When Brett Miller first saw a live organ accompany a silent film — the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium — he was stunned.
“Oh, I want to do this,” he thought to himself. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to be a film accompanist.”
He was 10.
Miller, now 17 and a junior at Pennridge High School in Bucks County, estimates he’s since accompanied more than 60 silent films at locations from the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville to the Loew’s in Jersey City.
While his classmates are waiting tables and pushing shopping carts, Miller made an after-school job out of a beautiful but bygone profession.
On a recent Wednesday night at the Princeton Garden Theatre, Miller accompanied a silent double feature using the traveling organ he and his father, Scott, built together.
“If it was baseball, I’d be a coach, but it was music, so I figured I’d better learn how to nail an organ together,” Scott said of his son’s talent.
By connecting the organ to a laptop and then to the theater’s sound system, Miller can replicate 41 sounds from church bells to violins.
As leading man Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckled his way through the 1926 film The Black Pirate, Miller created the auditory landscape.
An exploding ship sounded like a barge horn. A snare drum accompanied a man walking the plank. A festive feast was loud. Lingering love was soft. Sneaking was staccato. Fire was legato.
And somehow, in the middle of it all, Miller faded away.
“The best compliment I can get is ‘I forgot you were playing,’ because it’s my job as an accompanist to completely disappear,” he said.
Miller often feeds off the audience while performing. It’s one of the reasons he encourages people to boo, hiss, and cheer during the films.
“It’s an experience that’s really audience participation without them even knowing,” he said. “It’s really customized to whatever audience is in the house so it will never be the same.”
Audience members at the Princeton Garden, like Kate Bauer of North Brunswick, said the experience was like “being transported back in time.” Joanna Bryson of Plainsboro was “blown away.”
“It’s an amazingly hipster thing to do,” she said.
Miller, who is quietly confident and has an encyclopedic knowledge of silent films, said his audiences include everyone from first-timers to silent-film buffs. The questions he gets asked most are: How did you develop the score, and how did you play that long?
“The one I always say is ‘Playing is an easy thing. You just kind of sit there and move your fingers,’ ” he said. “But the music thing, I like to tell them I like to use original scores.”
In November, Miller played the house organ at Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City — his favorite venue — for a book release party for George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood.
Miller played the Game of Thrones show theme prior to a Q&A with Martin and as Martin walked on stage. When Martin joked about “The Rains of Castamere,” an ominous song featured in the series, Miller played that, too.
Martin thanked him on stage, and the two chatted about old movie theaters after the event.
“We didn’t talk about Game of Thrones, no one really did, because they know he probably gets enough of it,” Miller said.
Miller also plays piano and various percussion instruments. He’s a member of the Garden State Theatre Organ Society and the Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra. He also plays for his church and is heavily involved in his school music program.
Miller wants to pursue a career in music education one day while continuing to promote silent-film accompaniment.
“I see myself continuing this, especially since it’s a dying art,” he said. “I know I’m one of the younger ones, so I’m held with that responsibility, so I’ll definitely keep it alive.”