Dennis James is a multi-talented instrumentalist who currently specializes in playing restored pipe organs as his accompaniment of choice within silent film presentations. He also takes great care in preserving obscure historical musical instruments and their traditions. Having grown up in a time in America where the electronic organ was one of the most popular instruments in the country, Dennis began keyboard training - first with the accordion - but quickly switched over to playing the family organ. In his teens, Dennis started taking lessons from prominent theater organist Leonard MacClain in downtown Philadelphia. Being a typical teenager, he also played in garage bands that were not only popular around the town, but also with the girls. When Leonard MacClain fell ill in the late 1960's he asked Dennis to cover for him at a theater organ convention in Detroit. Dennis had never before played such a top of the line Wurlitzer theater pipe organ built for one of the large metropolitan movie palaces of the 1920's. This proved to be a major event in his career suddenly begun at his age of 16. He was immediately invited to perform in a public concert series in Rochester, NY and subsequently was introduced to George Wright, the top theatre organist in the country. During George's Rochester performance, the renowned artist endorsed Dennis leading presenters to engage the youngster to perform at other venues in the region. With an introduction to classical organ studies already under his belt, Dennis enrolled in the Indiana University School of Music. At I.U. he became an organ major with signed up for associated studies in film history, business and jazz. In his off-time, he helped restore the Estey Theater pipe organ that Hoagy Carmichael had performed on in a downtown theatre near campus. Within his professional career, Dennis has performed on the finest pipe organs all over the world and also takes great pride in continuing the historical professional aspects of playing organ music with silent films. Dennis is also very active at preserving and demonstrating rare antique instruments. One in particular is the armonica, a glass device that he addresses in its original form as invented by Benjamin Franklin. I recently interviewed Dennis about his diverse career.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career up to this point.
D.J. - Thanks - good to see you don't see it as over or in the echo, wrap-up stage, since neither do I!
R.V.B. - It's great that you are preserving and showcasing old music traditions and instruments.
D.J. - Indeed, and that is what I've been doing now for 50 years.
R.V.B. - Did you come from a musical family?
D.J. - My mother had taken piano lessons for some 4 or 5 years as a child, and I fondly recall she used to play her favorite tunes, "Once in Love with Amy", and "You Gotta Have Heart", almost every Saturday morning throughout my childhood - - and rarely anything else. My father had always been interested in the mechanics of organs beginning during his adolescence when he retrieved from curbside disposal to restore a neighbor's foot pumped reed organ. Dad only played music in a very rudimentary fashion, having in his typical autodidact fashion taught himself from a book without any guidance from a teacher. I can recall at a very early age noticing various pipe organ parts tucked over the garage ceiling beams and under the stairs at the entrance to his basement workshops in the various houses we lived in over the years - stacks of wooden things with keyboard parts, organ pipes and various component devices strewn about. And they stayed that way - just parts in storage never to be assembled and eventually discarded. I'm sure it was from this early exposure to the "stuff" of pipe organs, that led to my eventual interest in playing them. My brother (3 years older) had actually been studying organ before me and, while I was learning only the accordion, I did the brother-lurking-behind-the-door routine during his at-home lessons (that's right, in those days teachers used to come to the home, just as the egg lady brought eggs, and the milk man brought milk, etc.). In a bout of sibling rivalry before guests, I embarrassed my brother Rodger with surprise revelation of my own developed technique, so I guess it was a no-brainer for me to make the shift to his instrument.
D.J. - I was exposed throughout my childhood years to silent films broadcast to fill morning television hours in the 1950's. In those early days of broadcasting the stations came up with all sorts of cheap or even public domain films before the network feed hours started by using kid's cartoons and old silent films. I can remember even at that very early age finding much of the broadcast accompaniment music inappropriate to the images, turning down the volume knob on the TV to watch the films in silence.
R.V.B. - When you started learning the organ at the age of 12...
D.J. - I began my musical career at the age of seven by studying the "stomach-piano" (accordion) because it was the local instrument of choice for budding musicians in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957. However, it was one day during Science Class in seventh grade that I had an epiphany that caused me to change instruments. I had the realization that none of my classmates wanted to hear my renditions of Lady of Spain complete with bellows shake. We had an electronic organ at home, and as I mentioned, I had previously embarrassed my brother Rodger with competitive technique display in a bouts of sibling rivalry when I was 9 and he was 12, so I guess it was a no-brainer for me to make the shift finally when I turned 12.
R.V.B. - Was it a popular instrument at the time?
D.J. - I understand in the period I was working with them, the electronic organs peaked in popularity, exceeding in sales even the piano as the primary "at home" instrument of choice. They were in the popular culture played in restaurants, seen on TV (e.g. Bob Ralston on "The Lawrence Welk Show", and even at the end of this at-the-time period even satirized mightily by the naked organist on the Monty Python show.
R.V.B. - Did you toy with the piano also?
D.J. - Well, I was really taken by the brash, showy ragtime/honky-tonk TV pianist Joanne Castle who played regularly on that Lawrence Welk show (a particular family entertainment favorite at the time!). In fact, I pestered my parents about getting a piano, but with an organ already acquired for my brother, the suggestion was I consider imitating Myron Floren, the accordionist on the show . . . and that bore fruit when at age 6. I spotted an accordion in a pawn shop window near a favorite family restaurant, and they surprised me with it on my 7th birthday with my starting lessons immediately thereafter.
R.V.B. - You studied originally with Leonard MacClain... What type of music did you tackle with him?
D.J. - Leonard was quite famous for having one of those freak photographic musical memories where everything he saw he immediately memorized and it stayed in his mind forever. There was this professional music distribution service during his performing career period called Song-Dex, based out of New York. The music publishers all got together and licensed shorthand reductions of their latest tunes transcribed in the simplest music notation small enough to fit on a 3' x 5" index card. This was a professional service and once a week the subscribers got everything published that week hot off the press so it was like an instant simultaneous Hit Parade. Well, Leonard memorized them all as they came in and then filed them away in his basement in shoe boxes, stacks and stacks of shoe boxes! So, the show was called "Stump Melody Mac" which is kind of ironic because he never forgot anything. The idea was if you could name a tune the announcer would call out something like, "Hey, Melody Mac . . . can you play 'A Cottage for Sale?'" and Leonard would play a fancy theatre organ-styled arrangement on the radio studio's Hammond electric organ. But if you stumped him you would get a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The fourth week in the show was going to be taken off the air- listenership was dropping because Leonard never missed and they couldn't give away any of those sets of encyclopedias. Leonard came up with an idea. The next week someone would ask for something really easy, something like "Hey! Melody Mac! Do you know 'Way Down Upon the Swanee River'?" and he'd pause, and then say "Darn it! Don't know that one!" and everyone would laugh - see, they were in on the joke. Wink, wink, "You win the Encyclopedia Britannica!." Then he'd play some major work - something like the complete Gershwin "Rhapsody in Blue." But Leonard told me he never missed once during the entire run of the show, and it was a long-running show. So, my dad knew Leonard MacClain from that and called him to see about teaching me.
For my audition he asked me to play something I really liked to play. I had just gone to see the James Bond movie "From Russia With Love" and I was so taken with the soundtrack themes composed by John Barry that I'd memorized them during watching the film and played a spontaneous medley of them at the organ for Mac. Then I played some of my rock band solos and a few of the teaching tunes I'd been learning with earlier teachers. Mac said right from the start, "No popular music for you- you can learn that stuff on your own!" deciding I was well on my way with contemporary pop so instead we began with my learning his specialty first,, how to make a full theatre-styled arrangement from those Song-Dex service cards that by that time were being assembled into what were called professional Fake Books, printed out three to a page and still showing just the melody and chord symbols. From that we went on to study the Jesse Crawford and Dave Coleman professional level published arrangement transcriptions. That was it for stylized pop music- and we quickly shifted over to doing all classical study. Leonard was a student of the legendary Philadelphia organist Alexander McCurdy, and we began working from Leonard's own 1916 edition of the classic John Stainer organ manual (the one with the illustration of pedal technique with the organist wearing 19th c. high button shoes). We also did all of the Bach Little Preludes and Fugues and worked our way up to the famous Widor Toccata from the 5th Symphony and, of course, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor and the little g minor one as well. One particularly fond memory was when Mac took me to assist (page turn) at one of his Sunday morning church gigs in downtown Philly. There was a Tony Curtis movie out at the time called The Great Race and it had a very popular tune in it . . . I think titled something like The Sweetheart Tree. Well, Mac impressed the heck out of me working that tune into the entire service organ music- making up a complete Prelude, a contrapuntal Offertory and even a grand Postlude march out of it!
