Who needs talkies? Silent film pianist to play in Willsboro

WILLSBORO - Two local arts organizations have teamed up to organize a special performance, the likes of which has not been seen in the area for nearly 80 years.

On Oct. 17, the Champlain Valley Film Society and Piano by Nature will present a legendary silent film that features live musical accompaniment by pianist Ben Model.

The 8 p.m. performance will accompany the 1926 classic "The General" starring Buster Keaton in the Willsboro Central School auditorium.

For the past 25 years, Model has been the silent film accompanist for The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He has recorded numerous scores for silent film DVDs and, together with film historian Bruce Lawton, produces The Silent Clowns Film Series.

Model will be on hand at 4 p.m. to present a pre-film lecture on "Silent Film History and Piano Improvisation." It's a subject that's been his lifelong passion.

"My interest in it is not so much as a musician, but rather as a fan of these films," said Model. "My accompanying them ensures that they continue to be shown."

Model has performed along with hundreds of silent films over the past three decades and said audience members often leave saying they had much more fun than they expected.

"The audience is engaged much more than with modern films," he said. "Their imagination is involved much more. That's one of the reasons why silent film is having somewhat of a comeback."

As for the music, Model said recurring musical themes are prepared in advance, usually to coordinate with certain characters in the film. However, it was never intended to be recorded.

"Live accompaniment is a part of the silent film experience," Model explained, noting that it's not only historically accurate, but allows the performance to be tailored to the audience. Improvisation is a big part of that.

"The score is always performed differently," he said. "It's up to the musician."

Model is quite familiar with "The General," which has been called "One of the finest comedies of all time." The film features train stunts, fires and explosions, all without stunt doubles or special effects.

"If you need a good laugh, there's about 100 of them in this film," Model said.

The film is not rated. Tickets are $7.50 for adults and $3 for those younger than 18. For more information, call 963-8662 or 962-2949.

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