Organ and choral improv brings silent epic to life

Tom Mustashio
Tom Mustashio

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The music director of the Glen Ridge Congregational Church, Tom Mustachio, will have to be ready for anything Friday night as he improvises the score for a screening of the 1927 silent film epic, “King of Kings” on an organ.

Seated behind the screen, he will view the movie on a monitor and play along to the Cecil B. DeMille classic as an audience watches from the pews. During some parts of the movie, the Glen Ridge Choral Society will sing, also from behind the screen.
“King of Kings” was a big-budget blockbuster in its day, the second installation of DeMille’s trilogy, which included “The Ten Commandments” and “Sign of the Cross,” an early talkie.

Christ is portrayed by H.B. Warner, who was 51 years old at the time. Warner is perhaps most remembered as Mr. Gowers, the drunken pharmacist in the 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” whom the young George Bailey prevents from accidentally poisoning a customer. “King of Kings” was first shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif., and given its general release in 1928.

In an interview at the church last week, Mustachio said the movie has a running time of 112 minutes, about 45 minutes shorter than its original version. There is one color sequence in the version to be shown tomorrow night: when Christ is resurrected. The longer version had two color sequences. The film will be projected onto a 9-by-12-foot screen at the church.
Mustachio has seen the movie twice, once with sound and once without, imagining how the choral pieces would sound.

“That was my original idea,” he said, “to have the choir back there with me, to take a break from the organ and have a capella singing.”

When he viewed the movie, he discovered the soundtrack had a choir singing just where he was thinking of having the Glen Ridge Choir come in.

“I was shocked that the orchestra used the same idea, when the chorus came in,” he said. “It was like, ‘Hey man, you stole
my idea.’”

Mustachio said he has always been good at improvising, even as a child.
“It’s an emotional thing,” he said. “It’s a form of improvising, on the spot, without thinking about it. I suppose you’d call it ‘free improvisation.’”

While improvisation is part of Mustachio’s church work, he has also provided improvisations for industrial videos. Friday night’s screening is part of a concert series at the church, in which he has provided the score for other silent films, including “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu.” He has also improvised for the silent portion of the talkie “Singing in the Rain,” a movie about the Hollywood careers of two leading ladies during the transition to sound film.
Mustachio gave himself written cues for “Phantom of the Opera.” He is following the same method for “King of Kings,” and has also added eight parts for the choral society.

“They’re not improvising,” he said. “That would be too much to ask. They sing in mostly a neutral syllable, ‘nu’ or ‘no’. There are 30 singers.”

Improvisation comes spontaneously from his soul, Mustachio said, pointing out that back in the days of silent movies, organists and pianists would add popular songs to their accompaniments. Like them, Mustachio will occasionally use recognizable melodies tomorrow night.

“There’s some familiar hymns to anyone who grew up in the church,” he said.
The choir will also sing familiar tunes.

“When the little blind girl is brought to Jesus, right after that, the choir will sing, ‘Fairest Lord Jesus,’” he said. “Most churchgoing folk will know it.”

Mustachio had just rehearsed this part recently, recalling, “The choir was singing it and I stopped them. I told them about the scene and told them to sing it again and think about what I told (them).”

Mustachio said the change in emotional intensity moved him to tears.
“I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “It was magical to me — just the human spirit communicating with other people.”

He said the organ is a better instrument than a piano for the upcoming show. With its variety of stops to control the sound, the organ was the world’s the first synthesiser, he said. One concern he has is to not become so involved with improvising that he forgets to cue the choir. He added that performing “King of Kings” will be draining for him.

“I’ll be a wet mess at the end,” he said.
“King of Kings” will be screened Friday, March 11, at 8 p.m., at the Glen Ridge Congregational Church. It is part of the Glen Ridge Community Concert Series. An admission fee will be charged.