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03/29/2003 Entry:
"David Drazin Interview"

Some time ago, I wrote an entry about Dovzhenko's Earth in which I praised the piano playing of Chicago-based silent film accompanist David Drazin. I had seen David play many times at Film Center, and he always did a great job, but on Earth he really seemed to key into the film in a way that truly enhanced the experience. After writing the piece, I received a very nice email from David's wife Carol Seymour thanking me and answering some of the questions in it, most notably that David rarely uses a written score and sometimes plays for films he hasn't seen. This got me thinking a lot about the role of music in film, and how different that role is in silent films as opposed to modern films. I had also been thinking at that time about extending the nature of Cineblog to include some content that was a little more than just me babbling about whatever. So I asked if David would want to sit down and chat about what he did, and we ended up getting together at the Film Center before a showing of The Wedding Circle, an old silent by Ernst Lubitsch. I would love to say that there will be more of this type of original content in the future, certainly that is what I had planned. However, given the fact that it took me two montsh just to transcribe this one, I'm not making any promises. Anyways, enjoy.

GDD: I see you have an LCD screen here, that actually runs the film while you're playing?
DD: Yeah, there's a camera up there in the booth that is taking a picture of the screen.
GDD: Oh, that's interesting. Does that actually help?
DD: Yeah. The angle that we're at here is a little hard to actually be looking at the screen. I prefer looking at the screen but I've gotten used to this. Its actually pretty cool.
GDD: Do they do that in a lot of places now?
DD: No, this is the only place that I've ever heard of.
GDD: So how did you get started doing this? Were you more of a musician or a film guy to start with?
DD: I thought of myself more as a musician, but I've always loved silent movies since I was a kid. My parents were film buffs, and my older sister was so I kind of inherited their mania. (Dave's sister is the film curator at the North Carolina Museum Of Art and runs the website moviediva.com - GDD)
GDD: How did that bring you into doing this?
DD: In 1985 I had come around to see something, I was in one of the starving artist phases and I really wanted to see the movie they were showing. When I came in, there was a piano, this was at the old Film Center, so I asked the woman who was running the thing that day if it would be alright if I played. So she went and asked the person who was running the Film Center, Richard Pena if it would be OK, and he said OK, so I just got up there and started playing.
GDD: Before the movie or during too?
DD: It was already on actually. After it was over, he came down and said, "We need someone like you."
GDD: So it was a silent and it had no soundtrack at all?
DD: Right.
GDD: Huh, thats kind of interesting because I don't think I've ever seen that. It seems pretty common locally to have someone playing or have a recorded soundtrack.
DD: Yeah. Well, as far as I knew I hadn't ever seen anybody play for a silent movie maybe ever. But I knew that was something that had existed in the old days. As I read in a book, there were 20,000 people doing this in the 20's. Then in one year 20,000 musicians were put out of work by the talkies. There was nothing unusual about doing this back then, but all of a sudden it just became obsolete. For me, I just love it. Playing the piano and watching movies is perfect because it seemed like I was in a lot of bands playing a lot of gigs where I wasn't particularly interested in the tunes that we were hired to do. So I felt bored, I felt like I need something to do while I was playing.
GDD: Was that mostly like wedding band type of stuff or jazz bands?
DD: Yeah, in fact there was one place, I hate to say it...it was actually a good band but the way the piano was set up...
(At this point one of the Film Center's managers, interrupted to talk to Dave about the show and some upcoming shows. One thing Dave asked the manager about was whether or not the film had credits, so he would know when to wrap things up, which was something I had not really thought about before.)
DD: So, uh, what was I saying?
GDD: You were just talking about how you weren't very interested in the stuff your band was playing at the time.
DD: Well, yeah. There was one bar I was playing in, and it had a grand piano, and when the top was up it reflected this TV that was above my head. So I couldn't help but watch this TV, it just had to be on I guess, so I was playing these tunes and watching the TV and I was thinking, "You know, this really gives me something to do." That was after I had already been doing movies for a while. Overall though, there is music I am trying to play that could be the whole show, where it wouldn't need to be part of people who want to see the film.
GDD: Its kind of interesting because in silent film its one of the only times when...its almost like you can, 80 years after a movie is made, set the mood yourself, depending on how you're playing or what you're playing or who is playing or whatnot. I was thinking about that the other day because you're going to be doing Nosferatu in a couple of weeks, and back in October I saw it at Music Box with their organist, and it was kid of interesting thinking about how the movie and my impressions of it might change depending on who was playing it and what they decided to play.
DD: Yeah, well sure. Thats where it all works is whether its the same movie but maybe you might feel differently about it depending on who is playing.
GDD: How much of a difference is there...like I'm sure you've done the Buster Keaton films many many times. Do you keep playing the same things, or after a while change it around and try something new?
