Dennis James is an American musician and historic preservationist who played "a pivotal role in the international revival of silent films presented with period-authentic live music." Beginning in 1969, he presented historically informed live accompaniments for silent films, with piano, theatre organ, chamber ensemble and full symphony orchestras, throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and overseas. He is now primarily active as a noted multi-instrumentalist, specializing on Franklin glass armonica and the theremin, prominently performing in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, for Hollywood film scorings, and repeat performances at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival (debuting with Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players) plus performing at the Tanglewood Festival with the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing the intricate glass armonica part in the U.S. debut of George Benjamin's opera "Written On Skin.".
James has also become active in the preservation and restoration of other historic instruments such as the Cristal d’ Baschet and Ondes Martenot plus has begun performing early syncopated jazz and mid-century moderne styled period-piano repertoire within a multitude of other specialist musical activities generally considered of marginal cultural impact predominantly subject to the whims of amateurs and enthusiasts.
James was born in Philadelphia in 1950 and began formal organ training at the age of 12. At the age of 16, he replaced his teacher, Leonard ‘Melody Mac’ MacClain, in concert when the latter suffered a heart attack before the performance, and that exposure put him on an international touring circuit. James attended Indiana University's School of Music as a student of concert and church organ performance, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees under the tutelage of Dr. Oswald G. Ragatz.
James' interest in silent film performance with live music dates from 1969 at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. As James recalls, "The late 'Flicker Fingers' himself, California touring theatre organist Gaylord Carter, was at the Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ console and on the screen Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in The Mark of Zorro. In classic 'Chorus Line' fashion, I turned to my Dad at the end and said 'I can do that!'"
James began performing films in October, 1969 and soon in full scale revival performances together with symphony orchestras beginning in 1971. From 1975 to 1989, James was the final appointed professional "Resident Organist for the Ohio Theatre" in Columbus, Ohio having revived a bygone era staff position vacated in 1942. James had his organ concerto with orchestra debut with the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall in 1984. James toured in the 1980s with silent film stars Lillian Gish and Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, providing musical accompaniment on national tour revivals of their motion pictures. The New York Times reported on December 13, 1981 that James would play at the recently restored Pascack Theater in Westwood, New Jersey, a deluxe movie house with facilities for stage productions and a specially built Wurlitzer pipe organ for accompanying silent films. James "follows the technique and style of the old-time accompanists, cueing the music exactly to the action and mood on the screen." In 1998, James began simultaneously serving as House Organist for the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, House Organist for the Paramount Theatre in Seattle and House Organist for the Historic Everett Theatre in Everett, Washington plus his appointments as Theatre Organist for the San Diego Symphony, silent film organist for the Stanford Theatre and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, expanding in recent years to encompass many additional positions.
James currently is the appointed (2018) “House Organist for the Heights Theatre” in Elmira Heights, NY, plus (2010) "Theatre Organist for the Washington Center" a professional position in the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia, Washington, and also the appointed (2010) "House Organist" for the Historic Coleman Theatre, Miami, Oklahoma while continuing as the Cinequest Festival silent film organist for California Theatre in San Jose, California, Silent Film organist for Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California, and Stummfilm Series organist for Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.
James performs under the aegis of his own production companies, Crystal City Music and Silent Film Concerts. James has assembled one of the largest private libraries of authentic period-published exotic historical instrument scores and genuine silent film music in existence (including complete original film scores and hundreds of published generic silent film music compositions that were used to create compiled musical scores, useful for score restorations and recreations where the originals do not survive).
James has accompanied silent films at the Pordenone and Rome Silent Film Festivals, Cinema Muto, the British Film Institute, Salzburg's Mozarteum, Vienna's Konzerthaus, three sellout screenings at the Sydney Opera House as well as appearances for special film exhibitions at the Louvre and his ongoing popular Stummfilm Series begun in 2011 for the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. His scorings have been used on archival recordings of silent films for the American Film Institute, National Film Registry, New York Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, Pacific Film Archive, George Eastman House, American Federation of the Arts, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the British Film Institute.
