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Conductor Makes Music for Silent Films

July 27, 1993

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) _ Bang 3/8 It’s a shootout. Crash 3/8 A chair falls over. Whap 3/8 The hero gets slapped in the face.

This is a silent movie?

These days, most people watch silent films with only the whir of the projector for accompaniment. Music Professor Donald Hunsberger compares that to cooking without salt and pepper. ″It’s only half the picture,″ he says.

The authentic silent-movie experience, says Hunsberger, isn’t silent at all.

The silver-haired professor, who teaches conducting at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, has spent the last decade re-creating the sounds of silent movies. He has compiled musical scores for more than a dozen silent films, which he performs with orchestras across the country.

Silent movies almost always had accompaniment of some kind, whether a single piano player or a full orchestra. In the early days of film, local accompanists hired by the theaters played whatever music they had on hand, with little regard to the action on screen.

About 1915, movie distributors began issuing cue sheets suggesting specific pieces of music. Those were often generic, interchangeable pieces with names such as ″Dramatic Tension No. 1,″ intended ″for general use,″ and ″Furioso No. 60,″ for scenes ″depicting conflict and riot.″

In a few cases, such as Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 ″City Lights,″ an entire score was written for the film.

By 1929, the silent-movie era was ending, and much of the music written for it disappeared. ″Once the period was over, theaters had no use for the music,″ Hunsberger said. ″They just threw it out.″

Not only the music, but many of the films themselves were lost. Tens of thousands of motion pictures were made between 1915 and 1929, the heyday of silent film. Only about one in 10 has survived.

Hunsberger works with the George Eastman House and its vast collection of silent films, and the Eastman School library, which has a collection of 15,000 film accompaniments. He is constantly listening for music he might be able to use in a film score.

″I heard something the other day that would be great for a train scene,″ he said. ″I look for something that is going to reflect the mood of what’s on the screen, with the sensibility of today’s audiences in mind.″

With all the different musicians and ensembles that played with each silent film as it showed across the country, there is no single authentic score, Hunsberger said. ″If a show were shown in 10,000 theaters, there would be 10,000 different scores.″

The films Hunsberger has scored include Lon Chaney’s ″The Phantom of the Opera″ and ″The Hunchback of Notre Dame,″ Douglas Fairbanks’ ″The Mark of Zorro″ and Buster Keaton’s ″Our Hospitality.″

In modern-sound movies, the soundtracks are synchronized to the on-screen action with split-second, computer-generated precision. Accompanying a silent movie takes more old-fashioned talents.

Hunsberger faces the screen, with the orchestra seated in front of him, and makes sure the music keeps pace with the picture. His score for ″The Mark of Zorro″ is covered with notes about what should be happening on screen during any given passage: ″Don yawns,″ ″Don rises″ and ″Mother curtsies.″

Also facing the screen is the percussionist, who is responsible for making the movie’s hoofbeats, door knocks, face slaps, sword clatters, gun shots and other assorted sound effects - and for matching them exactly to the action on screen.

Even with a movie Hunsberger has performed dozens of times, things can go wrong. The film breaks, the movie jumps ahead or the projector slows down, while Hunsberger improvises as best he can.

Besides playing with symphony orchestras around the country, Hunsberger conducts a student group, the Eastman-Dryden Orchestra, which specializes in accompanying silent films. In August, Hunsberger will perform ″The Hunchback of Notre Dame″ with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va.

Audience reaction is ″generally tremendous,″ said Hunsberger. A sheaf of reviews calling his performances ″electrifying″ and ″delightful″ backs up his claim. At a recent performance of ″Zorro,″ the audience obliged with fervent boos and hisses when Hunsberger invited them to ″let us know who the bad guys are.″

″They get themselves riotous,″ he said.

That kind of audience response is one reason the 60-year-old Hunsberger takes his movie work so seriously.

″A lot of the people who come may not be symphony subscribers or museum goers, but they’re people who enjoy a good show,″ he said. ″The arts need all the support we can get, especially the live arts.″

The feedback is also satisfying for the musicians, Hunsberger said. At a regular symphony concert, the crowd stays hushed until the last note dies away. At Hunsberger’s live film accompaniments, the orchestra can tell right away whether the audience has been won over, he said.

″We’ll get eight minutes into the show and we’ll get this big laugh, and we’ll know we’ve got ’em.″

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