Pianist and composer Peter Tavalin will bring an iconic silent film to life with a score improvised and performed live during a free film screening of the classic silent film Steamboat Bill, Jr.
In the 1928 comedy starring Buster Keaton, two college students return to the South after attending college in Boston and fall in love despite both of their fathers’ objections. The couple’s romance goes awry with prat falls, floods, a tornado, and other slapstick adventures. The film includes Keaton’s most famous and dangerous stunt when the entire two-ton façade of a house crashes to the ground around him while he stands in the precise location of an open second-story window.
Local resident Peter Tavalin has improvised live scores for more than 25 silent films during the past 30 years and has performed at film festivals, First Night celebrations, universities, and public schools across the country. Trained at the Berklee College of Music, he plays a synthesizer to create a modern sensibility that conveys the sounds of an entire orchestra.
“The synthesizer provides a big palette of sounds,” he said. “Simple, sweet strings with a flute for one scene, brass blaring for another with cymbals crashing when the action on the screen gets more frantic.”
Steamboat Bill, Jr. has been referenced in many movies that followed, beginning with Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, which was released six months later and debuted Mickey Mouse.
“Before sound in films, the actors relied on body language to tell the story, and the music was always live in theaters and integral to the film’s success,” Tavalin said. “Since I’m improvising, I can play the same movie over and over again and it still feels fresh to me.”
In 1980, a friend and theater owner in Brattleboro, Vermont asked Tavalin to improvise a live score for the 1926 Buster Keaton film The General. “Two minutes into watching the movie, I was hooked,” he said. “I already knew what I could add to the experience because I grew up learning jazz so I’m comfortable with improvisation.”
Tavalin said he only has to watch a film twice before he can improvise a score. The best compliment he has received is when an audience member forgets he is playing live and thinks the score was composed for the film.
Tavalin also teaches piano and plays in the High Standards jazz group. You can learn more about him atpetertavalin.com. He and his wife moved to Takoma Park in 2021 to be closer to their daughter and her family.
“Takoma Park has a great sense of community and the City’s Takoma Park Arts series offers a great level of support for local performers and artists,” he said. “After performing at other venues from New England to Florida, I’m excited to debut this performance here in Takoma Park.”
The Takoma Park Arts series is organized by the City’s Arts and Humanities Division and includes free film screenings, art exhibitions, poetry readings, theater, and dance performances at the Takoma Park Community Center at 7500 Maple Avenue. No tickets or reservations are required. You can sign up for our weekly e-newsletter to receive more info at takomaparkmd.gov/arts.Learn more