DD: Well, it's always possible to change it around, and then there's times when I'm playing and I start to play something and I just go with it because I started to play before I thought. So, that's usually for the best, I think that if I try too hard to plan things that it doesn't work as well for some reason. I'm an improv based person, and I read better than average, I don't play classical music competitively but I can read OK because I play for ballet classes during the week. I do that four days a week, so that's mainly where I read. As a result I've seen all this stuff. So I get a lot of ideas about what you can play, and what people have probably heard, because all the music that kind of floats to the surface from those days is the most popular because there are still copies of it in the world. So yeah, like I learn how to play from written music like Strauss for instance. I can't play anything by Strauss from my head, yet I know where he turns the corners in his type of waltz. When I look at it I see chord changes and melody, whereas maybe a classical person would see something carved in stone. To me the notes on a page are always rolling all over the place. I think if I was only a classical player I would see everything set.
GDD: Well, a lot of that probably comes from your jazz background. The mentality of jazz as an improvisational form.
DD: Yeah, sure.
GDD: I was really surprised when your wife told me that sometimes you will play for movies you had never seen before.
DD: Sure.
GDD: How often does that happen?
DD: Well, I would say about 50-50 nowadays, which is an improvement over a few years ago where I would just show up and whatever it was I would try. It seems like I was very lucky, I played for all kinds of movies that never referred to anything specifically that I needed to know. For instance, this movie today refers to a song by Grieg so its like, "Well there's a music cue for ya!" They show the person turning the page, kind of focusing on the notes, and the woman is singing. So its like, at least I should TRY to play that.
GDD: But you really don't ever write out scores for anything do you?
DD: Well, no. Sometimes I cobble together bits of printed scores. Like I'll make photocopies of something and cut out this part and paste it all up and have somehitng that gives me something to go to and from. Then the rest is just whatever happens.
GDD: It really seemed like, I don't know how much of this is intentional, but when I saw you do Earth there's the scene where they're bringing the tractor into the town and its very montage-y and there are a lot of quick cuts and it really seemed like you were hitting on a lot of them. Is that something intentional that you try to do? Or is it something that just sort of happens? Or does it come to you while you're watching?
DD: Well, I think it just comes to me while its on. I couldn't say it was intentional. I'd like to! But I can't. The thing is I'm really orientated towards modern stuff. For instance, the 20's not only had jazz, but they had Stravinsky and Prokofiev and people who would write a few measures in one meter and then blam! They switch to another thing. They have tempo changes, they go from threes to fives to sevens to fours and all over the place. And thats part of the world of the 20's too. They had that, although when you see someone driving by in a Model-T you don't think Stravinsky. But it was there. So thats why for a super modern Bolshevik production I kind of fall into that kind of thing. For instance when I first got out of music school at Ohio State I couldn't write anything classical. It seemed like I was so into contemporary stuff that I couldn't help but write measures that were kind of oblique and I would write something that was essentially this and then it was essentially that. So I would go from a 5/4 to a 3/4 and really the big change for me was to be able to go backwards and be more classical. I mean, I was writing a lot of stuff at that time. So for me the big thing for me was to be able to do classical harmony as a thing to play.
GDD: When did that develop for you? Waas it as you were doing this? Or was it a part of doing this?
DD: I think it was really before. Because I was doing a kind of a comedy song and I had written the words, and I knew what kind of music I wanted the words to be with. Kind of a Bach kind of thing, and I couldn't do it. And then ten years later I could do it. So somehow in that ten years it sort of came to me. Maybe it was playing in the ballet schoools where I was forced to conform to eight bars. Whatever happens it has got to resolve in eight bars.
GDD: I read on a website somewhere that you have done some filmmaking yourself.
DD: Well yeah I did, I like to mess around with film. When I was in college I was in production class and did some 16mm. So I managed to do some short short films. And I had a chance to do synchronous sound but I never did, I would just make separate soundtracks and they would be on mag film, then I would synchronize them the way I wanted to on the machine. They had optical soundtracks, but I never did snych sound. 8mm is still here and 16mm is still here, although who knows for how long. So I still have some film stock that I want to try and do something with. Although it seems like more and more I'm more into combining it with found footage and stuff like that. I just don't have the means to do a production. Have you ever done it?
GDD: I've always wanted to. I did some digital stuff for a documentary I was working on that kind of fell apart. I've never done any film, although I went to school for photography so I've got that background. Editing digital was cool, and it allows you a lot of flexibility. But I mean, recently I saw this Kurosawa documentary and he's sitting in this editing bay with loops and loops of film draped around his neck. And when I was in photography the physicality of touching the film and the prints was a big part of it for me. And it seemed like working with real film would be such a more organic thing like it would bring you so much closer to what you were doing.
DD: Yeah, yeah, its really nice when you actually have to glue the two pieces together.

After this the conversation degenerated into chatting for a bit then David had to go and play, which was wonderful as always. Many thanks to David and Carol for setting this up and taking the time.

Replies: 5 comments

Thanks for this. Dave is the greatest! Bob Connelly

Posted by Bob Connelly @ 04/03/2003 04:46 PM CST

What happened to Cineblog??

Posted by stennie @ 05/30/2003 01:16 AM CST

I was wondering the same thing.

Posted by SM @ 07/17/2003 06:34 PM CST

Come back, Cineblog, come back....

Posted by Scott @ 07/26/2003 09:13 AM CST

Where's Cineblog???

Posted by Katie @ 09/02/2003 09:15 PM CST

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