Organist Clark Wilson and the art of silent film music

Organist Clark Wilson and the art of silent film music

The charm ofthe CAPA Summer Movie Series stems not only from what is seen but also what is heard. Throughout its nine-week run of classic films-which began June 10 and continues through Aug. 7-organist Clark Wilson performs ahead of and following most screenings (and at intermissions, too). The resident of East Liverpool, Ohio, will be the center of attention on July 14 and 15, when the series shows its once-a-season silent film offering. Wilson will play continuously to F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," a poetic 1927 drama starring George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor. We recently spoke with the organist-a 25-year veteran of the series-about preparing for what he calls its "centerpiece."

Step 1: Pick a Film, any Film

Around the first of the year, Wilson suggests possible silent films to CAPA officials. "Sometimes I'll become aware of a hot film … that's beginning to make the rounds or that's become extremely popular," Wilson says. "As people just drop by the [organ] console and on occasion offer a suggestion or something, I write those all down." "Sunrise" is less widely known than some recent CAPA silent film picks, including the World War I drama "The Little American" (screened in 2013) and the Charlie Chaplin comedy "The Kid" (screened last year), though Murnau, best known for his chilling masterpiece "Nosferatu," is a big name among silent movie buffs. "All the things that he did were very, very artistic," Wilson says.

Step 2: Screen Time

Wilson initially screens the chosen film five or six times. "I'll just watch it to see what it's about," he says. "And then I'll make notes on the action … And then I'll study it and come up with musical ideas." For "Sunrise," Wilson will also reference-but not rely exclusively on- "cue sheets" from American Theatre Organ Society archival materials at the University of Oklahoma; the sheets consist of compiled music that was used during the film's original run. "I don't necessarily agree with every last measure of every last piece that was selected for that original scoring," he says. Wilson will also reference a Movietone score dating from the film's first release (consisting of compiled music, too), in addition to making musical selections of his own. "Whatever I wind up doing ultimately for it," he says, "it's all going to be based on good music-it will be from big composers, classic composers."

Step 3: Making the Music

By the time the curtain rises in the Ohio Theatre, Wilson will have memorized the various musical sources he has selected. "You can't be sitting down there just reading page after page after page after page of music," he says. "You've always got to be watching the screen." And while Wilson will have developed a "roadmap" of music, he will make adjustments while following the film. "All of this good music … will be linked together in certain areas by a certain amount of improvisation," he says. The organist, in fact, may watch the film as intently as anyone in the theater. "It needs to go in your eyeballs and out your fingers."