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Arts & Culture

His People

I love silent movies because there's something amazing and magical about images that are almost 100 years old. His People, directed by Edward Sloman (a prolific filmmaker in his day), is an immigrant melodrama that touches on themes of assimilation as well as universal themes about parents and children. The parents in His People think their studious, lawyer-to-be son is better than the spunky troublemaker who secretly becomes a boxer. But Mom and Pop eventually come to realize that success can take many different forms in this new land of opportunity. His People , which I screened partially with the new score and partielly silent, has some of the melodrama and histrionics we expect of silent cinema. But it captures an era and place beautifully. Silent films were meant to be seen with live accompaniment so this special screening is something that you should jump at. Let yourself get transported back in time and enjoy this special event.

Here's what Paul Shapiro had to say about the process of creating and performing this score for His People.

BETH ACCOMANDO: First of all I wanted to find out how did this project come to you?
PAUL SHAPIRO: I had the wonderful opportunity to be asked in 2004 by the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in Battery Park City and they were doing a series of live music silent film, and what happened was they submitted to me summaries of several silent films with some Jewish import and I looked through them and I picked a couple of them out to actually view and when I saw His People I knew that was the one for me.


BA: What was it about that film that attracted you?
PS: It's very soulful. I live on the Lower East Side and it was filmed on the Lower east Side or at least filmed to look like it Lower East Side, I'm sure there was some real footage. It was a pretty big budget for 1925 so most of it was probably shot in California, as least that's what I'm told. But I loved the storyline, it's the story of Mama and Papa are Jewish immigrants, Papa's got a pushcart where he sells what Mama makes at her sewing machine. They have two sons, the older one is a sort of snarky lawyer who appears to be the good son, and the younger one is the a spirited younger son who likes to get into fights and he ends up secretly becoming a professional boxer, and he doesn't tell his parents cause he'd get kicked out and you have to come see the movie because I don't want tell you what happens.

BA: Had you ever done any composing for a silent film before?
PS: I had never done composing for a silent film, I did write the score to a wonderful film called The Watermelon Woman , and that was a different kind of thing because that was writing to picture. This is a great thrill because it was 90 minutes of music and we get to have our way with it, we don't have to worry about stepping on any vocals.
BA: But in The Watermelon Woman there was some fake silent footage so was that kind of a warm-up.
PS: You're the first person to know that. You could say that, yes, because some of the music was made to go behind what was made to look like some archival silent footage, you're right, I never thought of that.

BA: So when you came to this project and saw it for the first time,
PS: I basically started from scratch, I set up a TV and a DVD right next to the piano and started to work at it. And I wrote down all of the printed info on the screen like the story cards and there's some dialogue that comes up on the screen. So I went through it and wrote through it and wrote all of that down and started to organize it in terms of themes and gradually I kind of figured out how I was going to approach it musically. And structurally and I kind of came up with themes for certain people, I came up with a theme for Mama, I came up with a theme for one of the sons, and a theme for Papa, and various aspects of the movie started to have their own thematic material and that was kind of the way it evolved.

BA: Was there any information available about what score might have accompanied the film?
PS: I don't have any information on that. I have seen books that are interesting that were books that were used by piano players that accompanied films and a lot of times I would expect that they were probably expected to play along with the film rather soon after they'd seen it for the first time themselves, the way business is these things would get unwrapped and they would want to put them up on the reel and get them going, I don't know that these people had weeks to sit and prepare and some of these books kind of talk about how to play certain kinds of scenes, like how to play scary music, how to play active music, how to play romantic music and how to play na & iuml;ve child-like music so my only guess is that the music that accompanied His People was similar to music that accompanied other films of the day and was probably improvised by the many different piano players across the country and throughout the world.

BA: You not only composed the music but you perform live with the movie.
PS: Well it's a tremendous very fun experience I love to play live. So we get a kick out of it and we love to play live with the film and it's always a little different as much as I have written there's always room for improvisation and as we play it each time we get further into it which is really great because I've seen the film many times to write it obviously but gradually the musicians who are playing it with me have seen it more and more themselves just by rehearsing and performing it so they're getting to catch up with a lot of the stuff that I know and they know the storyline and they enjoy hearing the audience react to certain things and I am a jazz composer so it's not like every note is notated by any means so there's plenty of music that I've written but there's plenty of room for improvisation, and everybody gets to do their own thing as well as play together which is the sort of jazz composition aspect of it.


