Hank Troy is taken aback. It’s just been pointed out to him that he’s created musical accompaniment for silent films a decade longer than the Silent Era itself lasted. “Hmm, I never thought about that,” says the gentle, friendly musician. “I’m going to have to think about that one!”
Tonight, Troy closes out this summer’ Silent Film Series at Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium with fellow musical experts Rodney Sauer on accordion and Ed Contreras on percussion. As the Silent Cinema Trio, they will play along with the 1928 Gold Rush adventure saga The Trail of ’98.
Troy, Sauer and Contreras have a combined century-plus of musical experience. In what sounds like a very jazz-like way to develop a score, “We’ll play through the entire film, an improvised rehearsal,” says Troy. “We all have a DVD of the film, and we’ll get together and talk it over. We will identify a couple of themes. We’ll agree to hit certain points, we’ll map it out – and then we’ll improvise.
“Rodney has such a background in music of that era that he has the same sensibility as I do, and we really get along,” continues Troy. Sauer is also a pianist, composer and leader of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and has seen many of his scores recorded for films distributed by prestigious labels such as Criterion and Kino. “I try to stay close to the music of the period, not do anything more modern than that,” Troy says.
The Trail of ’98 was a big gamble for MGM; the $1.5 million budget included location shooting in Alaska and in Colorado, with Rollins Pass substituting for the infamous Chilikoot Pass in the film. As many as six crew deaths are said to have occurred during shooting, making this the most deadly silent film ever made. (Three deaths during the making of Michael Curtiz’s Biblical epic Noah’s Ark the same year sparked a scandal and led to more stringent safety regulations in the industry.)
The Trail of ’98 featured cutting-edge technology as well. For two large-scale action sequences, a “Fantom screen” pushed forward and expanded on rollers, providing twice the usual screen size – the IMAX of its day. Even this gimmick failed to save the picture. A few years later, a print truncated by forty minutes, with an orchestral score and sound effects laid in, was re-released, to little acclaim.
Playing under a silent film was standard during the time; when the Silent Era ended, except for houses that maintained hybrid film/live shows, musicians were given the key to the street. Conversely, Troy’s talent for silent-film accompaniment came to light at just the right time. A new appreciation of silent film had begun, and the movement to preserve and restore movies long thought lost accelerated as interest and technological advances made it possible to bring them to light...quite literally.
“There have been a couple of waves of renewed interest in the medium that have sustained me doing this work,” he says. Also a ragtime music expert, Troy has his hands full with playing, teaching, lecturing – even stepping into film studies classrooms to accompany silent films, to give students an authentic feel for the experience.
“What’s unique about this experience is that it’s not just a movie and it’s not just a performance — it’s both, and you kind of have to be there to understand it,” he says.
Troy began playing for silent films at the Denver Folklore Center’s original location, an old storefront at 17th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street, in 1971 – two years after his migration to the Mile High City from Virginia, while he was settling in for his long-time tenure in Denver’s Queen City Jazz Band.
“I was learning ragtime at the time, and pop tunes and that sort of thing . . . it was sort of a self-education,” he says. “What I did find was that there were books that were published to help explain this to people in the ‘20s, and so I found some of those and then I started finding music that was written for the movies.”
Over the years, Troy’s research on the subject, and numerous contacts with veteran musicians of the era, led him to assemble a large and diverse library of works from which to draw, much of which he has donated to the University of Colorado library system for study and use by future generations. “People usually who played for the movies at that time either (assembled compilations) on their own, from their own repertoire, or bought music that was designed in that fashion,” he says. “So, there was actually just a ton of music written and published for people who played for the movies — really just an unbelievable number of publishers who filled that void.”
Troy has held forth at Chautauqua every single year of the Silent Film Series – thirty in all. His silent film music is a fluid compendium of period tunes, his own musical creations, and even snippets of appropriate classical pieces. He relishes his role in bringing the silent film experience to life, especially at Chautauqua, "one of the finest pianos I play anywhere,” he says.
“What does happen is, first of all, the film speaks to everyone in the room, including me,” Troy adds. “So I think of myself as another audience member in that regard, with kind of a job to do. But what happens is, all of us get into it so that energy happens, and then also this indefinable accompaniment energy, musical energy.”
The Trail of ‘98 screens at the Silent Film Series, with live accompaniment by the Silent Film Trio, in the Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, on Monday, August 17 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit www.chautauqua.com.