Silent-film comedy made funnier by Freudmann

Black and white silent films may seem like dinosaurs to a generation reared on Dolby sound and spectacular special effects.

But one of those dinosaurs is still No. 62 on the American Film Institute’s list of the funniest films of all time. And when it plays Saturday at the Walters Cultural Arts Center, one of the best parts won’t be the film at all — it will be the live music accompanying it, thanks to cellist and composer Gideon Freudmann.

In theaters back in the 1920s, silent films were usually accompanied live by piano or organ. That would have held true for comedian Buster Keaton’s 1924 “Sherlock Jr.,” the 45-minute story of a movie-theater projectionist and janitor — who was also studying to be a detective — who competes with a sheik to win the heart of a pretty girl over a cheap box of chocolates.

Time magazine called it a great example of American minimalism — simple objects and movement manipulated in casually complex ways to generate a steadily rising gale of laughter.

Keaton’s slapstick gags and deadpan humor still get laughs, especially when Freudmann’s electric cello is there to help.

“While the on-screen story is compelling, the music brings another dimension to the action,” said Freudmann, who is internationally recognized for his innovative compositions.

His silent film soundtracks include “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The General,” “Metropolis,” “Pandora’s Box,” “Nosferatu,” “The Golem” and “Frankenstein.”

A huge Keaton fan, Freudmann said “Sherlock Jr.” is funny, fast-paced and filled with the usual assortment of gags.

“He [Keaton] is extremely expressive and has an amazing ability to say so much about the human condition with a simple look or gesture,” Freudmann said. “The characters he plays are always good-hearted, tenacious, and he always get the girl!”

Musically, according to Freudmann, the film has two distinctly different settings: one in which “our hero” plays his “real” self — the insecure movie projectionist — and another in which he plays the title character during a lengthy dream sequence — a debonair, ultra-confident detective.

“Each calls for a distinctly different musical treatment,”s aid Freudmann, who began playing classical cello at age 8 and has a college degree in cello performance.

To help silent movies resonate with modern audiences, Freudmann uses blues, jazz and other contemporary music. When scoring a film, he watches it several times and familiarizes himself with the various characters, dramatic sequence of events and pacing of the film. Then he develops themes that represent a particular character, setting or scenario. At exactly the right moment in the film, he’ll add a melody, chord progression or sound effect.

His digital effects include echoing and “looping” with a machine that lets him play a phrase, then have it loop back so he can add more layers to it.

Freudmann also composes music for theater, dance and sometimes television.

His first live silent-film performance was “Phantom of the Opera” for a college Halloween show in Massachusetts.

Hesitant at first, Freudmann called it daunting, but fun and rewarding in the end. He still enjoys the challenge.

“Once the film starts I need to play nonstop until it’s over,” he said. “It’s a bit of an endurance test.”

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