D.J. - The first organ we had was a Conn spinet model - I recall named the Menuet. It only had about 13 mini-length pedals and the typical shortened manual layout. From that we jumped to a Gulbransen Rialto two manual model - top of the line at the time for copying the sounds of theatre organs and prominently played by such organ "stars" of the time as George Wright. My Dad built two sets of "sweet 16 speaker arrays for the enhancing Main sounds, and the Tibia sounds were fed into a large Leslie in a corner of the next room over, so the house kind of shook when I practiced. In fact, it interacted with the family life to the degree that my Dad rigged up sliding French recessed doors into all the entry ways into the living room where the organ was located. It is a rather touching memory to recall that whenever I would start to play I would hear those doors being ever so discreetly rolled shut by members of the household, isolating me from the rest of them. We got reports from neighbors from time to time, not complaints mind you, about them happily hearing the organ during the summer months when windows were open - and those located directly behind our lot even feeling the bass note rumbles during the winter window-closed periods. Let's see- other organs in the mix- we bought a little Kinsman "rock style," very heavy, two manual Italian spinet organ device (this is pre-single "keyboard" so-called rock band devices) that we used to drag around for my forays into pop music garage bands quite popular for dance-playing in my South Jersey high school years.
My first successful band was called 'Vicious Omelette' with the yolk half of the name came from the coats inherited from an earlier band called 'The Yellow Jackets.' I say success, because the other one was an ONLY-covers band. I found that out one night at a dance when I'd got really fed up with playing that same organ solo from "Light My Fire" over and over again, so I made up my own and played it on the spot. The lead singer who was in charge of the band stopped the song and ordered me to play the solo just like it was on the record or quit - so I quit. I met him again 25 years later at my high school reunion and he apologized, mentioning he thought I was the only really musically talented one, this after he was told that next night I was flying to LA to be on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno performing in the backup band with Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and EmmyLou Harris.
Anyway, I wanted to call our new group 'Vociferous Omelette,' but the drummer couldn't fit in all the letters when trying to paint it onto the bass drum, so we did a random page opening and finger point into a dictionary to find the shorter word Vicious. And that also gave us a great logo opportunity to have drawn a quite menacing angry omelette to go with the lettering. Our audition for Atlantic Records (one of our members had an uncle who worked there) went nowhere, but we did do a lot of gigs and met a lot of girls.
R.V.B. - Did you go to Mac's studio to do this, or at your house?
D.J. - I was taken over to downtown Philadelphia, a place my parents abhorred because they were truly suburban people who had fled from their city upbringing. They had moved out to their shopping mall area housing-development utopia, so to go back into the city, even it was just 17 minutes drive away, was a real trial. At first my Dad would drive me over and wait in an antechamber while I had my one hour lesson inside. That progressed to the point I used to take the bus and then later the train into downtown Philly from my suburban New Jersey home and make my way to his studio equipped with a Hammond electric organ (I think it was a B-3, but maybe it was a concert-version RT-3 with full AGO-spec pedalboard) and a grand piano. Leonard was fond of playing along at the piano in duet as he taught me playing the organ in pop arrangements.
Some memories from then: one was gazing out at the Camden tower of the old RCA factory that was still equipped with two clock faces, and the other two side had grand Nipper Dog logo panels in stained glass. I also liked staring down at the cruiser Olympia then docked right next to the bridge- it was Admiral Dewey's flagship in the Philippines campaign back in the Spanish-American War period. I would go in early and have time to meander around before making my way to Mac's studio. One stop was always Kanter's Magic Shop on 13th St. He was a professional stage magician who along with his pretty wife-stage assistant ran a shop for we clusters of adolescent magician enthusiasts. Another was an odd nostalgia-antique-junk shop run by another stage performer. His specialty was card throwing, and he could wield a deck of cards like a stack of knives. He would sit at one end of the shop, and he would have me stand at the entrance door at the opposite end. I would put a card long end sticking out of my mouth, and he would send a card spinning through the air with such force and accuracy that he could knock the card out from between my teeth.
Anyway, the Saturday routine was a meander in the morning, and then meet up at the Wanamaker Store where Mac was the organist playing recitals on what is considered to be the largest pipe organ in the world (competing for the title with the Atlantic City Convention Hall monstrosity). I would sit by Mac near to the console and listen to his noon recital and then we would go over to his nearby Walnut Street studio for the lesson. The lessons were supposed to be one hour, but invariably extended to two and even sometimes three. One thing I remember well from the very beginning is that he had these odd pictures on his walls . . . just framed cardboard. This was because unbeknownst to me he would turn them all to the wall for he didn't want me to see these photos taken of him seated at grand ornate theatre pipe organ consoles. He just knew they day I was introduced to the theatre pipe organ I wouldn't want to do anything else. So, during all of those lessons I was never exposed to what Leonard MacClain was the most famous for, playing the giant theatre pipe organs in gigantic downtown movie theaters.
And then there was one day Leonard said, "You didn't practice this week." And I replied "No." So he said, "Pay me and get out of here" in that most cantankerous old guy gruff style of his. My mom was waiting out in the reception room so I sat on the floor in the corridor between for the rest of the afternoon. We covered lots of things beyond music- for instance when he found out one week I was going to be going out on my first "date" he spent the whole lessons giving me a dice about women. Now, this was from a guy who was married at least six times, twice to the same woman. I wish I had a tape of that conversation!
Thinking of Hammond's, one of my early other theatre organ teachers in the late 1960's, was the NY based veteran theatre organist Dr. C. A. J. Parmentier (one of the three original organists who played the three-console Kimball organ at the Roxy Theatre). He told me a very funny story about that FCC complaint trial- the Hammond Organ people placed a Hammond organ in the Justices' cafeteria and Dr. Parmentier would play the instrument for the judges as they ate. This went on throughout the trial, and on the day before the verdict was announced, Dr. Parmentier knew Hammond was going to win when one of the justices thanked him for the music . . . and said "Sounds like an organ to me."
There's this funny story that shows what fantasy about a teacher can do . . . I studied with Mac in downtown Philadelphia but knew that he actually lived in a nearby smaller suburb in Pennsylvania. I remember imagining he lived in a castle, for some reason. I was a kid and he was my revered teacher. So, this one time when he was starting to fail we went out to his house for a lesson. And there he was sitting in an easy chair dressed in his undershirt and watching the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team on tv with a beer in his hand. And it all went poof . . . away went the image of his castle!
So there was this one lesson when he told me the story of Louis Vierne, the French cathedral organist, who was felled by a heart attack while playing the organ during a service. He'd collapsed down onto the keys and so the organ roared out a cacophony at full volume. With all the stops pulled out, they had to send someone up the little access stair path to the organ loft to pull the body off the console. And Leonard said, "Now, THAT'S the way we organists all want to go!" Well, he'd told me that story and the very next week I walked in the Philadelphia studio door for my lesson, and there was Leonard slumped over the keys of the Hammond! I knew he had been having heart attacks and always taught with a little wheeled and mask-equipped portable oxygen tank by his side. So, his head was down on the keys and I ran over to him and shook him. He sat up and drowsily said, "Oh, uhm, I fell asleep." Such drama!
This was all actually happening at the end of his life. Near to the end he would be setting next to me nearly collapsed with his oxygen mask on, wheezing away and immobile. I remember one time thinking, "Oh, he's asleep!" so I made a little note mistake . . . and this withered hand would slowly rise up, and without looking Leonard would find the exact correct key and push it down. Everything was failing for him - he had shingles, and those heart problems, and what was to finally do him in was a massive heart attack.
R.V.B. - When you took over from Leonard in the theater after his health problems, were you ready with playing music to pictures instead of playing regular songs?
D.J. - Well, there are some missing elements there. I never "took over" from Mac. What happened is this - Leonard had this big heart attack and they slammed him into the hospital. This was just before the Fourth of July in 1967. He was scheduled to play a major solo concert for a national convention of theatre organ enthusiasts in Detroit. So he decided to send me out in his place. Now, I hadn't seen a theatre organ except for a brief encounter with one in a residence installation when I was nine, and hadn't really played one yet at all. So Leonard had me brought to his hospital room and we sat together with a little hand slide viewer and he showed by photographs what were the controls on a full scale top of the line custom four manual Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ. He would say "now this thing does this, and when you set this then you better do that" and so forth. And the last thing he said was, "and when you arrive, put this pedal here on the far right side all the way down (the crescendo pedal that puts on all the stops without they're actually being set), and then you put down all the way the shoe next to it (that one opens all of the chamber shutters)" and then he said to play a full double-hand chord on the next to bottom row of keys (the Great manual). "That's the very first thing you do."The point here was to let this little 16 year kid know what he was getting into. So, I did exactly that, and nearly flipped back off the organ bench to the floor in fright. Such a sound, such power! You talk to any adolescent boy organist and you'll find out it's all about the power, and Leonard knew exactly what was going to happen - he was preparing me, and he did a really good job.
