Carolyn Swartz began accompanying silent films 30 years ago while living in Berlin. She was friendly with folks who ran a film festival, and they needed a replacement pianist.
“The pianist was in his 90s, and he was ready to stop. They said, ‘Do you want to accompany the silent films?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ It was performance art,” she said. “I knew nothing about the film until I saw it.”
Swartz now lives in Portland and accompanies the monthly silent films presented by the arts collective Kinonik at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. Her next performance is accompanying “Storm Over Asia” at 7 p.m. Monday, May 20.
These days, she often has the chance to see the films before they screen, thanks to YouTube and other advances in the past 30 years. But it’s still a bit like performance art. Classically trained and accomplished at jazz, Swartz uses the range of her musical acumen when accompanying the silent films, drawing on her improvisational skills to respond to what she experiences in the moment and her knowledge to weave existing motifs into her performance.
“It’s a very visceral response to what I see on the screen,” she said. “I actually really love it. I must go into some kind of an altered space. There is nothing nerve-wracking or tedious or scary about it. I’ve always played by ear since I was 4 or 5. I am not a composer, but the sounds and the tunes are somewhere in there.”
Swartz moved from New York last fall, returning to a city where she lived and performed music in the 1970s. She resides around the corner from the St. Lawrence, and heard about the Kinonik series through talk in the neighborhood. She was told she should get in touch with Peter Weed and Andy Graham, local film enthusiasts who sit on the Kinonik board. Six months later, Swartz not only accompanies the silent films, she occupies a seat on the Kinonik board.
Weed said the series has drawn well, with solid attendance for rarely screened films. He credits Swartz for the popularity of the series. She brings credible performances to the experience, he said. Most people have watched silent films that are shown at the wrong speed or that have “ridiculous inauthentic soundtracks” that diminish and disrespect the theatrical experience, he said.
“Seeing these films the way they were meant to be seen makes a huge difference, ” Weed said. “Carolyn is a really solid player. Musicians who attend are in awe of the level of her playing and the experience that she brings.”
Kinonik’s goal is exposing people to projected film – it only shows 16mm films – and providing a place for discussion before and after the film. In addition to the silent films at St. Lawrence, it shows noir films at Space.
“We want to reach younger audiences, to expose 20-year-olds and millennials to less familiar films from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and into the ’60s in a theatrical setting,” Weed said.
“Storm Over Asia” is a 1928 Russian film directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin, considered a master of Russian filmmaking. The movie promotes Russian heroism and is one in a series of films that Pudovkin made about the Russian revolution.
“This film is pretty much unseen. It’s not that it is not available, but it’s not something people are aware of,” Weed said. “We are very excited by the notion of showing something that people haven’t had a chance to see, and broaden horizons.”
Juris Ubans, a retired professor from the University of Southern Maine and film collector, owns several dozen silent films and helps plan the series. He also praised Swartz’ contributions to the film experience. “Carolyn is a creative artist dealing with the issues that are raised in the film and she is transforming them musically. It’s like booster shot to the film,” Ubans said.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday, May 20
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $10 advance, $12 at the door; stlawrencearts.org
COMING UP: “October,” June 17; “The Big Parade,” July 15; “The Circus,” Aug. 19; “Tomas Graal’s Best Child,” Sept. 16; “The Last Laugh,” Oct. 21; “Charleston Parade” and “The Little Match Girl,” Nov. 18; “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Dec. 16.