When Marta Waterman was a toddler, she didn’t bang on the piano like other children, but, according to her mother, “listened and tried to make it sound pretty.” When she later learned to read music, the young girl had played so much by ear that “It was like learning to read English, in that it was a language I already knew.”
That special gift of playing by ear has enabled Waterman to resurrect a lost art: playing piano accompaniment to the showing of silent films. On the afternoon of the first Sunday of each month, the pianist has been improvising her live accompaniment to films starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other icons of the silent era.
“I bring my electric piano and set it up in the front of the Rosendale Theatre,” explained Waterman, speaking to this reporter by phone from Hawaii, where she was performing meditative music with her son, David Wilcock, and Grammy Award-winning producer Larry Seyer at a conference. “As I watch the film, I create a soundscape that hopefully enhances the experience of watching the movie.”
She does lots of advance preparation, watching the film multiple times to learn its pacing and subject. She also does extensive research in order to understand the background story and characters. For last December’s showing at Rosendale of five Chaplin shorts, “I took copious notes. Pratfalls happen, and I had to be ready to make a noise with the piano.” She never transfers her compositions onto a score: “I can hear everything in my head. I do a lot of practicing without ever touching the piano.”
Waterman also incorporates period styles, from classical to ragtime to jazz to music from the 1890s. February’s showing of The Cameraman, starring Buster Keaton, was a romantic comedy, similar in feel to the Chaplin shorts. However, Joan of Arc, which showed in January, was a different animal and incredibly challenging. “The film was about her trial and getting burned at the stake. It is difficult to watch, and the movie portrays her as frightened and weak, which she was not. She was the one figure in the Hundred Years’ War that turned it around for France, so France is now French and not British.”
To get a better understanding of the character, Waterman read books about Joan of Arc in both English and French (half-French, she is fluent in the language), which made the accompaniment easier because “I knew I could do it very strongly.” Nonetheless, “I was wiped out by the time the movie finished playing.”
Now preparing for the March 3 Rosendale screening of Phantom of the Opera, Waterman said that accompanying these silent jewels “is like skating on thin ice. If I stop playing, there’s nothing. I love to do it, and it’s really fun; but you’ve got to be able to compose on the spot.”
She discovered her knack for accompanying silent films in the 1990s, when she filled in for a piano accompanist who canceled at the last minute for a showing of silent films at the Saratoga Film Festival. Waterman said that she is developing a special performance niche: A representative from the Laurel and Hardy International Association, based in Ellenville, recently contacted her about doing some piano accompaniment.
When she’s not researching her silent film gigs, Waterman teaches music at the College of St. Rose; gives piano and voice lessons out of her home, located outside Stone Ridge; and performs at restaurants, clubs and other venues. She grew up in upstate New York, attended college in Philadelphia and lived in South Florida before moving to the Hudson Valley in 2002. One of her first gigs in the area was playing piano at Le Canard Enchainé, the French restaurant in Kingston.
Waterman credits artist and musician Robert Adsit, who passed away in 1994, with giving her the confidence and incentive to accompany her first silent film, The General, at the Saratoga Film Festival. “I developed a theme for a couple of the characters and improvised everything else. I was playing on a grand piano and it was awesome.”
Waterman will be accompanying The Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney, at the Rosendale Theatre on March 3 starting at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $7 general admission, $5 for Rosendale Theatre Collective members. Safety Last, starring Harold Lloyd, will be the final film shown in the series, on April 7.
The Phantom of the Opera with live piano accompaniment, Sunday, March 3, 2 p.m., $7/$5, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989, www.rosendaletheatre.org.