So, I'm in Detroit and I'm supposed to play a two hour recital, and I could only play for 40 minutes because that was everything I knew how to play at the time. The presenters quickly scrounged about and asked visiting professional New York-based organist Lee Erwin to fill in for the second half. Lee had been broadcast personality Arthur Godfrey's organist and music director on radio and TV and had composed songs as well as played for the shows. The thing is Lee was at that time a really active silent film composer and performer, essentially the pivotal figure on the East Coast in the US in the then just emerging silent film revival circuit.
We hit it off at the convention and along with that I had a convention passing introduction to Ashley Miller, another New York top professional organist, at the time organist playing daily for the TV soap opera The Secret Storm. They both invited me to visit New York City, meet other area players and to witness professionals at work. So, from that, I got to hang out at one of the national broadcast studios and witness Ashley play for a live national broadcast. In one ear of the headset was the director telling him what to do, and in the other ear was the mixed music and show as it was going out over the air waves. He was getting his cues while playing and they were telling him things like "Now make it [this way]." I sat next to him just spellbound - it was a grand introduction to the world of professional music making using the organ. And to think, these two were bringing me into the profession simply because I had performed a concert in the place of my teacher. I was just 16 years old and found myself suddenly in the attention sphere of a lot of very important people.
As soon as I'd gotten back from that Detroit debut performance Leonard MacClain died. And I thought I'd killed him! Leonard had heard a tape of my playing at the convention, and they brought me into his hospital room for a last visit and I was left alone with him. And he really criticized me quite aggressively. From what he said I was led to believe every single thing I'd done was wrong. The registration (choice of organ stops), in particular, was really wrong! At one point I'd left a glockenspiel stop on, I just couldn't find it lost among the hundreds of tabs, so it was still on through a big classical piece. So there was this little ding all the way through. He nailed it, and nailed me . . . hard! I was crying. And then he died. So I believed I killed him through disappointment in my playing. I went to his funeral and I was truly traumatized. It wasn't until some two years later when Dottie, his widow, found out I was having a genuine psychological trauma over all of this. So one day when I was home on summer holidays she called my parents and had them bring me over. She sat me down and said, "Leonard told me what he did, and he also told me why. He said that you were wonderful, that you were perfect. But he was afraid if he told you that that you would get a swelled head and you wouldn't go on to study music seriously. He wanted you to know there were always more things to know about. She said, "He loved your playing. He told me that and he told me to tell you someday."
I began to meet all of these people in Detroit and some really wanted to become associated with me. When I returned home, one guy from Philadelphia in particular befriended both me and my Dad. He said, "I don't think you've ever heard you teacher [Leonard] play." and I said "No." So he told he'd made a tape of some of Leonard's commercially issued LP's and gave it to me. It was one of those reel-to-reel tapes where you could record on both sides, and unknown to me, he had put recordings of an organist named George Wright on the second side but hadn't rewound it. So, this was my unwitting introduction to the player still acclaimed by all as the best theatre organist in the history of the instrument (although George himself told me that accolade belonged to British organist Quentin MacClean). I put on the tape, Side Two out and said to myself, "Wow! That's MY teacher?!" At that point I hadn't heard anybody else play theatre organs on recording, and I didn't even think to play the other side of this unmarked tape. I just played that Side Two over, and over again and thought George's playing was actually Leonard MacClain's. My playing style and my musical thinking instantly burst open because of that. It must have been over six months later until the organ enthusiast asked me, "How did you like the tape?" I replied, "Oh my God . . . incredible!" And then he asked "What did you think of the organist on the other side?" And I said "There's another side?!" So, we figured it all out when he asked which piece I really liked and it was George's famous arrangement of "South!"
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy your college years at Indiana?
Well to get in I, of course, had to audition with serious classical repertoire. That New York-based organist Ashley Miller who I'd met in Detroit at that 1967 convention was the first one to ask me, "Do you really enjoy doing this?" referring to my evident-from-the-stage joy in performing at that Detroit convention debut. And I replied "Oh, gosh yes, this is all really amazing!" "So," he said. "Go to college. Get a degree in music. Learn to play classical organ music. Then you can start do this really well!" Quite simply put, I took his advice and did just that just as he outlined. It's interesting to look back and see how impressionable I was at sixteen. My teacher had just died and I'm suddenly in the hands of this collection of other professional musicians I've just met. And one says, "Go to college." So, off I went to formally address classical organ studies in depth.
Figuring out how to handle the college audition process led to an introduction to the then newly appointed regular Wanamaker store organist, Keith Chapman, who agreed to accept me as a pupil in order to prepare for college entry. We would meet in downtown Philadelphia up at night for my lessons in this spooky large chapel at Girard College. The whole place was totally dark except for the organ console music-reading light. The pipes were way up in the ceiling and it was my first experience with the resulting acoustic delay while playing, something quite difficult playing the Bach Trio Sonatas Keith favored as teaching pieces. This all gave me an ideal introduction to this oddly specialized challenge when playing intricate music on large concert instruments in large scale rooms.
After an extensive series of mailed tape submissions and a single personal auditions at music schools through the east and midwest I entered the Indiana University School of Music, at that time the largest music school in the world, to begin organ performance degree studies. I also signed up in the Comparative Literature program in the English department to study film history as my cognate field. Then I joined the nearby theatre organ club and started driving on weekends monthly up to Detroit and sometimes over to Rochester, New York to attend the two best theatre organ concert series of that time. My college roommate and I would take our girlfriends on these trips to hear professional organists who were booked in from all over the country to play on these large restored Wurlitzer theatre pipe organs.
I found everything about my college experience, save the initial roommate and assigned housing setup, entrancing. Going to such a large school freed me to pursue all of my developing wide interests- so I became an organ major, minored in film studies, and also studied along the way as cognate fields: classical piano, jazz piano, classes in the theatre department, and even classes in the business school to learning basic accounting and sales strategies, meanwhile playing cymbals in the Marching Hundred university band for football games, playing piano for the Singing Hoosiers pop chorus and even found time to work on restoring an Estey Theatre pipe organ that was once installed downtown in the Princess Theatre in Bloomington and played there by Hoagy Carmichael and after donation to the IU Radio department went unused installed in Studio 5.
R.V.B. - Do you have any good college stories?
D.J. - My first attempt to play my own music to silent film for a Larry Semon 16mm short comedy silent film shown as an act within a high school variety show in 1967. However, this question is about college, but I can't proceed without first mentioning seeing and hearing my first silent film show with accompaniment by a theatre pipe organ player. It was in the summer of 1969 during my first break after freshman year studies at Indiana University. Gaylord Carter, the major touring film player at the time, was coming in from Los Angeles to perform at the Tower Theatre's Wurlitzer organ in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The film was Douglas Fairbanks in "Mark of Zorro" and Gaylord played his own quite thrilling score made up of a combination of published theatre organ generics used in the scoring's in the 1920's plus his own inimitable improvisation cascades. It was a sold out house and remember eagerly turning to my dad at the end, thoroughly impressed by the cheers and standing ovation, and saying to him those fateful words . . . "I can do that!" I went home that very night after the post-performance reception and pulled out some music paper and wrote out his entire score from memory. And to this day as a sort of tribute to Gaylord, I build my own score around Gaylord's work, preserving about 20% of his efforts encased in my own historical revival work.
So, now it's 1969 . . . and I'm back in Indiana at college for my sophomore year, at this point traveling out of town most weekends to play theatre organs throughout the Midwest and returning to Bloomington by Monday morning to do a week of classes. It was all getting to be really complicated with this budding professional pop oriented career, and then hit major conflict because for the required ensemble credits I played cymbals in the school's marching band (the Marching Hundred under Fred Ebb, conductor). Sometimes I wasn't showing up for the games. Then one night I was sitting around joking with my college roommate. A new Schantz concert pipe organ had just been installed in the school's 3,800 seat I. U. Auditorium. There was a lot of talk about it in the department and I was really eager to play it, so I came up with the idea to suggest showing this old silent horror film my dad had told me about, "Phantom of the Opera," that he'd seen when it first came out in 1925. I figured I would do the Gaylord Carter bit and play that new organ along with it.
At that point I was still in contact with New York based silent film organist Lee Erwin who had been summoned to share my 1967 Detroit debut performance (I'd played everything I knew as the first half of that program and Lee filled in to play the balance of the assigned program). So, Lee flew out from New York two weeks before this Halloween "Phantom of the Opera" event I'd connected to teach me his approach towards how to score silent movies. He loaned me some of his own written scores to study that he brought out with him from New York, and stayed at his own expense in a local motel and met me each day after regular classes. At the time I didn't think it was all that unusual what with so much happening and me having gotten to the point of thinking musical friends just did things like that. It's so odd now to think that these various important people in this field of obscure endeavor showed up in my life right when I needed them.
