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The Wonder of a Silent Film Accompanied by a Large Pipe Organ

After my many decades in film, I finally got to see a silent film accompanied live by a large pipe organ. The pipe organ has always been my favorite instrument. Probably because it is so loud, has so many different sounds, and one note can be duplicated a dozens times in dozens of different voices. Large pipe organs are huge, with 10,000+ pipes, mounted in rooms hundreds of square feet in size each with an individual switch connected to a massive console.

Many organs have pipes 32 feet long (a three- story building) requiring ceiling heights of 40+ feet. The massive “earthquake” pipe creates such low tones, that they are felt, not heard, and risk collapsing buildings with subsonic pressure waves. Most interesting, this analog technology is hundreds of years old.

In the digital world, many people believe a circuit chip and a set of $100 headphones can emulate a large pipe organ. Many churches have replaced pipe organs with 4-piece rock bands. As if there weren’t already enough places to hear 4-piece rock bands—like the grocery store.

I have been to many organ concerts across the US. Sometimes they can be bland, as the organists spend too much time noodling across the keyboard making mellow meditative tones, seemingly shy about what a big organ can really produce. But the performance I attended last night was an all-out organ assault.

Dorothy Papadakos, an incredible performer and artist, is famous as the first woman organist at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John The Devine, among other gigs. For years, she has found a comfortable niche accompanying 100-year old silent films, around the world in churches and theaters with huge organs in huge spaces. She writes all her own music, which guides her through fantastic improvisations.

I saw her last night accompanying the 1920 version of the iconic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring John Barrymore. The melodies pitted the ferocious against the sublime, reflecting the dual personalities of the protagonist. Her improvisations enhanced the action, growing in volume and complexity as Dr. Jekyll unravels from a generous, kind doctor, to a demon addicted to hurting people.

When Papadakos “pulls out all the stops,” (which she does frequently), the walls shake. She seems to be physically crawling over the organ in acrobatic kicks, swirls, stretches and flourishes to enhance the intense images. I love watching organists racing across the keyboards with both hands and feet, as the volume swells, and the tempo jumps by leaps and bounds. I swear that more than once, she actually threw her whole body onto the three keyboards, attempting to hit every note at once.

Actually, the organ did shut down a couple times, crying “uncle,” (never seen that before), but she coolly rebooted, missing hardly a beat. After the show she asked if I noticed when the organ “began to play by itself.” I sure did—and I sympathized with it.

For the first time I realized the genius of the silent film makers who introduced the pipe organ as the ideal instrument to accompany their big screen films.

Papadakos made it a point to say that she did not perform on the classic “theater” organs like the Mighty Wurlitzers that included, gongs, cymbals, snare drums, trombones, and xylophones, and organ pipes designed to “sound just like” oboes, clarinets, and cellos, but were very bland compared to the actual instruments. For some reason, they usually used a heavy vibrato on every note— a ‘special effect,’ that gets old very quickly. They were meant to mimic a live orchestra. They never did a great job of it, especially since they were meant to mimic a more expensive orchestra, take away musicians’ jobs, and save the theater owners money. I guess, they’re just—cheezy.

Ultimately, church organs—without all the theatrical bells and whistles—are ideal partners for silent films, seen on a large screen, in a large hall, the way they were meant to be. They are original instruments with unique, complex, thought-provoking sounds. And the performers who play them, are in harmony with the sense and presence of the ‘silent’ cinematic experience.

I wish every town had a repertory cinema that regularly played the silents with a grand organ.

For more info about Dorothy and her magical world of music




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