Spontaneous sounds for the silver screen

Published 12:35 am Friday, September 30, 2011

In three weeks, Washington’s First Christian Church will be getting a special treat. Joseph Roenbeck, a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts and a former organist at the church, will be playing an improvisational musical accompaniment to the 1928 French silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. The accompaniment is played for the entire duration of the movie (about 85 minutes) with the exception of only one brief pause lasting mere seconds.

Roenbeck, 30, started improvising music for the movie when a friend asked him to do so for a showing at a Nashville film festival. He watched the movie repeatedly for inspiration until one time a series of notes came to him during the title screen. He uses that same sequence, with some variation for different moods and situations, as Joan’s theme throughout the movie. He also developed unique themes for the other characters and soon had a basic map for his accompaniment prepared.

Joseph Roenbeck will play an improvisational musical accompaniment to the 1928 French silent film ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ at the First Christian Church on Oct. 20 (Contributed Photo)

Despite using the same themes for all of his performances, each time Roenbeck plays it, it is different. He adds or changes things according to the feeling of the organ he is playing, so it is fresh and personalized each time.

“I’ll probably play this movie till the day I die,” Roenbeck said. “Every time I play it, it’s new. I never get tired of it. It never gets old.”

Roenbeck said the first two times he performed with the movie he was very nervous and it felt as if he were playing for much longer. By now, after doing this for two years, it flows from him naturally and with almost no effort.

“I started the opening theme and felt like I closed my eyes, and when I opened them there were flames [the final scene],” Roenbeck said about the last time her performed.

Playing the music for the film is a spiritual experience for Roenbeck. The film has touched him ever since the first time he watched it.

“Once I zoned into it, I actually cried.”

It was during a scene where priests are able to sneak in and give Joan communion.

“It still gives me chills just thinking about it right now.”

Also, Roenbeck is Catholic and Joan is a saint, so he has a certain reverence toward her story.

He loves playing the organ for its versatility and likens its different sounds to colors.

“I’m really into all those sounds and colors that can come out of the instrument … That’s why I moved away from the piano I grew up with and started playing the organ, because of the sound colors.”

He likes to play unconventional things on the organ sometimes to get different sounds and try new things. As a matter of fact, the first song he ever played on an organ was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.

On the other end of the spectrum, he enjoys going to assisted living facilities and playing jazz and music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

“I enjoy playing like this because it takes the organ and does something different than playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on it,” Roenbeck said.

Roenbeck’s favorite part of performing the accompaniment to the film is people’s reactions. When the movie is over, he likes to ask the audience what their favorite part was.

“Nine out of 10 times, they’ll say something in the movie, which is exactly how it’s supposed to be.”

Roenbeck wants the focus to be on the movie and his music to add to that, not distract. Hopefully the audience will enjoy it as much as he does.

“I have such a blast,” he says.

Roenbeck will be playing his improvisational 1920’s-style accompaniment to the movie at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, at the First Christian Church. The Passion of Joan of Arc focuses on her trial and the dialogue from it is taken from the actual transcripts of the trial.