I would go to classes and come by after to meet with Lee and we'd talk about what I'd learned at school about that day. Then we'd have dinner and he would teach me about film music. This was happening during a major peak of Vietnam War protest era. There was all sorts of news coverage of some of the events at Indiana University at that time: the campus taken over and shut down by the students, ROTC building burnt down, and other more serious war protest events. So I decided there was a real need and opportunity for some sort of comic relief . . . and I provided it with my silent film scoring debut. I went down to the student craft shop in the basement of the Memorial Union building and printed up 400 tickets by hand, stamping them out on the craft press. Then I developed a rather clever campaign that included posting the phrase "The Phantom is Coming!" all over campus- little posters hung on the trees, chalked on vacant blackboards in classrooms through the day, pasted on stickers under the toilet seat covers in all of the dorms . . . it went on and on. And then on Halloween Day a front page article in the school newspaper explaining the event. We'd sold only some forty tickets in advance and were prepared for an abject failure- however, to my great surprise, over 4,000 people turned up and we had to resell those 400 tickets over and over again at the door. Wearing a cape and mask borrowed from the theater department I went on that night and began to play that newly composed score I had prepared with Lee. The energy of the occasion was so great, and I was so inspired, I almost immediately abandoned my carefully prepared composition to improvise something ever so much more appropriate to that event on the spot. Quite the thrilling way to begin what has turned out to be a full length career.
R.V.B. - Was seeing Gaylord Carter a catalyst for you to be a professional organist?
D.J. - Actually, no, it was from after that Detroit debut I was asked to play for the concert series in Rochester and was presented in a full evening concert in January of 1968. I remember I was to be paid $100, but after the program they paid me additional $100 because I did so well. My dad had come up from New Jersey for the weekend and he happily pointed out "We can cover your college tuition if this keeps up!" Well, these Rochester presenters had finally tempted the esteemed George Wright, the number one organist who was then based in Los Angeles and performing daily for the TV soap opera General Hospital, to come east, and he played a concert there in May of 1968. Unknown to me at the time, he had requested a tape of me Rochester debut so he'd already heard me play by the time I was smuggled into his rehearsal session at the Auditorium Theatre. I was supposed to appear to be a member of the organ crew since no one was allowed in to listen to George practice and set his pistons. I didn't like wearing blue jeans at the time, but bought a pair to fit in, and all I ended up doing was sit behind George transfixed, unable to move watching him play.
George was one amazing guy, the top player in an admittedly tiny corner of the popular music world by this point, however until his death he remained a singular figure in the field of concert theatre organ performing and recording. And even after he died he remained totally referential for everyone, and is still slavishly copied by lesser players to this day. So, there I was, a 17 year old newbe and I'm sitting in this empty theatre right behind him and George spins around and barks, "Who are you and why are you here?! You're obviously not a member of the crew. And I agreed I was not. So he repeated "Who ARE you?!" SO I told him my name and he said, "Oh! Dennis James . . . well then, You play. Sit down here right now and play for me."
Now, this was an interesting proposition, because to play a theatre organ most efficiently you need to have your own piston settings, and these were George's. But I really didn't mind since I'd been staring and watching him set them up, so I already knew what was on them. I sat down and played what was for me my hot-shot piece for him, at that point a twenty-minute medley of the major themes from the Broadway show "West Side Story." I ripped into the thing right off and all he said after was a simple "thank you" without more comment, and then he went on with his own rehearsal, however now letting me stay to watch without more mention. Then George invited me to come along with the crew for lunch and had me sit me right next to him. It is so funny for me to recall that because for some reason I became determined to drink coffee for the first time. I'd not tried coffee to this point, however being with this famous organist and in the company of all of these adults . . . well I'll never forget the moment. I really wanted my typical glass of milk with my lunch, but the waiter came 'round, George ordered something and it was my turn. Somewhat flustered, I said "I'd like a glass of coffee and George picked up on it right away. He looked at me and said "You want a glass of milk, don't you?" I agreed and he told me to order it, and it became a kind of greeting whenever we met in the years after.
That night George played his concert. I was seated up in the balcony. He had this performance trick for which he'd become rather famous in the biz: he took audience requests, and played the actual requests. Now most organists when in a request mode usually say something like "Anything anybody wants to hear me play?" and everybody calls out things and you just listen until you hear something you know and want to play. And if you don't hear something, you say still say, "Oh, I heard whatever" and then play something. But George, he would pick somebody seated right in front of him and ask, "What would YOU like me to play?" At this performance he picked a woman in the third row. And she said, "I'd like you to play 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix," a very popular tune at the time and something I had played in my January concert in the same hall. I'd made up a spiffy little classical-oriented arrangement with a lot of fiddly, diddly Baroque ornamental stuff. So what happened is that George paused for a moment and then said, "Well, you know I'd play that for you, but there is a young man sitting in the balcony named Dennis James and he plays it much better than I ever could. SO, what else would you like to hear?"
Well, I got five concert invitations from that one statement. Organ enthusiasts had come to this program from all over the east coast and a concert booker from Connecticut found me in the lobby. Word got around quickly . . . 'George says you play something better than he does' . . . and I was put on the concert circuit. Boom . . . just like that. I'd gotten a nice introduction to this theatre organ world at that Detroit convention appearance, but from that one statement George Wright gave me my career.
R.V.B. - How did Dr. Osward G. Ragatz help shape your playing?
D.J. - Ozzie served as the strongest influence of all of my major instructors. I had the good fortune to come to study with him just as he was finishing for publication his Organ Method. My entree to all of this is pretty funny for I'd not auditioned to enter I.U. in person, instead submitting a tape recording of my playing a few pieces (Bach's 'Little Fugue in g minor' comes to mind) and Ozzie signed the letter admitting me to the program. I made the presumption therefore that he was to be my personal instructor and signed up under his name during the chaotic class registration process. Well, he was at that point only teaching fully formed graduate level students, but fortunately for me he was away from campus for the first 5 weeks or so that semester. One morning I received a quite angry phone call from Ozzie asking "Who the Hell are you?!" and summoning me to immediately appear in the Musica School organ recital room and play for him. My decidedly minimal formal organ studies background was very evident in my technique at that stage, and to top it all I had hastily erased all of the prior markings on my scores thinking new teacher, new ideas, so it should be a clean slate. He was furious, but also to my luck saw his chance to start someone on page one, paragraph one of his new book. He formed an incoming set of three undergraduate students to guide through the book still in manuscript form, page by page with us acting as sort of Beta testers for him to work out the presentation choices he'd made with real practice experience with these new students.
One primary thing we covered early on stemmed from my questioning him about all of these rather forceful critical opinions swirling about in conversations with my fellow students. They all kept expressing at every opportunity almost vicious critical remarks about organists both in performance and on recordings. I just didn't get it, for I liked all organ music at the time, was fascinated by the sounds and all of the repertoire, and I had no critical opinions whatsoever. Ozzie, quite delighted by the topic, exclaimed, "Why, you don't have any taste!" and proposed a quick catching up exercise to get me started down that road.
We selected together a Bach piece I would eventually learn play and he had me go out and find every recording of it I could from the school library, the local record shops, borrowed from students and faculty and everywhere else in those pre-Internet search days. I found fourteen and began listening to them. Ozzie then had me chart out on large art-school sketchbook pages for each recorded performance every detail for such performer-concerned choice items such as initial and sectional tempi, tempo variations, ornaments, legato/staccato and other touch details, registration choices, lifts & pauses, phrasings, note groupings, imposed line creations . . . virtually everything that goes into organ performer decisions. And then doing this progressively for all fourteen performances. It took days and days of effort and finally when it was all finished and ever so carefully and clearly notated I brought them to him. Ozzie took one glancing overview look at them and simply asked "So, which one did you like best? And why?" Through that process the selection was immensely clear- to my taste it was Marie Claire Alain by far the number one, and then it was Lionel Rogg. It still remember it all so very clearly, and especially when after hours of conversation after Ozzie remarked . . . "There! Now you have taste!" And to my great surprise, after all of that detailed listening and discussion, I could also already play the piece without having prior addressed it at the keyboard at all.
R.V.B. - There are a lot of classic organs in the world... In theaters, churches, and in private homes... Is there a science as to which organ company to use for the best acoustics in a particular place? What are some of your favorite organs that you have played?
D.J. - 7.a. Science? Wedding organ companies usefulness for comparative ranking in addressing acoustics issues . . . In my long experience in this field mixing these two is purely a political endeavor and matches well the process for choosing American presidencies. No, there is no science in that mashup just as in publicly stated opinions about global warming...
