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The movie music man

Organ Loft accompanist looking to share his expertise with others

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For being all about sound, music is a surprisingly visual medium, able to portray events and feelings in dramatic ways. So, it's not surprising that, from the very first, music and movies have shared a special relationship.

Nowadays, music is built right in. But, said local movie historian Hunter Hale, back in the days of those first choppy, silent movies, the idea was that piano music could drown out the sound of the projector. "They soon realized that the right kind of music could have a powerful effect on the movie experience."

Theater organs were invented, musicians were hired to play accompanying music, separate scores were sometimes written and sometimes improvised on the spot. And movies would never be the same.

There is still a lot of interest in old silent movies accompanied by live organ music, said Blaine Gale, who plays "the Mighty Wurlitzer" at Salt Lake's Organ Loft. The theater sponsors a fall and spring silent-movie classic film festival each year. And the music plays an integral part. "Nothing better describes emotions, heightens suspense and intensifies drama," said Gale.

At the same time, his goal as organist is to be invisible. "When the music is performed at its very best," Gale said, "it disappears into the movie and pulls the audience with it. If you play it right, you, all 2,400 pipes in four surrounding chambers and the sound effects mounted in plain view above the audience, will stay invisible."

The applause that comes at the end of the show is for the entire entertainment experience. "Then, as if suddenly awakened, the audience will realize the musician is due some recognition." This double-take is what the organist really looks for, he said.

The theater organ is much different from a church organ, said Hale. It is more like a one-man orchestra, with the ability to produce sounds of drums, tambourines and other instruments, as well as effects ranging from doorbells to train whistles to ocean waves.

And Hale says it takes a special talent not only to play it but to accompany movies. "Timing is essential," Hale said, adding that Gale is very good at it. "I've seen him sit down without even seeing the movie in advance and start playing and get almost all the sounds perfectly synchronized with the action. Not many can do that."

The wrong music can clearly ruin the film. "It really is the other half of the art form," said Hale.

Gale came to his interest in organ music at an early age. He grew up in Payson, in a home with an old pump organ belonging to his grandfather. "As soon as I could reach the keyboard, I began trying to play. But I could only pump with one foot because I had to stand on the other one. That put extra stress on that one side, which would break down. But instead of telling me not to play, Grandpa would grit his teeth and fix the pump."

Because of that interest, Gale began taking piano lessons at age 7 and continued after the family moved to Salt Lake City. "I must confess, I was more interested in basketball. But my mother made me practice. She said, 'Some day you'll thank me for this.' And I sure do now."

Even so, Gale said, the lessons were not entirely a success. "I only wanted to play music. I was not interested in the finger exercises and the drudgery of practice. "

He wanted to play Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto, and his teacher wouldn't let him. So he quit the lessons. "My biggest tickle was going to the music store and buying a version of the work, learning to play it and then going back to play for my teacher. She cried."

There were both good and bad sides to his approach, and it's not exactly one that Gale recommends. "I depended on my ears. But I didn't learn the structure of music, the academic culture of music. I didn't earn the title 'musician,' and I sometimes look at where I might have gone had I done that."

But the positive side, he said, is that he developed an ability to appreciate the language of music. "You don't just make music with your fingers. You feel an emotion that needs to be expressed, and you use music as the language to speak it."

He got into theater organ music in San Francisco, where he hung out around an old theater and learned by watching the organist. "He taught me to feel what I was looking at on the screen." It has become a life-long avocation; his career has been spent in the Air Force and Reserves, working in human resource management.

There's a "bit of an awesome responsibility" to accompanying the film, Gale said. But, he uses a lot of familiar themes. "You can almost pre-set the response of the audience by throwing in something familiar; it tells them how to feel about what they are looking at."

What is most exciting about doing live performances, he said, is the interaction with the audience. "I can play the same movie five times in a row, and it is different each time, based on the audience and how they respond. I may milk the sadness or the horror, if they are receptive to that."

But when the movie and the music and the audience all come together, it is exciting. And being a part of it is something that he wouldn't trade for anything. But it is something he would like to share. The big problem right now, Gale says, is that while interest in old movies with live accompaniment is growing, interest in being an accompanist is not.

Currently, in addition to the Organ Loft, two other venues have theater organs — the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City and the Egyptian Theater in Ogden. They would both like to mount regular showings of silent movies. "The surge in interest in silent movies is probably as great as it has been since the talkies started," said Gale.

But there are only a few other people in the area who can or will play the organs. "More live accompanists are needed to meet this growing demand," he said.

He is willing — and eager — to teach anyone who is interested in the art. He knows a lot of it is intuitive. "It's like teaching how to ride a bicycle. I can't tell you how to balance; that's something you have to learn on your own. But I can give you enough information to help you go and do it."

Gale is working with local schools and universities to try to get theater organ as part of the curriculum. "We need to establish a culture for this kind of music, just as there is for other kinds of organ music. 'Playing by ear' gets little respect and is regarded as an unworthy goal for musical study."

He realizes he climbed the mountain from the wrong side, but Gale says, "I think I can help those who have climbed the mountain in the correct way. They have to learn to feel the chords, to know the sound, so that when the lights are out, they can still play. The toughest hurdle is people who can't play with the book closed."

He is building some support locally, he said. For a long time, "followers of theater organs have championed the instrument, and followers of the movies have championed the silent movies. But there has been no champion for the accompanists. Yet they bring as much to society as any of the other fine arts."

Because, Gale said, movies are simply not the same without music. "This is music as a language, not necessarily for music's own sake. This is music that lets the heart express what words cannot. And no language on earth is more eloquent. No art form is more immediate in its impact and consequence."

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com