before the Fourth of July in 1967. He was scheduled to play a major solo concert for a national convention of pipe organ enthusiasts in Detroit. So, Leonard decided to send me out in his place. Now, I hadn’t seen a theatre organ except for a brief encounter with one in a residence installation when I was nine and hadn’t really played one yet at all. So Leonard had me brought into his hospital room, and we sat together with a little hand slide viewer, and he showed by photographs what were the controls on a full-scale top of the line custom four-manual Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ.

He would say “now this thing does this, and when you set this then you better do that” and so forth.

The last thing he said was, “and when you arrive, put this pedal here on the far right side all the way down — the crescendo pedal that puts on all the stops without they’re actually being set — and then you put down all the way the shoe next to it — that one opens all of the chamber shutters”.

And then he said to play a full double-hand chord on next to the bottom row of keys (the Great manual), “That’s the very first thing you do.”

The point here was to let this little 16-year kid know what he was getting into. I did exactly that and nearly flipped back off the organ bench to the floor in fright. Such a sound, such power! You talk to any adolescent boy organist and you’ll find out it’s all about the power, and Leonard knew exactly what was going to happen — he was preparing me, and he did a really good job.

So, I’m in Detroit and I’m supposed to play a two-hour recital, and I could only play for 40 minutes because that was everything I knew how to play at the time. The presenters quickly scrounged about and asked visiting professional New York-based organist Lee Erwin to fill in for the second half. And it all went very well — so that began my career as a performing professional organist.

What appeal do performances such as yours have compared to the originals?

The appeal for my work, I think, comes from the recognition of historical-cultural authenticity. I am a historical preservationist and my work is actually in continuity (as opposed to historical revival) for I perpetuate the professional scoring methods for silent films just as they were first conceived and performed by the originators of the art in the 1890s through 1930s.

Most major productions had complete, written-out and orchestrated published scores played by instrumental ensembles ranging up to 60 and more players. The film studios made and released enough films so that the local cinemas could change their programming two or three times a week.

And because there was no way to fully compose, disseminate, rehearse, and synchronize these large scale performances of that much music, what wound up happening is that, for many performances, each theatre’s staff keyboard musicians built up giant individualized libraries of music— pre-existing classical music, current popular tunes, one-steps, two-steps and foxtrots, hymns, marches, folk tunes, the entire gamut of music suitable to be repurposed towards film scoring.

Beginning with Max Winkler who introduced the careful synchronizing techniques within compilation scorings, the main music publishers hired talented genre composers to compose specific mood-music cue fundamental resource material. The organists and pianists would have stacks of music organized by prevailing key and emotional content. So, when there was a chase scene, for instance, they would usually modulate into d minor and construct a sequence of published so-called allegros, hurries and agitatos as chase music.

When there was a love scene, they’d go through their collection of romances and plaintives to play. So, 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.

Why is historic preservation important to you?

I’ll rephrase that one — for those to whom it doesn’t matter, why ISN’T historic preservation important. For me, it is the center of my activity and basis for all of my endeavours.

What are your opinions of the industry in the music industry?

Well, I think the late Hunter S. Thompson said it best: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

How do online platforms like YouTube or YouTube impact the music industry?

Well, in my particular specialty corner of the music universe, the impact has undermined my pursuing a professional career by giving equal access and referential instant comparative status permitting the unfortunate display of untutored, unprepared, minimally talented amateur and enthusiast activities.

Do you think that the internet could improve in that aspect?

If the general culture attention goes through a major shift, then, yes, likely the Internet could improve. The information needed in support of historic preservation efforts, though, is already there and readily available, and I don’t think the Internet itself has any bias one way or another in such usage.

What are some of your fondest memories throughout your music career?

So, it was 1969, and I was back in Indiana at college for my sophomore year and one night I was sitting around joking with my college roommate. A new Schantz-built concert pipe organ had just been installed in the school’s 3,800 seat I. U. Auditorium. There was a lot of talk about it in the department, and I was really eager to play it, so I came up with the idea to suggest showing this old silent horror film my dad had told me about, “Phantom of the Opera,” that he’d seen when it first came out in 1925.

I figured I would do the Gaylord Carter bit I had seen in that Philadelphia “The Mark of Zorro” screening, and then I would get to play that new organ along with it. At that point, I was still in contact with New York based silent film organist Lee Erwin who had been summoned to share my 1967 Detroit debut performance. I’d played everything I knew as the first half of that program and Lee filled in to play the balance of the assigned program.

So, Lee flew out from New York two weeks before this Halloween “Phantom of the Opera” event I’d connected to teach me his approach towards how to score silent movies. He loaned me some of his own written scores to study that he brought out with him from New York, and stayed at his own expense in a local motel and met me each day after regular classes. At the time I didn’t think it was all that unusual what with so much happening and me having gotten to the point of thinking musical friends just did things like that.

It’s so odd now to think that these various important people in this field of obscure endeavour showed up in my life right when I needed them. I would go to classes and come by after to meet with Lee, and we’d talk about what I’d learned at school about that day. Then we’d have dinner, and he would teach me about film music.