D.J. - 7.b. My current favorites for: classical design and used as a concert organ is the giant Skinner in the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. Favorite theatre pipe organ is the Wurlitzer in the California Theatre in San Jose, California. Favorite organ audience is tied between those attending my now ten years of performances as House Organist at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia, WA and those attending my six years of performing at the Grosser Salle in the Mozarteum Series for the University of Salzburg in Austria. Favorite glass Bouteillophone (Glass Bottle Organ) is in the studio-home of Carl Dodrill on Mercer Island in Washington.
Before we get into the glass area, I do have some things to say about silent film scoring, that grew out of my discovery that there were actual original scores prepared for silent film accompanists to use back in the original exhibitions period. This discovery came about, if I didn't mention before, first by my seeing the first page of the Louis F. Gottschalk full orchestra score to D. W. Griffith's 1919 film BROKEN BLOSSOMS in the seminal motion picture theatre history text THE BEST REMAINING SEATS published in the 1960s. I chased down the author, Ben M. Hall in New York City and he led me to archive contacts holding both the complete musical score with full orchestral parts, and also a completely preserved 35mm print of the film. That led me to present my first organ plus orchestra screening while at Indiana University filling the I.U. Auditorium again along with the local Bloomington Symphony Orchestra in the pit. My next encounter with original scores came about in my piano solo accompaniment work for the Harry Geduld film history class film screenings series at Wittenburg Auditorium on campus. The Museum of Modern Art sound out a copy of the original P/C (piano/conductor part) from the orchestra set of the original score for the Paramount Pictures BEAU GESTE. This was a true revelation to me, for it combined what emerged to be the typical compilation assembly scoring process of the time combined with original newly-composed material. I was very surprised to see how well the prepared music fit exactly with the screen images and my whole concept of how to go about film scoring shifted from my hitherto fairly vapid personal score composition and total improvisation efforts over to attempting genuine full revival, historical preservation efforts with these period-published materials.
I'm on a roll this afternoon - guess it comes with spending hours and hours rehearsing actual period-sourced silent film scoring's, and then in conjunction with this interview reading over things like this I have on file found on the Web:
"Organ antics" by David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic, Philadelphia
"On Sunday, two silent films were shown in Verizon Hall accompanied by organist Tom Trenney. The Mark of Zorro, a 1923 Douglas Fairbanks action-romance film . . . Trenney didn't accompany so much as give a running commentary on the film, with quotations from the Lone Ranger theme for scenes involving horses, "I Feel Pretty" when the heroine looked in the mirror, "Old MacDonald" in barnyard scenes, and... you get the idea. There were two problems with that: The organ's anachronistic approach gave the audience permission to discuss the film at length during its showing. Thus, the movie was an object rather than a world to be entered. Though Zorro is a fusion of comic and heroic elements, the organ made it all comic. The success of this approach could be seen as part of that great tradition of Philadelphia putdowns (a side effect of civic inferiority). But if a movie deserves only mockery, why show it?" David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or dstearns@ phillynews.com. Read his recent work at https://go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns
I've kept a number of these references on file to remind me to show how distorted the silent films with live music revival has progressed since I entered the field in the late 1960's. I've seen there has been a emergent division of approach among silent film accompanists between on the one hand the thoroughly trained, accredited and research-driven musicians such as myself, Rick Benjamin and his Paragon Orchestra and in most of their work the Mont Alto orchestra folks in Colorado, continuing the film music profession in the precise manner as originally conceived for the period-filmmakers themselves, and the amateur, enthusiast-marketed meandering-musical-mediocrities. And on the other the sometimes even fully-classical-music-trained poseurs and predominantly amateur enthusiasts churning their way through presumptive-improvisations imposed upon the silent screen classics. The latter are furthering the cliche of silent film music as "bad" music, and these days are often presented as the spontaneous works of surprising presumed genius by emergent silent film presenters of today. My Silent Film Concerts historical-revival approach has become particularly popular in Europe in recent years, brought in to counteract the prevailing trend there of historic score replacements. My programs give an opportunity to historical arts enthusiasts and cultural preservationists alike to experience fully realized and critically-acclaimed historically accurate accompaniments to silent films, focusing on the original period-release music actually written for silent films when they were first circulated. Although these days there has grown to become a wide variety of alternative approaches to silent film music, the historically conscientious approach has proven to be the only unassailably valid choice for the culturally responsible professional musician of today.
LA Times article, OCTOBER, 2014:
"Mocked, ignored, the victim of a massive cultural disinformation campaign that insisted these movies were too primitive to take seriously, silent film has managed to outwit history. Not only is there a phoenix-like rebirth of interest in the medium, but the films themselves and the artifacts surrounding them are constantly coming to light in rich and unexpected ways. To be seen to their best advantage, however, silent films should be experienced, as they were in the medium's glory days, with live musical accompaniment. To understand what makes silent film so special, the central place of music can't be avoided. The live music enhances what we see, bringing us inside the film. As the late film authority William Everson explained several years ago, 'The score minimized flaws, added punctuation and feeling, stretched the emotionalism and guided the audience into the right frame of mind. It's a major crime, absolutely deadly, to show these films without the proper accompaniment.' To enter this world is to understand why Mary Pickford, one of its biggest stars, famously said that "it would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talking instead of the other way around."
I find people today often don't realize that these historical films were never really silent and they came to be called that, often as a pejorative industry dismissal as ineffective, when the sound movies (or, as they were known at first, 'Talkies') arrived in 1926. There seems in my experience, however, the ready realization to the point of marveling new fascination possible among the younger viewing generations towards the live music component of what is now a nearly forgotten part of the original practice of exhibiting film . . . recreating those nearly 100 years ago days by performing stylistically authentic and period appropriate live musical accompaniment at the film screenings. This original matching music to the period images facilitated the original audience’s emotional response in a manner already highly developed and there is a similar continuity to the present day with modern performances of other historically developed music-enhanced theatrical music forms : opera, operetta, Broadway shows, ballet, vaudeville and so many others. My passion stems, I guess, by that I like the concept that it would have been more logical, thinking of film as an art form progression, for the silent film to have evolved from the sound film. To experience in live real-time experience movies the way they were meant to be . . . as performed in a large communal setting with the film image exactly as seen now 80 to 100 years ago, and heard with historically accurate original musical accompaniment performed with a thorough and fully realized respect for the past and with full confidence of serving the presentation desires of the filmmakers themselves . . . if one loves movies as do most moviegoers today, seeing and hearing, them as they were originally intended to be experienced simply should not be missed.
This reminded me of the six months preparations I did back in the 1990's for a Pacific Film Archive of UC Berkeley presented single screening of the beautiful 1920 French silent film "L' Hirondelle et la Mesange", for which I wrote out and then carefully learning a solo theatre organ transcription from the hand written manuscript of the detailed, fully-synchronized and through-composed instrumental ensemble score. I was paid the typical minimal academic screening performance fee of a few hundred dollars and received no compensation for all those months and months of preparation time nor efforts. The Paris Cinematheque permitted only one U.S. screening . . . and I've never played to that film again. Most important to mention, at the time, and still today, I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to do it all and would repeat the effort without hesitation. Lee Erwin, the noted East coast professional silent film composer and wonderful teacher I mentioned before, once told me it was with great relief many in the film industry welcomed the advent of sound films, for the patrons no longer had to experience the vague meanderings of untrained film accompaniments out in the provinces. Instead, they began hearing the likes of Henry Hadley conducting the New York Symphony accompanying the full length, non-talking 1926 sound-recorded silent film DON JUAN starring John Barrymore. It seems to me if one goes to the trouble of historical revivals in modern times then one shouldn't repeat the oblivious elements that killed off the originals in the first go 'round.
Mentioning other organist's approaches to scoring silent films leads me to some filed remarks from last year's Chicago, Illinois, USA local press of a solo organ performance presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their own organ-equipped downtown Orchestra Hall played by touring flash-organist Cameron Carpenter, a prominent travesty-display silent film soloist, that gives a good idea of what is typically in store for modern day silent film audiences: "I don't consider silent film accompaniment to be my main work. It's a sideline," says Carpenter, an American now based in Berlin who is building an international career as a recording artist and a presumptive cross-dressing virtuoso organist playing his customized touring instrument. "It's something I do incidentally and there's only one film that I do it with" (here intentionally prevaricating to side-step mentioning his confrontational assaults on many beloved historic films). "One of the purposes of my work is to divorce the organ from its long-suffering stereotypes,” Carpenter says. “I’m of the conviction that a lot of silent films aren’t worth watching . . . (my) score is much more implied by other musical influences, for instance disco, the kind of musical backing you tend to find in television advertisements, the backgrounds of soap operas and the film scores of the 1940s and '50s—the things that aren't regarded seriously by the musical intelligentsia."