In 1991 James was commissioned to score the 1924 Soviet science fiction spectacle Aelita, Queen of Mars and decided to also add period sound effects to the score produced from an original 1929 RCA theremin that he had restored by Robert Moog. "I contacted Clara Rockmore, the leading virtuosa of the instrument still then living in New York, who taught me to play it. Then I began performing my Aelita film score all over the world, from the Louvre in Paris to the British Film Institute in London and the National Gallery in D.C." In addition to scoring the theremin for Aelita, Queen of Mars, James has utilized the theremin for Fritz Lang's now-restored silent films Metropolis and Woman in the Moon at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Upcoming in the 2018–2019 tour season continues his burgeoning collaboration with historic keyboard specialist Michael Tsalka touring their new scoring, commissioned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the restored 1921 German version of The Asta Nielsen “Hamlet”, with Danish actress Asta Nielsen. The "historical compilation scoring is made up solely of excerpted compositions by the sons of [Johann Sebastian] Bach performed in a keyboard duo-performers format utilizing three instruments (organ, fortepiano, harpsichord) and a guest mezzo-soprano vocalist."
On September 14, 2007, James performed the score to Tumbleweeds in a live performance at the Poncan Theater (built in 1923) in Ponca City, Oklahoma as a special commission as part of a celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of Oklahoma Statehood.
Stephen Salmons, founding artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, praised James for his artistic scope and range. "Dennis James is both a musician of tremendous artistic scope and range, and a scholar who strives to preserve and restore this unique 20th century musical practice. He is without doubt the greatest practitioner of the art of solo silent film accompaniment. To witness a contemporary audience experience the beauty and power of silent film through the overwhelming symphonic dynamism that Dennis James unleashes with unerring skill on the theatre organ is an absolute revelation. He's a national treasure."
Peter Mintun, New York City based pianist and cultural historian, praises the authenticity of James' approach to silent films. "Theatre organist Dennis James is one of the only living musicians who understands what is musically, historically, and cinematically appropriate for silent films. Dennis James’ choice of music (some of which is original) subconsciously guides the listener into many moods, tension, bliss, excitement, despair, terror, and hilarity. He is able to accomplish this while remaining correct for the period of the film. In other words, if Mr. James’ performance had been played when the film was first exhibited, it would have been considered contemporary. He would never attempt to modernize the feeling of the period by creating a score that would clash."", says Mintun.
James plays the Franklin glass armonica and has collected other vitreous music instruments including several Francis Hopkinson Smith's 19th century Grand Harmonicons, one of the few surviving Beyer Glass-cords from 1786, and modern glass instruments such as verrophone, the cristal d' Baschet, along with a wide variety of glass flutes and glass bells. He is currently constructing an expanded version of the French Bouteillophone creating a touring continuo instrument for 18th c. ensemble repertoire. James played his glass instruments on Marco Beltrami's film scores for The Minus Man (1999) and The Faculty (1998). "I first became aware of glass instruments at about the age of 6 while visiting the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I can still recall being mesmerized by the appearance of the original Benjamin Franklin armonica then on display in its own showcase in the entry rotunda of the city's famed science museum.". In the interest of historical and philological accuracy, James adheres to Franklin's original name, "armonica" without the "h".
From 2010 to 2015 James served as the initial appointed Lecturer in glass music studies at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, designing a glass music studies program that including graduate level student instruction in Seraphim and Armonica (the first such academic appointment in the history of the field). James performed glass armonica contributions to six Linda Ronstadt's popular music CD album projects, including Winter Light and the Grammy Award-winning "Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Trio II" featuring Dolly Parton and EmmyLou Harris. "Linda explained she had first heard the sounds of rubbed glass some 15 years before, just where, though, escapes her to this day. She kept that ethereal sound in her mind all those years and it was during the orchestra sessions and post-session mix on the track "A River for Him", written by Emmylou Harris, that Linda had the inspiration to add the glass tones", says James. James appeared on Late Night with David Letterman with Ronstadt. "It was a great surprise. A sort of unspoken message in the air to me before the broadcast was 'Do not say anything on the air!' After all, these things are Linda's appearances. When David Letterman leaned over his desk and directed a question to me I simply froze – on playback of the dub I can see myself caught and unable to speak. I received a glance from Linda that said to me it was OK and so when he tried again I called back a flip one liner and on things went from there", says James.
James recorded an album of all glass music, Cristal: Glass Music Through the Ages co-produced by Ronstadt and Grammy Award-winning producer John Boylan. James plays the glass armonica, the cristal and the seraphim on the CD in original historical compositions for glass by Mozart, Scarlatti, Schnaubelt, and Fauré. James collaborates with the Emerson String Quartet, operatic soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, and Ronstadt.
Dennis James may refer to:
Dennis James (1917–1997), American actor and game show host
Dennis James (bodybuilder) (born 1969), African-American bodybuilder
Dennis James (musician), American musician prominent in the revival of silent films