"Wings" at Harvard

Live silent film accompanist and organist Peter Krasinski helps films find a voice.

By Anita Lo '16 

In the age of Netflix and HBO Go, silent films with live accompaniment occupy a precarious niche – and this is to say nothing of silent films with live organ accompaniment. How should we think about the experience of watching a movie, live, with other people and with sound that comes from a single instrument rather than speakers? On Friday, April 22, Peter Krasinski, internationally-acclaimed organist and live silent-film accompanist, will provide the music for a screening of the Academy Award-winning 1927 film Wings. The following is an edited version of a conversation with Krasinski about sound, dimensions and films.

Music greatly affects how an audience reads a film. How do you prepare for these improvisations. Do you have your own theories about the film's message and try to convey it, or is your process more improvisational than that?
When I was just starting out, I’d rent a 16mm film, I'd watch it at 4 p.m., and I would write notes in three columns: the intercard, what scenes reminded me of musically, and the third column in capital letters was just important sounds: gunshots, bells, trains. Later, I began speaking into a recording device while watching the movie, but now what I do to prepare for any movie is just memorize it. My mind has changed. I’ve trained to notice things with extreme detail. But I also memorize the organ I'm going to play, get to know it very intimately. Is there any anomaly in the organ? Any special features? Even so, the music itself is completely improvised. I take the instrument, venue, movie and audience, figure out what sort of journey my audience wants to go on.

Do you feel like a film co-author when playing these improvisations?
I am part of the creative process of the film, no doubt about it. But the film is what I'm serving, the film is the main course. I have played Phantom of the Opera three times in one day, and each time it's been different. It’s a different moment in time, and so each improvisation is an organic experience not just for me but for the audience too. They become involved in the film.

So yes, I consider emotional impact and character development the same way the movie does, in that these aspects are important and should be considered when creating music the same way as you might create a film. But you don't want to music to overwhelm the film. You want it to serve it, to help it speak.

To you, what’s special about this film and event in particular?
A while ago, a friend called me a theologian who happens to play the organ. I consider that a big compliment. These films from the silent era are very powerful because there was so much control by the people who made them. They weren't necessarily going to come to some general consensus or water down their message. These films had their story in their heart and strove to share it as purely as they could. This specific movie Wings is about that generation and about those people who fought that war. Some of them didn't come back. And that’s a powerful thing.

On the second floor of the Memorial Church chapel, you might notice there's a statue that looks like an angel. It was designed by the man who designed the Lincoln Memorial – Daniel C. French – and it was supposed to be a WWI memorial erected in France, though it never was. When I was up there rehearsing I saw it and said, "Wings at Harvard – here they are."

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists and musicians?
One of the best things you can do is develop those things you think of as weaknesses. My biggest growth happened when I realized I had a weakness in reading music, I could have reacted as an improviser and claim I didn't need to read music, but I wanted to read music because there's so much great music out there to know. Listen to it all the time to be able to learn it. Use your strengths to help learn that weakness.

WINGS: Silent Film with organ accompaniment by Peter Krasinski takes place 7 p.m. Friday, April 22 in Memorial Church. The event is presented by the Harvard Organ Society. Admission is free.