Discussed repeatedly on the Web, Carpenter, has been said to be ". . . a product of our mass media, and pop culture, where celebrity is a skill. Celebrities used to be known because they were especially skilled, accomplished, talented, and worthy of notice. Nowadays many are noted mainly for being famous, fashionable and superficial. Carpenter is very much about being famous, dispensing with the old, tired bourgeois ways, and leading the way to the new way of organ playing. Yet, from what I've seen he has little or no idea of the culture, history and repertoire of the organ. It might be said he has contempt for it. And he attempts to design his own supposedly advanced instrument, but from his statements, one wonders what he bases his ideas on other than superficial impulse? He like many pop idols exploits flash, fashion, amplification, technical flair to wow audiences, many who like people who like pop music are not active, critical listeners. Indeed if you've had any serious musical training and experience playing music, Carpenter's antics come across as impressive, but self-absorbed, alien and musical."
George Heymont, San Francisco-based Arts Critic:
"Music was -- and always will be -- a key component of silent film. A great score or performance by talented accompanying musician can bring an audience to its feet with a standing ovation. Poorly-matched musical choices can sap the life and blood of a silent film experience."
I am convinced the time has come to address this wholesale conversion by media promoters and silent film musicians alike of the application of an all important article "the" to "a" when discussing the audio component of silent film presentations today - particularly those such as the recent solo organ presentations in Atlantic City, NJ claiming a "commitment to preserving this iconic part of history." Displacing THE 1926 THE BLACK PIRATE score by Mortimer Wilson (commissioned and published by filmmaker Douglas Fairbanks specifically to go with his film) with modern day, non-historically informed solo organ make it up meanderings is something typically being foisted upon the unwary film-going public today However, using "the score" to describe such a travesty event here obfuscates by glib grammatical subterfuge, blurring the in-alterable primacy of the original and thrusting original film image presented with original film score into just one of a multitude of choices among a variety of replacement scoring's, whatever their qualities, that have become ever so trendy today.
The original scores are the actual music accompaniments prepared in the period of silent films initial releases by professional industry participant musicians and performed together with these films, intact both in content and style, as the filmmakers intended and the audiences of the time both expected and experienced. There is a recent emergent general complete denial, now even by claimed experts in the historical film presentation field of endeavor, that such period-original scores ever existed, do not survive, or are not worthy of consideration by unspecified judgmental outcomes for modern day performance. Such dismissive qualitative judgements without detailed references are often cited providing claim of modern mandate for creation of replacement scorings, thereby outright preventing modern day audiences from experiencing historical works of substantial artistic merit and unassailable historical veracity. They force dire cultural vandalism by replacement impositions onto trumpeted otherwise historical revival efforts such as this by this lauded Atlantic City Convention Hall pipe organ preservation project. Using "a" to replace "the" creates implication of equivalency, converting the primacy of performing THE original scores into just another choice among multiple replacement options available to mis- or ill-informed modern day film score poseurs and enthusiastic historical revisionists.
Reviewing the Atlantic City restoration efforts preserving their instruments intact, one would think embracing the performance of either the actual Mortimer Wilson THE BLACK PIRATE score written for these film or a historically-informed period-sensitive alternate compilation scoring incorporating the actual published film score materials utilized by the musicians of the day carefully performed in stylistic authentic manner would be the primary desirable match for their justly celebrated attention to such equivalent details in their instrument historical conservation efforts. Presenting preserved historical pipe organs together with their preserved intended use in every possible detail greatly expands the attraction to historically oriented audiences interested in BOTH cultural artifact preservation AND cultural artifact continued use as represented in such silent film presentation efforts, something proven time and time again as of primary value at silent film presentation sites of integrity worldwide.
Oh, and by the way, I wasn't so readily vocal about my rejection of most modern replacement scorings until the onset of the end of my San Francisco Bay Area regular performing days, coming to realize those trendy historical revisionists were well underway already burying my prior 40 years of preservation performance work there. I knew the historical preservation days of silent film screenings were over for certain when at my last SFSFF (San Francisco Silent Film Festival) opening night party I witnessed a four lesbian 'pretty girl' group who play in the local San Francisco downtown club scene get introduced to Gary Meyer, programmer of the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, and observed, with him not yet even having heard them perform their debut, Gary inviting them to appear within this next upcoming Telluride Festival events schedule. Their San Francisco performance (celebrated as their 1st time doing anything to film) consisted of sets of hip-moderne slinky pop songs accompanied by toy instruments all the while swiveling about in a sort of muted writhing, all lit in performer-attention dominant fashion directly in front of the screen making the images accompaniment for the music. They played to silent cartoons. Gee Whiz, it was SO cool . . . NOT.
With teapot-travesty fans calling these contrived sham scores creative reminds me of attending a highly promoted complete sellout performance of a replacement scoring to SUNRISE at the Castro Theatre for a San Francisco film festival a few years ago. It was 'prepared' and performed by an Austin, Texas based bar band replete with down country guitarists and vocals. They ignored all film accompaniment opportunities, instead doing some five Texas bar band songs, repeating them over and over until changing them, and those becoming the only moments of what might be seen as synchronous action (the silence gaps were such a relief). It was truly an assault - yet afterwards in the exit crowd ahead of me I overheard a sweet young tattooed and pierced twenty something say to her companion, "Can you imagine seeing these films without 'our' music?" To which I instantly remarked for all to hear, a resounding "Yes!" And recognized as the Castro's usual silent film accompanist, I was cornered by local television news in the lobby for a comment about the proceedings, and I said, "It all went to prove that no matter what you do to a great silent film, you can't kill it." In a followup TV interview what I thought of the score, and I replied "I've never seen such a clear print of SUNRISE before. Just beautiful!" So, they asked me again, and I said, "No, really, . . . such beautiful blacks- complete saturation. These images are usually a kind of a washed out grey overall. This print had full definition and real contrast. Wonderful!" And finally then they pushed me for a music comment and I came up with a "it really doesn't matter" dismissal..
Major concert halls all across Europe have gotten very excited in recent years about what they are coming to refer to as my authentic American historically-informed recreations of the silent film experience. With World War Two wiping out many of the downtown motion picture houses along with the economic travails experienced in cultural upheaval transitions in the years since, most of their original organ-equipped silent film exhibition sites as well as their aged populace who were experienced in the actualities of silent film as a live music accompanied exhibition art form have all but vanished. My Silent Film Concerts historical materials-sourced programs presented as continuity extensions (as opposed to revision travesties) of the silent film era are actually now coming to be preferred in the major European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Cologne, Rome, Salzburg and Vienna. They are ever-increasingly being welcomed by their audiences as appropriate major concert hall fare, seen now to be preservation endeavors maintaining public access to ongoing experience of genuine historical lineage to the degree already deemed appropriate on the scale of symphonic music, opera, ballet and the other past-era sourced cultural activities. For instance, I began concert hall screenings of silent films using in the grand 5 manual, 113 rank Rieger pipe-organ (installed 1913) for the Vienna Konzerthaus back in the 1980's with regular followup occasionally televised performances there ever since. It is interesting to find, now three decades later, that my organ-centric approach to historical silent film exhibitions is still spreading across the continent- for instance, coming up this season are the next in my now multi-year Silent Film Concerts screenings in the Grosser Salle at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
R.V.B. - Was experimenting with musical glasses and the glass armonica a natural progression of your interests in music to maybe push the boundaries of playing something unusual?
D.J. - That is one way to put it. I had found by 1981 that what I took to be a musical career progression success was actually a byproduct of my own curiosity in artifacts from past cultures. What I took by my own experience to successfully navigating a natural progression to enter a profession, not even contemplating that profession was already extinct had long been subjugated to the vicissitudes enthusiasms of amateurs and well-meaning enthusiasts. So, yes, pushing boundaries- silent films with live music had been a very large part of past American experience still referent in many memories as personal experience. So, challenging myself I turned to a long-simmering interest in glass music instruments begun with my initial visit to the Benjamin Franklin original armonica put on display in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1956.
R.V.B. - What type of glass gives the best sound?
D.J. - Best as defined by desired effect for a given purpose leads to a number of different types of glass utilized for sound. When specific density is increased, the glass resonates longer, so for the popular sparkling and sustained tone evidenced in late 18th c. instruments- for repairs, restorations and replications using leaded glass formulated to match that of the surrounding bowls (in an antique) or duplicating that used in the late 18th c. instruments for replica endeavors is decidedly best to achieve authentic performances of 18th c. compositions. For sound effects, metaphysical healing and similar spiritualist endeavors, the fused silica "quartz" glass developed in the early 20th c. is best since the material is so sturdy and survives well untutored onslaughts and mishandlings.
R.V.B. - Is the glass with water setup in a certain way and tuned chromatically so that you can hit any notes that you want?
D.J. - I use musical glasses that are pre-tuned as part of the instrument preparation (using grinding techniques) and, yes, they are tuned chromatically and arrayed in a manner best to achieve tonal, third relationship prevalent for easing tonal manipulation relations and chordal pattern developments.
