The Sounds of Silents at Butterfield

By Alison Rooney

 Have you ever watched the portion of the Academy Awards where, to demonstrate the critical role that a film score plays in the heightening of emotions and setting of mood, footage of Oscar-nominated “best score” films is shown first minus the soundtrack, and then shown again, accompanied by the music? The same principal applies to silent films.  Designed to be accompanied by a piano, and hence not truly silent, the potency of music accompanied solely by flickering image, and not by voice, is at its strongest.
       The organizers of the Silent Film Series at The Butterfield Library are well aware that silent films are optimally viewed with thoughtful musical accompaniment.  Luanne Morse and her husband, pianist and composer Cary Brown, started the series a couple of years ago. Their thought was that showing these films, with Brown accompanying, would be a vivid introduction to the world of silents for the young and old who had never

Cary Brown

 seen these films. It would also bring pleasure to the oldest viewers, some of whom can remember going to the movies when there was no sound. Morse, who works at the library, remembered Brown accompanying the screening of a silent back in Boston years ago when they first met. She brought the idea to Library Director Gillian Thorpe, who thought it was a great fit for Butterfield.
       The past two years have seen a film screened once a month (with summertime breaks).  Past films presented include Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad, and last month’s showing of Josef Von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York.  The films are attracting a loyal following of mixed ages—the full spectrum, according to Brown, who has taken note that one father and young daughter pair have come to all or almost all screenings.  Children have come to most of the films, and Brown thinks that it’s great for them to be exposed to these founding pieces of film history. Morse researches and selects the majority of the films. According to Brown, “some are films we both like, but she also finds other stuff that I hadn’t thought of.”
       Enter the music.  Brown says “I would call it a score only in that it happens along with the movie.  But it’s not a score in that I don’t write it ahead of time—I improvise.”  He has even played for something he had never seen before sitting down at the piano “¦ a Buster Keaton film last year.  It didn’t throw him, as “I’m comfortable improvising, so it’s a lot of fun.”
       Brown is often asked at the screenings how he can play for an hour and a half to two hours at a time, but it comes naturally to him—he was a double major at the University of Rochester in Film Studies and Music (at the Eastman School of Music.) He notes that the Eastman School was founded in part to train musicians to compose for the silents (George Eastman had that in mind) so there was a strong sense of the history built into the school. “What got me into film was studying one course at Eastman House taught by James Card [founder of the George Eastman archive].”  According to notes on the University of Rochester website: “It was decided that the music school and a small concert hall would occupy the south end of the property, while a theatre with a large auditorium would be erected on the north side. Musical entertainment would be furnished in the great concert hall one day of each week, and for six days it would be used as a cinema house de luxe, imitative of motion picture theatres in New York City, in that film showings would be accompanied by performances of good music and ballet. This feature of the whole enterprise was dear to the heart of Eastman, who reasoned that many moviegoers would thereby develop a taste for music of quality and thus patronage of symphonic concerts and opera would be enlarged.”

1926 film of The Scarlett Letter

Brown’s interest in films was transmitted through his upbringing as well, as his father is the head of Film Studies at Queens College, teaches at NYU and has written extensively about both film and music. In an aside Brown mentioned that “I grew up reading my comics with a James Bond soundtrack in the background.  For my sixteenth birthday, my father hung a sheet in the living room and screened Vertigo!” His original career intentions were focused on film scoring, and he planned on heading to Los Angeles and “breaking into the scene” after graduation. Instead, in what would cinematically be called a surprising twist, he wound up playing keyboards with the Jamaican ska band The Skatelites, and toured with them throughout the 90’s.
       Brown doesn’t always play what one thinks of as the traditional type of “silent film music” for each film.  He did provide that for a Buster Keaton film and has used ragtime and “sometimes I’ll get more jazzy, depending on the film.” For this Saturday’s screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, he is considering bringing in a synthesizer and/or otherwise mirroring the German Expressionist style of the film: “perhaps something turn of the

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

century “¦ Debussy “¦ going into Schoenberg. We’ll see.”  According to the book “Silent Cinema in Song” when silents first were screened, the music was up to the pianist, but as the studio system became more entrenched, the studios would send out different types of music to be played, such as “war music,” “hurrying music,” “Mexican music” etc.  This led to complete, orchestral scores sometimes being written, at times performed by a 20-piece orchestra.
       Brown is currently the Music Coordinator for the SUNY Purchase College Dance Conservatory, and he administers the accompanist program there.  His is also the Music Director of the Steffi Nosson School of Dance in White Plains, and does much freelance performing, composing and producing.  He heads up the Cary Brown Trio, which performs “lyrical, acoustic jazz, standards and originals.” The Trio has appeared locally at the Towne Crier in Pawling and at the Twelve Grapes in Peekskill.
       This Saturday’s screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes place at 7 p.m. at Butterfield Library.  Future Silent Film Series presentations include The Scarlet Letter on Saturday, Nov. 20 and Chicago, on Dec. 18.  Chicago features the same plot as the Broadway musical (and the film of it).  For more information visit or call 845-265-3040.

2 thoughts on “The Sounds of Silents at Butterfield

  1. Thanks for the wonderfully presented article, Alison!
    Hope to see you at the next one,


  2. What a wonderful opportunity for both film buffs and film music lovers! Congratulations to the artistic team for their vision and to the library for its investment in such an inspired series.