Peter Krasinski talks at length herein about his upcoming improvised accompaniment to “Wings” the Academy Award winner for Best Film of 1927, which pictorializes actual events from World War I, including the epic Battle of Saint-Mihiel. The film runs free next Saturday at Central Congregational Church, 296 Angell Street, Providence at 7:30 courtesy of the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
I met with Peter in Providence for this interview in the comfort of First Church of Christ, Scientist.
SM: So, Peter, how/what are you doing these days, post-pandemic as it were?
PK: It has been very hard for a few years now and on so many different levels, but I am full of gratitude, especially for the venues that had signed me on for performances, many of which are only beginning to happen now because of the lockdown. The government did finally come up with some help to those of us who are gig-workers. [Gig-workers is the term for freelance artists for whom unemployment benefits is a non-factor.] That we are finally being recognized is a really encouraging sign, and that is something that has grown out of the pandemic, so you might call it “a devastating gift”. In terms of what’s happening now, though, there is an explosion of performances because the desire to be back in person has not been this strong since the influenza pandemic when people were not so aware of best practices for safeguarding our health.
Now the window is slowly opening, people are more aware, and people are hopeful. Audiences have been so remarkably responsive to the idea of live performance, especially an improvised one. They don’t know what to expect; I don’t know what to expect. It becomes an event. An event over the phone is nothing, but an event with others sharing the same story with you…well…that’s really powerful stuff. It’s humanity; it’s what we are. It’s who we are. To see that coming back is heart-warming. That’s part of what we are going to be doing on the 21st, having a moment together experiencing something that happened so long ago and yet is so appropriate for now and today, and sharing both the tragedy of it, and the hope in it.
In terms of my liturgical work, I am very happy to still be at First Church of Christ, Scientist, and recently named house organist at Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC). That’s 3,000 people times six shows a weekend, close to 20,000 folks who get to hear a real theater pipe-organ. I have also been appointed along with a colleague at mission church in Boston, which is the Basilica of our Lady of Perpetual Hope. I can walk to that job; it’s close to where I live, and it’s like I walk to Mass in Paris every Saturday because it is such a magnificent acoustic, such a beautiful room. So, I am very grateful to be able to do something I love to do and be able to do it so much.
I am laughing because if we reversed our roles here, other than naming different places I’d be saying the same thing. In my liturgical work, we have had to re-envision what we do and how we do it.
During the pandemic the Christian Science Church zoomed audio only, but at the synagogue (Beth El Temple Center, Belmont) they zoomed a live service of just the rabbi, cantor, and organist, with family only in attendance for a live Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah. Suddenly a bed-ridden grandparent far away could now read the Torah online as part of their grandchild’s ceremony, something no-one would have thought of before. We are going to keep a lot of that.
We will all be doing that, because we can connect with people far and away where we couldn’t before.
When I was one of only three people to be in the synagogue, I recalled Tevye’s soliloquy in Fiddler on the Roof, where to sit all day in the synagogue and pray — that would be the sweetest gift of all. When you realize what you might have lost completely, you pay more attention to what you have. The gift is more precious, and you concentrate even more on making it beautiful.
Can you give me some background on the Providence Performing Arts Center?
The theater opened in 1928, originally a Loew’s State Theater. The 1927 Wurlitzer, or came from the Marbro Theater in Chicago. That theater was demolished in 1964 and the organ sold to a private owner. It was one of only 3 Wurlitzers with 5 keyboards, this one with 21 ranks of pipes plus lots of percussion and sound effects is the only one of those original three left, and the only remaining Wurlitzer organ that still retains all its original parts, apart from the winding systems which had to be replaced. [Patrons of the PPAC may remember the weekly organ recitals of Lincoln Pratt, who was its organist from 1982 until his passing in 1998. Krasinski continues that tradition through his Wonders of the Wurlitzer series. More on this organ can be seen and heard HERE.
What got you interested in theater and silent film in particular?
Theater organ was introduced to me when I was a child. My parents would bring me to hear the Stoneham Town Hall Theater Organ, [also a Wurlitzer built in 1930 from two previous organs, one from WNAC Studio in a hotel near Fenway Park, and the other from Brooklyn’s Windsor Theater, New York. The Town Hall acquired the organ in 1941/2. It is currently undergoing renovations according to its current organist, who formerly played at the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport, RI.] I have saved some of the 50-cent ticket stubs from these once-a-month outings, which sometimes took us to Symphony Hall or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as well as the Stoneham Town Hall. I always loved sitting in the front row and hearing the theater organist talk about the music and the instrument he played. When it came time for requests, I chimed in “how about Finlandia?” And he played it.
That is the piece I will open with as the Prelude to the Providence screening of ‘Wings’ this week. What a good chunk of art! You have tension and release, anger, victory, and calm all wrapped up in a single work ― it makes a political statement about war and peace, and that is what we have going on now in Europe.
As a child I loved to color with crayons while listening to music, so I almost always associated something visual and colorful with music. I remember my sisters putting me in a dark room with Ravel’s Sunrise scene from Daphnis and Chloé and opening the shades one by one to reveal the light. Now I reverse the process, creating joy through the musical art on my chosen instrument from something visually on a screen.