R.V.B. - What about the armonica? How is the tuning on that? is it tuned to a certain key?
D.J. - My first professional touring armonica built in 1991 is fully chromatic and is tuned to a=442, equal temperament, selected in particular to allow performance with both U.S. and European based orchestras and instrumentalists for modern operas / ballets / Hollywood film scoring and other such general music making purposes. My second such instrument, built in 2001 with duplicate interchangeable parts assembled to the exact matching specifications of instrument #1, is tuned to a=430, again approximating equal temperament and directed specifically to allow performance with instrumentalists accepting the generally ascribed Classical Period modernday-assigned pitch. My non-glass period antique instruments are generally kept at a=415, Kirnberger III temperament where practical and advisable for use.
R.V.B. - Is the speed adjustable on it?
D.J. - Yes, of course, duplicating this all-important part of the original inventor's specification and subsequent period sourced improved designs.
D.J. - Functions, yes, repairs and modifications- none, and no interest in learning about them at all.
R.V.B. - Can you diagnose repair issues?
D.J. - Yes, but I usually refrain from mentioning any except the worst because the blame for their existence usually falls upon the person who draws attention to them.
R.V.B. - How did you become interested in the theramin?
D.J. - Hearing it used in 1950's Sci Fi films, then learned about the general history of its invention and intended original use in IU music history class prompting me to sign up for the then nascent electronic music studies class.
R.V.B. - Can you do precise notes with it or is it primarily for sound effects?
D.J. - In the hands of a trained and experienced musician it can produce as precise notes as a professional violinist does. For film work it seems purposes primarily for sound effect use. In concert music making, especially with the period actual compositions, decidedly not.
R.V.B. - Does the Ondes Martenot work on a similar platform?
D.J. - Somewhat, although the Ondes has a decided keyboard manipulation orientation retaining the continuously accessible portage to as an accessory means of control.
R.V.B. - What are some of your favorite movies that you like to perform to?
D.J. - La Boheme - Student Prince in Old Heidelberg - Sunrise Pandora's Box - The Merry Widow - Girl Shy - The Eagle Faust - Wings
R.V.B. - Being in the area of music that you explore is retro, with the classic instruments like pipe organs... are the new portable organs a threat at all to the trade.
D.J. - Not at all, if it is extension and purposed use enabled by your terms by which I am to define and respond with your inquiry. Any object labeled as an organ and offered for the trade is already by that definition retro and classic by intent. Organs are from the past and still are purposed for what may be deemed classic intents bearing connected lineage by both use and design with their origins. Thinking of what leads such objects, however, into being portable leads me to consider that in your inquiry is the not-mentioned use of electronics for sound sourcing and the application digitization technologies harnessed and purposed for organ use as being a threat to the pipe organ, where it is really the opposite that has happened in the music marketplace.
The issue you focus on, though, is portability, so one can imagine the concept of threat is getting applied by inquiry here to stemming by comparison to the locations of organs that are not portable. That brings immediately to mind churches, concert halls, opera houses and theatres. By expanded consideration within my own experience leads me to also mention recital halls, residences, funeral parlours, department stores, shopping centers, sports arenas, ballrooms, roller skating rinks, caves, ships, outdoor pavilions, expositions and museums. Thinking of the further expansion of music performance location opportunities enabled by portability, I can cite for one instance the well documented major success of Reginald Foort and his portable Moller theatre/concert pipe organ in England during the days leading up to the start of W.W.II. Reggie was able to break the confines of permanent installation by having his instrument built to be moveable into any accessible site. He chose initially to simply expand his presence in the traditional theatrical arenas already quite familiar for organ use and purpose and was therefore forced to conclude the venture with the onset of bombings of his venues during his performances.
R.V.B. - Are the organ companies that built the classic pipe organs surviving?
D.J. - You'd have to ask them. I do find myself regularly invited to perform inaugural programs on new classic pipe organ instruments, so some of them must.
R.V.B. - Are there any venues where you have played in your career, that give you chills up your spine because of great acoustics, or its history.
D.J. - I would say of the ones I have played that have triggered that response in me have been: Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia - Radio City Music Hall, New York City - St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City - Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria - Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria - Opera House Concert Hall, Sydney, Australia - Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia - Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago - Chicago Theatre, Chicago - Fox Theatres in Detroit and St. Louis - California Theatre in San Jose - Castro Theatre, San Francisco - Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.
R.V.B. - What are some of the projects that your production company does?
D.J. - I have an umbrella production company for all of my activities called Dennis James Productions and within that I publish sheet music, issue and market CD's, and carry out my sub-production entities each separately titled: Musica Curiosa (acquiring and restoring antique music instruments, marketing performances), Glass Musick (specialty focus on glass instruments), Electronique Exotique (specialty focus on historical electronic instruments), Silent Film Concerts (acquiring and restoring silent film scores, assembling new compilation scores, marketing solo and ensemble performances). Some major current projects:
MUSICA CURIOSA: EXOTIC HISTORICAL MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS TO BE DEMONSTRATED AT - Location-
Rarely heard historical keyed-string musical instruments popular in the 18th c., including the Italian Ottavino Spinetto, the German Clavichord and the Austrian Orphica, will be demonstrated by musician Dennis James in a lecture-concert entitled "The Sounds of Quiet (18th Century Sensibilities of Making Music in the Home) at .......- location- ........ on .......–date & time-......... This is the third in James' ongoing series of music instrument presentations reflecting his wide-ranging and eclectic music interests. A dedicated and imaginative devotee of music history and authentic performance practices, Dennis James plays his instruments with supreme sensitivity, thrilling technical display and in convincing period styles. As one reviewer wrote, "James has to be heard to be believed. His way with these instruments is virtually magical."
In late eighteenth-century society, both in the European nations and their various Colonies, music making in the home was not simply a leisure activity; it was a social endeavor through which the middle and upper classes were able to express and experience their gentility, and thereby display their taste, status, and wealth. It was a period witnessing the development of chamber music, a form of classical music for specialty smaller-scale instruments and small groups of players —traditionally music making that could fit in a palace chamber or any small room. Because of its intimate nature, chamber music has been described as "the music of friends". For more than 100 years, it was played primarily by amateur musicians in their homes, and playing chamber music required special skills, both musical and social, and instruments of especially reduced volume and subtle timbral capacities, each differing greatly from that required for public playing of solo concert or symphonic works.
Renowned as an internationally touring concert musician for over 50 years, Dennis James (2011-2015 Lecturer in Music at Rutgers University, NJ) is a graduate of Indiana University with a Masters degree in organ performance. James has performed solo recitals and appeared with ensembles in concert halls throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Each of his exotic and delicate instruments in his touring Musica Curiosa collection enjoyed an initial fame and heyday lasting for some nearly one hundred years, but each fell in turn to disuse and then nearly total obscurity. James will perform music written or transcribed especially for this presentation's selection of unusual instruments by such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and many others.
A dedicated and imaginative devotee of music history and authentic performance practices, James developed a special interest in forgotten musical instruments in the early 1970s and the beauty and mystery of their intriguing music is now being revived internationally by his enchanting performances and intriguing lecture presentations. Recordings are now available on compact disc and cassette releases by the SONY CLASSICAL (solo and together with the Emerson String Quartet, the Ensemble Stradivaria with vocalist Veronique Dietschy, members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra an Los Angeles Opera plus Metropolitan Opera soloist Ruth Anne Swenson), French ADDA, Belgian SYRINX, English HYPERION and American GLASS MUSIC labels as well as on the ELEKTRA label accompanying popular vocalists Linda Ronstadt, Emmy Lou Harris and Dolly Parton.
Admission for Dennis James' appearance at _________________ is _________ details_____________. For more information, call _______________ at ____________
HISTORICAL KEYED-STRING MUSIC INSTRUMENTS
CLAVICHORD is a European stringed keyboard instrument known from the late Medieval, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. During more those more than three centuries the clavichord was considered an essential step in the study of the technique of all other keyboard instruments. It was mostly used as a practice instrument, an aid to composition, and at home music making, not being loud enough for larger public concert performances. The clavichord produces sound by striking brass or iron strings with small metal blades called tangents. Vibrations are transmitted through the bridge(s) to the soundboard. The name is derived from the Latin word clavis, meaning "key" (associated with more common clavus, meaning "nail, rod, etc.") and chorda (from Greek χορδή) meaning "string, especially of a musical instrument". The clavichord was very popular from the 16th century to the 18th century, mainly flourishing in German-speaking lands, Scandinavia and the Iberian Peninsula in the latter part of thisperiod. It had fallen out of use by 1850. Dennis James built his touring instrument in reproduction of a 1784 Clavichord design by Christian Gottlob Hubert.