BA: Now you performed this live so how was it the first time you performed?
PS: They really loved it and they gave us a standing ovation. I think having live music to a silent film is really a great thing because it allows us a lot of freedom and how many times do you get to see live musicians performing with a film and the other thing is that it brings back the opportunity to see a lot of these silent films that were really great that people would not normally go to see because people are not used to going and sitting through a silent film for an hour and a half yet if you have live music with it very much enlivens it to the point that it makes it very entertaining to someone who's used to dialogue and film music, it makes it very accessible and it's a very enjoyable thing.

BA: What was your response to the film itself, to these images that are almost 100 years old?
PS: I thought the acting was great I just loved them, the actors were famous in their days as Yiddish theater actors who were very skilled and I enjoyed them very much. I thought that they were talking about human situations that were very contemporary and common throughout our existence as people. I mean fathers and sons and mothers and sons and mothers and fathers and all of the human interaction that is common throughout the human experience so it wasn't like something totally archaic because I recognize plenty of things that were very common then and still common today they have a different fabric and they feel a little different because we have a different we're in a modern time which in a hundred years will feel very quaint to people looking back on our time but still there was plenty of it that feels very similar. I mean papa rides the subway, papa reads the paper, someone walks by passing out a handbill, they're sitting outside on their stoop in the summer with their fans. There's a lot of stuff that even though it was from a long time ago it doesn't look that different from today of course it's different but not another world different.

BA: I only got to see about 20 minutes of the film with your score matched to it. I wanted to play the music from a fight scene with two kids.
PS: Well I have an absolutely brilliant drummer that accompanies the film with me and his name is Tony Lewis, and all the guys are really great but we really have a lot of fun with him because there's a lot of boxing in this film and the film starts with the two boys played by child actors first and one of these plays the younger son Sammy who becomes a boxers and he's on the corner getting into a fist fight and later he's actually in a ring with boxing gloves on but the music is the same for both basically, it's kind of fight music, it's fast and has a lot of tension in it but the exciting part is that my drummer sits and watches the film and does all of the falls and the hits along with it while he is keeping tempo, so he might go [makes sounds of hits and falls] so the accents of the boxing are coming at various places in the music that are very atypical of accents. If you'd hear it without the screen you'd go this is some wild stuff what's going on here? What's happening is that he's playing the music and accenting the music where these punches and falls and action is happening and it's very, very fun and people get a kick out of it and he just gets better and better at it as he keeps watching the film time and time again because he just gets to know more and more of the nuances of what's going to happen next and he plays thr fight scenes like he's playing the violin.

BA: So are there also some comedy moments where youhave that punctuation as well?
PS: Yes the film does have some wonderful funny moments. There's one point in the early part where mama is looking out the window and she's telling her youngest son Sammy to go out and buy a rye bread and she keeps trying to tell him but every time she tells him what to buy the subway comes by and so we're playing this sweet theme and all of sudden she opens her mouth to tell him and [ba-dunk a dunk, sound of subway] and it's the subway coming by and so Sammy puts his hand up to his ear and says what are you trying to tell me mama. And a couple of us make loud screeching sounds and honking sounds just to create noise and the second the subway passes we go right back to the theme and that has a funny juxtaposition cause it sounds like something that happens in the editing room but we perform it live and it's just one of many things we do that are funny.

BA: So you have to be very alert when you're playing?
PS: Yes, we got to keep an eye on the film and an eye on the music and an eye on me.

BA: What was the most challenging thing?
PS: Not freaking out that was challenging because there was a lot to do and having the confidence that I would get there. I think one of the most challenging things is to write with flexibility involved so that we will be able to perform it live and be able to work with the variation in each time we play it in tempo and stuff, in other words we don't have the luxury of playing in a studio with the film playing and there would be certain devices to get it locked to picture but we don't have those devices so I had to create my own musical devices so I had to figure out how I was going to have elasticity in the music so that we can adjust ever so slightly to the film so that we are doing the correct piece at the right time so I wrote little sections that allow us a little bit of flexibility as we're coming around the cadence points so that we can adjust to the live screening of the film.

BA: Well it sounds like fun.
PS: Well I hope I see you there.