Are you using that experience to create a bridge between past, present and future?
Oh yes, yes, and that’s a heavy question. I get very emotional about that. This film, when I was talking about it for the first time it was with the head of the British Soldiers Fund, which was based in America, and I started to cry about the film. World War I was a time of invention, that included more efficient ways of killing. The man who invented the machine gun hoped it’s killing capacity would incline us more towards brokering peace so we would not have to resort to utilizing it. A similar sentiment held forth during the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) years of the Cold War regarding nuclear weapons. So now, we are showing a movie that is almost a hundred years old because the message is still viable today, showing the futility of war and the necessity for love. The film is in a way saying “We should have known this” – all you must do is read a history book to know we have been messing up this way for centuries. It pains me that we are still not getting it. That’s why I cry. [Here we both shared a good cry.]
The other part of this that is important to say is that we have been given a wake-up call because of the situation in Ukraine. We are only noticing because they are European, they look like us, and we thought this was over with. But what about the Uyghur, or the Afghan, the cauldron of the Middle East, Darfur, Sudan, and so much more heartbreak throughout the world. It is depressing but there is hope, in part, because there is art to help us find the way. Art speaks out against what is happening in the world. That includes film, which is an important art form. And the music of film, an important part of that art form, because it gives an even more compelling voice to the message of the film.
It is also about decisions and choices we make as human beings, and some of the hard questions we must face. Who will we choose as leaders? How do we “turn the other cheek?” or should we, and what about those who take economic advantage of war? While it looked like there was a right side and a wrong side, there was profiteering from both sides. How much of that sort of thing are we willing to ignore? Or are we just too scared to do anything at all?
Isn’t it something of an irony that Volodymyr Zelensky was a comic actor, an artist, before donning the mantle of leadership of the Ukrainian people?
What an interesting comparison it would be to compare him to Charlie Chaplin. When Chaplin was working, he was the most famous person in the world. At least I have heard that, I don’t know if it is true. Chaplin along with other United Artists actors were instrumental in obtaining funding for the war effort in World War I. Now here is Zelensky, a comedian, who was asked prior to the invasion if he would capitulate in the face of it, he replied “no, I am an actor, and I must play my part.”
I should mention here, as my grandfather is beckoning from the grave, that I will show just prior to the film my grandfather’s tags from having served in that war. And they will be with me when I play this movie.
Do you have any final thoughts about music and improvisation and where we are going?
Improvisation is still a very much misunderstood art. Much of it goes to instinct and intuition, but there are also anchor-posts. I like to talk about Ella Fitzgerald because when she ‘scats’ you still know what the song is, because she knows what the song is. A good improvisation is not just made up, it should resemble a real piece, having form and function, and a reason for being, a purpose. When I approach a film improvisation, I use the film as the “theme” – and I try to sense that the director is standing right behind me, with their hand on my shoulder, hoping to impart to me their vision of what the movie and its music conveys.
I imagine every performer wants to convey the wishes of the composer, even if they feel compelled to inject a bit of themselves into the music as well.
If you want to follow your own muse that’s perfectly fine in the confines of one’s home, but when improvising for the public, one should be mindful of the message. I also feel knowing music theory is important because it helps you to repeat those things that work. If you can analyze something that is unfolding before you in the moment and then can repeat it, you then have the beginnings of form. People like to come home, that is why A-B-A and sonata-forms, even themes with variations all work. The audience recognizes something familiar, and it comforts them.
Going back to the film, my job is to narrate the film musically, but I want the film to speak for itself as well. I’ve discovered something called “visual rhythm” – a natural conjunction that melds the music to the movie in even the most subtle of details. A lot of that has to do with the motion of the music but also the sound. That brings us to the instrument at Central Congregational Church [more on this organ here], an Aeolian-Skinner worked on by Nelson Bardon, with its deep throated reeds – that gives you engines and airplanes, and things that make lots of noise, even bombs. In music we use the term “madrigalism” to refer to the sound effects part of it. But in addition to the sonic, there are some other aspects of a film that should also be taken literally, so if there is dance in a film, play a dance. If a specific piece is named in a film, then play it. That said, the music should not obliterate the film by drawing attention to itself.
If you read this article, I hope you won’t pay attention to anything I’ve said, but just come and be a part of the event, not just watching the movie and hearing the music, but becoming part of it, put yourself in the war, despise the despicable, fall in love with heroes and heroines. Don’t analyze the music or even the film. Just let it speak to you.
***When Peter played “Wings’ to World War I veterans on the 100th Anniversary of the Signing of the Armistice in 1918, e son of the director William Wellman did the intoductions. That treasured memory prompted me to ask of his hopes for the future.
Yes, there is hope , if we can learn from the mistakes of the past.
See and hear more on Peter Krasinski HERE
Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island and teaches at Rhode Island College.
Peter Krasinski is House Organist, Providence Performing Arts Center, and Organist for First Church of Christ, Scientist, Providence, RI, Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Boston, Beth El Temple Center, Belmont, MA, and a Past Dean, Boston Chapter American Guild of Organists