This was happening during a major peak of the Vietnam War protest era. There were all sorts of news coverage of some of the events at Indiana University at that time: the campus taken over and shut down by the students, ROTC building burnt down, and other more serious war protest events. So, I decided there was a real need and opportunity for some sort of comic relief. I provided it with my silent film scoring debut.

I went down to the student craft shop in the basement of the Memorial Union building and printed up 400 tickets by hand, stamping them out on the craft press. Then I developed a rather clever campaign that included posting the phrase “The Phantom is Coming!” all over campus; little posters hung on the trees, chalked on vacant blackboards in classrooms throughout the day, pasted on stickers under the toilet seat covers in all of the dorms. It went on and on.

And then on Halloween Day a front-page article in the school newspaper explaining the event. We’d sold only some forty tickets in advance and were prepared for an abject failure. However, to my great surprise, over 4,000 people turned up, and we had to resell those 400 tickets over and over again at the door. Wearing a cape and mask borrowed from the theatre department I went on that night and began to play that newly composed score I had prepared with Lee.

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.

What are some of your upcoming events?


October 31, Winspear Centre, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
8th annual Halloween program presented by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Conrad Veidt in Hands of Orlac with the Duo Filmharmonia performing the debut of an all-Chopin scoring featuring Piano, Organ and Theremin

November 2, Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio Cleveland
Cinematheque presents: Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

November 3, Historical Society Museum, Athens, Ohio
3rd annual Halloween silent film program: Lon Chaney in Hunchback of Notre Dame with solo classical organ scoring

November 8, Glimmerglass Film Festival, Cooperstown,
New York Silent Film Concerts debut: Last of the Mohicans directed by Clarence Brown with solo piano scoring


November 12, Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria
13th Annual Silent Film Concerts series: Lon Chaney in Hunchback of Notre Dame with solo classical organ scoring

November 13, Tanzmeistersaal in the Mozart Wohnhaus, Salzburg, Austria
Glass Armonica program for “Week of the Museum” Mozarteum presentation series

November 22, Venango Museum, Oil City, Pennsylvania
Holiday Concert plus silent film Big Business starring Laurel & Hardy

December 5,7,8, Jones Hall, Houston, Texas
Glass Armonica performance in new symphony composed by Jimmy López Bellido

December 20, Polk Theatre, Lakeland, Florida
Silent Film Series: Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik

Could you tell me a bit more about the upcoming event at the Winspear?

This year’s film on Halloween night at the Winspear is the 1924 Austrian silent horror/psychological mystery film Hands of Orlac with a new score being performed by my film scoring duo: “Duo Filmharmonia” – Piano plus Organ — with two performers, me playing Organ plus Theremin. I tour this with worldwide with Valencia, Spain-based concert pianist Dr. Michael Tsalka.

We recently debuted at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria another silent film project Janice Meredith with all Colonial American music scoring and also had a sellout presentation of another, our Silent Halmet film project (with all Sons of J.S, Bach music scoring) presented in the 2300 seat Elbphilharmonie new concert hall in Hamburg, Germany. Hands of Orlac deliciously twisted thriller that blends Grand Guignol ecstasies with German Expressionism.

Based on a novel by Maurice Renard, it charts the mental disintegration of a concert pianist named Orlac (Conrad Veidt) whose hands are amputated after a train crash, then replaced with the hands of an executed murderer. When Orlac’s father is murdered by the dead man’s hands, Orlac begins a steady descent toward madness. Made in Vienna, the hotbed of psychoanalysis, this 1924 Austrian bubbles over with sexual innuendo and Freudian imagery.

Duo Filmharmonia bridges the worlds of film appreciation, musicology and historical preservation to revive works of art; timeless experiential recreations that transcend transitory fashionable alternatives emerging in silent film exhibitions today. Duo Filmharmonia’s loyalty to the original silent-period filmmakers’ visions may at first seem as anachronistic as has become the emergent typical 21st-century experience of the historical film: a presentation visual art form begun in 1895 accompanied by musicians in live performance.

Rather than overpower the delicate preserved images with the now-prevailing flamboyant, grossly popularized performer display foisted scoring impositions and mocking conversions for trendy ‘hip’ presentations, Duo Filmharmonia carefully provides authentic period-revival soundtracks that truly support exquisitely restored silent films being presented in the manner the filmmakers themselves originally intended and the original audiences actually experienced.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

Touring the world just as I have been doing for the past 50 years.



Let me introduce myself. I'm Dylanna fisher, a writer, creator, and visionary. Currently, I'm a journalism student at Grant MacEwan University based in Edmonton, Alberta. I've recently graduated with a journalism major while growing a freelancing writing company on the side, Dylanna Fisher Communications. Ever since I can remember, I've always been fascinated with sharing ideas with people. And that's exactly what I want to do. Check out my work on Switchingstyles.ca and on dylannafisher.com.

1 Comment

  1. I am continually searching online for new ideas that can facilitate me. Thanks!

Now tell Switching Styles what you really think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: