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Musician Revives Silent Films With Live Scores

A musician is keeping a silent film tradition alive by performing the film scores in real time, most recently turning his sights on the 1927 film Metropolis, with a performance on the Barhydt Organ at Fairfield's Arts and Convention Center.

Most days, Indiana-based organist Robert Nicholls is the music director at the First Presbyterian Church in Evansville. But on some of his off-days, he performs live scores to silent films, a tradition that's largely disappeared. It's an artform worth that's worth reviving he says, and makes for a more visceral, unique experience.

“I kind of imagine I’m John Williams and I’m watching a Spielberg movie and how would I bring this time. What would the themes be? What is the plot? How does it develop? How does it move? Where are the climaxes?" Nicholls said. "And I try to create a score just right there on the spot.”

He made the trip to Fairfield to accompany a screening of the 1927 classic Metropolis. It's considered a masterpiece, and a touchstone not just for modern sci-fi and horror, but for cinematic storytelling writ large. The story follows a workers’ revolution against a despotic leader in a hyper-mechanized future society, and includes a mad scientist, a case of mistaken identities, and one of the first depictions of a robot on-screen.

Nicholls says scoring the film live makes it that much more compelling. And on top of that, he improvises the entire score, riffing and modulating throughout the entire 153 minute runtime. 

"I have a few sort of melodies up my sleeve which I assign to certain characters, which hopefully bring their character to life. Maybe something angular and aggressive for a nasty character and something lyrical and beautiful for a sweeter character," Nicholls explained. "And then they meld and they change and they move and they develop as the movie progresses."

Nicholls says his approach makes for a different experience every time, and not one an audience can get from a recording piped through a loud speaker. 

“If I were to sit down and the audience was to come back again, there would be some of the same themes and ideas, but it would be completely different," he said. "It’s a unique experience to come to one of these because you’ll never hear the same thing twice.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter