There’s never been a better time to listen to movies than the present. Not only do most theaters offer incredibly realistic, 360-degree “sonic experiences” for their patrons, but many of us have sound systems at home that are nearly as good.
Yet there’s still much to be said for silent films — or, more specifically, for silent films accompanied by a live performance. The experience of watching a silent film with live music is evocative of bygone times and feels more intimate and ephemeral than seeing the latest blockbuster with an opening-weekend crowd. An accompanied film presentation is more of a performance, and every show is unique.
Bob Merrill, a musician living in South Pomfret, has been playing piano with silent films for at least 25 years — he can’t remember exactly when he began. But he can tell you that, in 1999, Dartmouth College presented him with an award for accompanying his 50th film at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. He’s played at quite a few more since then. This Sunday, November 3, he’ll accompany The Cameraman, one of Buster Keaton’s last and greatest silent comedies, at the Hop.
Merrill, 60, has developed an unusual compositional method. “It’s almost exclusively improv,” he says. No composing beforehand, no dry runs, nothing. In fact, he only watches the film he’ll accompany a single time, just before his performance. “That does two things,” he says. “It tires me out. And it makes it so that, the next time through, I have no choice but to pace myself. So that makes me much more efficient and selective about what I play.”
Though experienced in rock, gospel and popular standards, Merrill relies on his training in jazz improvisation for his unconventional approach to accompaniment. That method, he says, “really solidifies the timing of everything … I’m able to hit [the beats] pretty precisely.”
The rhythm of the silent films with which he plays “is usually too fast to develop a full, eight-bar phrase,” Merrill says. “A lot of times, what I’ll do is compose themes that harmonically fit together so that it’s easy to transition from one to another.” Often, he’ll develop themes and motifs for each of a film’s leading characters, and others for repeated narrative or symbolic elements — a technique, in fact, that originated with accompanists in the silent-film era.
But playing music alongside a silent film involves more than just providing a suitable soundtrack. An accompanist also shoulders a good deal of the narrative burden of the film, helping to shape the audience’s emotional responses to what it’s seeing on-screen. Merrill says he appreciates this challenge and admires the skilled composers and musicians of the early 20th century who paved the way for his own career. “It’s a different way to tell a story, but they figured it out,” he says. “You learn that you don’t need sound. Sound is not the be-all, end-all of film. You don’t really need dialogue, either,” he adds.
In addition to his long musical association with the Hop, Merrill is a composer and publisher of pop songs, voiceover artist, technical writer, video editor, website programmer, jingles writer (Upper Valley residents may recall the one he wrote for Damar Motors of Lebanon, N.H.) and audio engineer. He recently wrote for, performed on and produced an album by the singer Jeri Lynne Fraser. A homemade sticker pasted on Merrill’s mixing board — perhaps a gift from someone who appreciates his multiple talents — reads, “BOB MERRILL IS DA BOMB.”
As someone whose livelihood depends on his ears, Merrill has strong opinions on how cinematic scores — not just his own, but soundtracks of Hollywood releases — should work. “If I notice the score, it’s not quite right,” he says. “It just needs to be part of the film … The times when I don’t notice it are the times I feel it’s most successful. That’s kind of my goal, too,” Merrill says, “to have people forget about it.”
Sydney Stowe, manager of Hopkins Center Film, has worked with Merrill for 16 years and is effusive in her praise for his performances. And she concurs with the pianist: “I think that what people love [about his performances] is that he times it so perfectly that you forget that he’s there … That’s what I appreciate about him the most. He’s there to complement the film and the experience. He’s not there to supplant it.”
Even so, Stowe adds, “A lot of our [patrons] don’t even care what we’re showing. They just come to see him play.”
Stowe believes that Merrill does some of his best work for silent comedies, in particular those by Buster Keaton. He loves accompanying the great silent comedians, too.
“I really love that in the last 10 years or so, I’ve gotten to the point where there’s very little between my brains and my fingers,” Merrill says. “The piano is part of my brain.”
Bob Merrill will accompany, on piano, the Dartmouth Film Society’s showing of Buster Keaton’s 1928 film The Cameraman on Sunday, November 3, 4 p.m. at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. $5-8. hop.dartmouth.edu
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sound Man"