Q & A: Judith Rosenberg and the Craft of Improvisation

Beth Hillman

Judith Rosenberg, a renowned dance musician, has composed and performed scores for faculty and students at Mills College for over thirty-five years. Since 2001, her improvisations have conjured musical moods for another genre: silent film. Rosenberg, who launched this second career at PFA Theater, performs here frequently; throughout November and December, she’ll accompany a handful of films in a series of Carl Theodor Dreyer films, including screenings of The Parson’s Widow and Love One Another on Sunday, November 7.

In this interview, Rosenberg talks about the fortuitous encounter that led to her start as a silent film accompanist, and the craft of developing on-the-spot harmonies.

I read that you got into silent film accompaniment through an experience at BAM/PFA. Can you tell me about that?

About ten years ago, I came to the BAM/PFA with my next-door neighbor to see an Italian diva film festival, and we went to several screenings. During one of those evenings, I heard a pianist play, and I said to my friend, “I could do that.” It had been in the back of my mind for years that it would be a wonderful thing to do, but I had never acted on it. It took my friend to sort of nudge me in the direction of [former PFA Director] Edith Kramer during intermission. I told her about my background, that I had been improvising for most of my life, and she said, “We’re always looking for new pianists.” I was pleasantly surprised by that response. She invited me to play for The Crowd, which was the first silent film I ever did—a wonderful film, very dramatic. And she had never heard me play a note! I remember it was for a class held on a Wednesday afternoon, and the professor started by lecturing about the film and what had happened to several of the actors, and I got very upset— he told the story of how the male lead actor committed suicide by jumping in the East River in New York. And then he said: “Let’s all welcome Judith Rosenberg. She’s never played for a film before.” And I just thought, “Well, thanks a lot.” … But it went fine.

Had you been practicing?

I was able to rent the film from Reel Video—which doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately. A lot of films have scores, so I was able to study the film with the score and model my playing after what the composer had done. I came up with my own music, but I used the score as a structural guide. I watched the film maybe three or four times, and I thought it would be good to play for an audience, so I performed it for two or three people in my apartment as practice.

Did this come naturally to you, or was there a period of trial and error?

Absolutely - trial and error. I’ve been doing this for about ten years now. I keep a list with a synopsis of every movie I’ve done, and I was looking through it one day and saw that I had written, “I’m getting better.” You just know — there’s a certain point when you just feel that things are getting better; I’ve felt that for the last two or three years. It wasn’t a totally new experience because I’ve been improvising in many different styles for forty years or more. I refer to it has having trust in your hands; the music seems to flow out of me, and I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to play next. I’ve been playing for modern dance for many years, and that’s fabulous preparation for playing for film… I’ve had practice churning out music in different styles and responding to the dancers’ demands, which change quickly. I’m trained to look at movement and gesture. I’ve also learned that I don’t have to be on them musically every single second; I leave space—allegorical space—around certain movements… It’s all part of trying to capture the mood. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been fascinated by harmonic chords in music and how they can capture and evoke different emotions.

So, when you play for silent films, you’re working to create a mood for the film.

…I’m creating a sound world, harmonic world, a stylistic world that will in some way capture the mood of the whole movie. Then I create a limited number of themes and develop those themes. One of the age-old devices is to use leitmotifs, which is simply a little tune that is associated with a character, so that when you hear that tune or a certain instrument, immediately, as an audience, you associate it with a certain character. That’s what I start with, and you have to develop the material as you go along, because if you just repeat, the audience will get bored.

You make all that look so easy. How hard is this for you?

Some films are easier than others— but it’s not that easy if it’s done well. But it’s not magic either. I’ve studied musical theory, and all these different eras of classical music, the medieval up through the present, so I understand how a piece of music is put together. People come up to me and say, ‘How do you do that?!’ — but it’s a craft. Through dance, for years, I’ve explored musical styles and developed material. When you learn theory, you learn how the great composers created their works and you think about those things.

Do you ever play for films you’ve never seen before? How does that work?

I generally have a little synopsis, so that I know something about it, if it’s serious or a comedy. It’s generally a good idea to start off simply, without too much of a commitment musically, until you see the first scene. Then you just respond to what you are looking at. When you look at that first scene, on the spot, you are forced to come up with a theme, and then you proceed.

You describe your method as “structured improvisation.” Can you explain that?

That’s a term that I borrowed from the dancers. You don’t just make up any old thing and sort of invent new musical ideas without any kind of unity. You commit yourself to a couple of different contrasting themes and work with them…and you musically explore these building blocks you establish at the beginning. Once in awhile, I establish something and it’s not working for me and I have to switch gears. You cannot be as continuous as a symphonic work, because you’re at the mercy of what’s going on onscreen. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t bring things back. The audience feels psychologically comfortable when they recognize something that they have heard before; it helps them feel like they understand what is going on.

Why do you like playing for silent films? What about it is fulfilling for you?

…There’s a magical moment that sometimes occurs when I become one with a film—not me, but the music. It doesn’t get better than that. It’s a magical thing that happens through the course of the film, when it feels like there’s an inevitability about the music and what’s coming on screen— they seem to be so perfectly suited to each other. I’m not in complete control of it. It just kind of happens, because the creative process is 99% craft and 1% mystery. You can say it comes from the universe, from God, from my subconscious, but there’s this possibility for this magical moment to happen. Playing for film is the most artistic freedom that I’ve ever known. When I sit down to play, I could do anything I want; I can move this film in several different directions. That is a fabulous freedom, and it comes from years and years of work and exploration… The best compliment I can get is that I disappear, that you aren’t really paying attention to me, because it’s not about me. You can’t help but hear the music, but you’re coming there for the overall aesthetic experience. Your job as an audience member is to immerse yourself in the film. You’re not supposed to be paying a lot attention to what I’m doing; you look at the film. I’m supposed to help you look.

Learn more about Judith Rosenberg and her upcoming performances at her website, www.judyrosenbergsilent.com. Rosenberg also performs at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont.