A life alongside the movies

Hank Troy on the art of silent film accompaniment

Listen to Hank Troy play alongside such films as Show People during Chautauqua’s Silent Film Series.

Coloradoans haven’t been lacking for silent film lately. Whether it’s Howie Movshovitz presenting Sunrise at this year’s Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder, or the Denver Silent Film Festival at the Alamo Drafthouse in April, the kings and queens of the silent screens are alive and well in the Centennial State.

Though these movies may be silent, Hank Troy isn’t. He is the ace pianist whose music accompanies silent stars as they flicker up on the screen.

Troy is an institution in the silent film scene and with another summer upon us, Colorado moviegoers have the opportunity to hear Troy once more at the Chautauqua Silent Film Series starting on June 1.

For 31 years, Chautauqua has been presenting a line-up of silent movies, and for all 31 Troy has sat next to Chautauqua’s 30-foot screen and played along with the action — just a man at the piano, watching a movie and filling the room with music.

“[The movies] are just so satisfying,” Troy says.

And with this year’s line-up, Troy, and the audiences, will have five opportunities to catch a good movie: The General (June 1), Show People (June 7), The Cameraman (July 6), The Kid (July 20) and a Harold Lloyd double feature, For Heaven’s Sake and Number Please (Aug. 9).

Though these five programs offer emotionally complex movies, none of them are complicated. Nor is Troy’s approach to musically accompanying them.

“The idea is that you match the mood with the music,” Troy explains. “You match it as best you can with the music you are playing. And so that’s, in fact, what it was called: mood music.”

Hank Troy has added piano accompaniment to silent films since 1971.
Hank Troy has added piano accompaniment to silent films since 1971. Courtesy of Hank Troy

Troy’s journey with mood music began in 1971, when a routine movie experience turned into a lifetime opportunity.

“The presenter at the Denver Folklore Center [Al Miller] was showing [silent] films using needle drop records for accompaniment,” Troy recalls. “I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘I would like to try this and accompany these films for you.’”

Troy got the gig as a live accompanist, but in 1971, silent film was only 50 years old, and did not yet have the appreciation that has built in the last 40 years. Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s seminal 13-part survey of the period, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, was still a decade off and Troy didn’t have the research at his finger tips.

“There was material, but I didn’t know about it,” Troy says. “So I was improvising, I was just kind of plunging in.

“There were books that had been written in the ’20s — teens and ’20s — to tell people how to do this,” Troy continues. “I couldn’t find any of that music right at that time, but I did find ideas within the books that were describing how to do this. … I got the idea pretty quick.”

The idea being simply to match the mood of the music with the emotion of the image. That idea came to Troy almost instinctively, most likely from his practice as a classical musician.

“I’m always listening to the classical composers with an ear for what can I use from this,” Troy continues. “That’s where a lot of the dramatic stuff comes from.”

Troy draws primarily on 19th Century romantic/classical repertoire. Though 45 years behind the keyboard has seasoned and deepened Troy’s abilities, he still relies heavily on the improvisation that got him going in the first place.

“I have some cassette tapes of when I first started, and my ability and style is so similar [to today] it’s frightening,” Troy says with a chuckle. “I would like to think I am really evolved and changed, but I don’t think so.”

And that’s just fine with Chautauqua moviegoers, who have come to love Troy’s aural additions to these classics.

One of which, 1928’s Show People from esteemed director King Vidor, is the movie that Troy urges people to see. In fact, it is one of the movies Troy lobbied to have shown at this year’s series.

Starring Marion Davies, Show People is a fascinating take on the business of Hollywood, one where reality and fantasy run parallel. Yet, it isn’t the story that attracts Troy to Show People, but the structure. Years back, Troy had the pleasure of meeting King Vidor at the Telluride Film Festival and learned about the director’s background as a mandolin player. This further opened up Vidor’s films to Troy and showed how they continue to resonate.

“He had a sense of rhythm,” Troy says. “And that’s evident in his films.”

Show People, like most of the movies offered at Chautauqua’s series, is 80-plus years old. Yet it plays just like a current release.

“Surely there is a distinction in our minds with these old films,” Troy says. “Because they were experimenting, they were trying to figure out how to do it. Some of them are a little cruder than others for that reason, and then there are ones that just knock your socks off, because they’re so well done.

“If you were to go today to see a movie — first-run movie or an art-house movie — you’d be expecting a good movie,” Troy says. “You would want to have something that is satisfying, that is well-acted and well-photographed. It’s the same thing with silent films. … It’s not a matter of saying, ‘Oh, it’s a silent film,’ the point is, it’s a good film.

“In my opinion, it’s a matter of those aesthetics,” he says. “Not making the distinction that it’s a 90- or a 100-year-old film, but that’s it a good film. And let’s go see it.”

On the Bill: Chautauqua Summer Film Series. June 1–Aug. 9, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, 303-442-3282, chautauqua.com. The General (June 1), Show People (June 7), The Cameraman (July 6), The Kid (July 20), For Heaven’s Sake and Number Please (Aug. 9).

Previous articleWhat does it mean to ‘gig’ American workers?
Next articleA global New Deal