OTTAVINO SPINETTINA Charles Burney wrote in 1771 (The Present State of Music in France and Italy), "Throughout Italy they have generally little octave spinets to accompany singing, in private houses, sometimes in a triangular form, but more in the shape of our old virginals; of which they keys are so noisy, and the tone so feeble, that more wood is heard than wire." These ctave spinet harpsichords were eminetly portable keyboard instruments and Dennis James built a copy of an original spinettina, dated around 1595, that is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museumin London. The museum allowed a close inspection of the original instrument from which were prepared detailed working drawings.
ORPHIKA Carl Leopold Rollig (c. 1745? - 1804) was a composer and glass armonica virtuoso who moved in 1791 to Vienna. There he developed a specialized portable keyboard instrument that he called an orphica, so named because of its supposed resemblance to the lyre associated with Orpheus. Rollig is said to have been seeking a suitable keyed accompanying instrument to utilize in performance with the glass musical instruments - having decided the clavichord to be too soft, the harpsichord to bright and the then-emerging fortepianos to overwhelming. Intended to combine the musical characteristics and portability of the lute with the ease of playing and tuning stability of keyboard instruments, the orphica could be placed on a table or played in its case, which was provided with screw-on legs. Rollig mentioned two kinds of orphicas: one with a single set of gut strings and a harpsichord actions, the other bi-chord with metal strings and a piano action. The orphica was described as "like a theorbo and the lute, a bass instrument . . . According to its nature, it is made for calm and gentle emotions - made for the night, for friendship, for love." In 1999 Dennis James acquired a Viennese orphika made by Maximilian Haidinger, and had it restored at the Florence workshop of fortepiano restoration expert Donatella Di Giampietro.
GLASSICAL MUSICK: Latest instrument acquisition and restoration: BEYER GLASS-CORD, an 18th c. French keyboard-equipped musical instrument that uses silk covered wooden hammers to play tuned glass bars. It was given its name by Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson declared its delicate tone "delicious." The glass-cord was later prominently manufactured in a more compact and action-revised version by Chappel & Co. in England during the early 19th c. The Musica Curiosa Collection's 1786 antique original is one of two known to be still in existence today built by the inventor Beyer.
When Benjamin Franklin came to England in 1757 as Ambassador from the American Colonies, he became interested in the popular glass musical instruments then all the rage in England. These sets of water-tuned rim-rubbed glasses charmed Franklin who described the "sweetness of the tones" in his diary. By 1762 he had created his own mechanized spinning arrangement, nesting the pre-tuned glass hemispheres cupped altogether on a rotating metal shaft. The Franklin version, named the armonica by Franklin himself cited as in honor of the Italian language, is now considered the first truly American musical instrument. It developed rapidly on the European continent, predominantly in Germany, France and Italy. Hundreds of compositions written for it by the major composers of the time, including, most famously, two works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
During the winter of 1784/85, a German physician and music instrument designer named Beyer approached Benjamin Franklin in Paris with his idea for constructing a new glass instrument to be played by the tap of silk cloth covered wooden hammers onto glass bars and controlled from a keyboard. Contemporary accounts show Franklin to have been intrigued and that he found it coordinated well with his own experiments tapping musical glass bells in his London workshop. Franklin gave his personal endorsement to the instrument's development and Beyer presented a prototype to the Académie des Sciences in the spring of 1785. Upon receiving an enthusiastic reception and support to begin production, Beyer reminded Franklin of a promise to give the new keyed instrument a name (hitherto simply referred to by the inventor as 'the instrument'). Franklin named it the 'glassychord' (aka glassichord, glass-cord), a word that had been first used in 1761 perhaps as an apparent misnomer within published initial British and American Colonial newspaper announcements of Franklin's own spinning glass bowl invention. From the 1786 onset of Glass-cord (Inventor Beyer's own spelling) manufacture, Franklin was given one that he then transported to Franklin's Philadelphia home and entering his private collection. Thomas Jefferson saw the instrument in Paris just a week before Franklin left France, finding its tone to be exceptionally sweet and only regretted that its three-octave range was too limited (the same musical range consideration that also kept him from later ordering the Franklin-design mechanized armonica from an English supplier). Jefferson wrote of the Glass-cord a year later,"However imperfect this instrument is for the general masses, yet for those of a certain character it is delicious." The Beyer glass-cord was known to be one of Benjamin Franklin's favorite instruments and it is well documented he took great delight in playing it for visitors along with demonstrations of his own spinning glass bowl device. The estate inventory at the time of Franklin's death included a viola da gamba, bells, harpsichord, armonica, spinet, Chinese gong, plus the Beyer Glass-cord. As an odd footnote, when the British invaded the United States during the War of 1812, the troops raided Franklin's Philadelphia home and purloined the home's contents, leaving a careful written inventory that included their having taken the glass instruments plus his spare armonica bowls.
The Musica Curiosa Collection's Beyer Glass-cord was previously purchased in 1959 in Paris from dealer Alain Vian for export to the Hans Adler keyboard collection in South Africa. Permission to export this rarity from France was granted having been coordinated by Musee du Louvre after confirmation that a somewhat similar instrument also still existed in France (an apparent glass-cord variant that belonged to the Comte de Briqueville within an instrument collection dispersed in the 1930's). Some small repairs have been effected with minor alterations now removed. A few of the original glass bars have been replaced with well-tuned modern duplicates. The cabinet demonstrates the superior inlay (featuring intricate purfling much like that on a fine violin and a dated name-board) and the finely wrought brass work demonstrates excellent craftsmanship of that time. The all-original ivory-covered keys, escapement and damping actions still operate and the instrument can now be quite effectively played.
SILENT FILM CONCERTS: 1921 HAMLET issued in in Norway with their famous film star Asta Nielsen playing the lead. Ms. Nielsen conceived of this HAMLET as a major gender revision of the story, with the Prince Hamlet part played as a female (continuing the concept successfully introduced on the stage in 1916 by actress Sarah Bernhardt). The film was recently restored by a Netherlands based archive. You can read about this version of the HAMLET film at these two film information Web addresses:
And you can view the two hour full length film in its entirety on You Tube (with, of course, my suggesting your turning off the audio track as you review since it has the typical recorded egregious "modern" music track scoring that is so prevalent in DVD issues today:
I am quite pleased to report I have been commissioned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. to create a new musical score to premier there on September 9th this year. I have chosen to create a two-performer duo scoring together with historical keyboard specialist Michael Tsalka plus the addition of a local female vocalist to be provided by the presenter at each screening. All of the music is selected from the compositions of THE SONS OF BACH (C.Ph.E., J.C. and Wm F.) making it a quite interesting all-18th c. scoring focusing on both historical instruments and music.
You can read about my touring historical keyboard specialist Dr. Michael Tsalka at his Web Site (michaeltsalka.com). Based out of Valencia, Spain, he has won numerous prizes and awards in Europe, the U.S.A., the Middle East and Latin America- a versatile musician, he performs with equal virtuosity a wide span of repertoire from the early Baroque to our days on the harpsichord, fortepiano, clavichord, square piano, chamber organ and modern piano.
Our all keyboard HAMLET film score features as the overture the famous, yet rarely-heard, C.P.E. Bach "Hamlet" Fantasia, Wq 202m/H 75 [tr.8], in which as usually performed a bass-baritone appears, as if from nowhere, to sing the soliloquy (a text actually by Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737-1823); "To be, or not to be"). In keeping with the cross-gender nature of this HAMLET film presentation, the part will be performed on tour by a selected mezzo-soprano for each performance, and the vocalist will participate within the film score itself in five additional scenes.
The scoring is designed to be performed with organ, fortepiano and harpsichord with the instruments all to be provided by the presenters on tour (all tuned to match each other), and I will be carrying a small selection of sound effects devices for use in the score. After the premier in Washington, D.C. we will be traveling to The Netherlands to present the film with this new scoring at the Geelvinck Fortepiano Festival in Amsterdam (www.geelvinckfestival.nl ) in October and are presently in negotiation with the Mozarteum in Salzburg for presentation there in May 2017 as part of our Silent Film Series in the Grosser Saal.
R.V.B. - I understand that you have a world class collection of music for historical instruments. How did you start acquiring these documents prior to the internet and does the internet help with this now?
D.J. - Pre-Internet I would go to libraries worldwide, the more the obscure the better, and examine the uncatalogued manuscript collections. The internet has served to cut way back on the amount of travel to do the same thing, and also to simplify and reduce photocopying procedures and costs in this era of digitization.
R.V.B. - Do you have any protégé's or students that may be poised to carry on your work in the future?
D.J. - None current. Over the years many have come to me for various degrees of interpersonal interaction. The 'poised 'descriptive for carrying on my work is still only that, for none have actually embarked upon paths leading to professional performances.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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