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Taking ‘General’ down a new track

Times Staff Writer

The UCLA university organist Christoph Bull is known for bringing his improvisational skills to programs involving abstract film, graphics and living paintings. But on Saturday, he’ll step into a more traditional realm: providing accompaniment for the UCLA Live screening of Buster Keaton’s seminal 1927 silent comedy “The General” at Royce Hall.

“This whole thing is kind of a new experience for me,” says Bull. “I am watching the film very thoroughly and I am writing down what the themes are and the mood I am to convey.”

Bull also has perused the university’s archive of stock music from that era. “I am not necessarily going to use that exact music, but it helps me get a feel of what the sounds and harmonies are like. I want to honor that tradition, but I want to make it my own thing. I want it to be my own take on it. I want it be fresh. I will give it my own personality.” To that end, he’ll shape the music as he goes.

“I don’t want to be totally locked in because that is the whole beauty of the art form of improvisation,” he says. “If it was exactly set it would be like a pre-recorded score, so there should be an element of reacting to the moment.”

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Presented in association with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the event features the historic 1930 Royce Hall Skinner Organ, which was designed by Harold Gleason, head of the organ department of the Eastman School of Music. It made its Royce Hall debut Sept. 7, 1930.

“The organ at UCLA is extremely versatile,” Bull says. “It was made at a time when organ builders were building organs in a very orchestral way. There are a lot of colors the organ can make.”

Though it wasn’t built to accompany silent movies -- “it doesn’t have bells and whistles that other organs have that were especially made for that” -- he believes sonically it’s a perfect match for the comedy. “And it was actually built just around the same time as ‘The General.’ It’s a nice coincidence.”

Considered Keaton’s most ambitious film, “The General” finds the stone-faced comedian playing a Civil War engineer, rejected by the Confederate Army, who is in pursuit of a band of Union raiders who have stolen both his beloved locomotive, called “The General,” and his girlfriend. Directed by Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, “The General,” based on a true incident from the Civil War, was not a hit when it was released 78 years ago.

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David Sefton, director of UCLA Live, works with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to select silent comedies for these presentations. “We try to do one classic silent comedian a year,” he says. “They are perennial popularity-winners. We do two public performances for families and then we do a performance for schoolkids as well.”

And children adore these films, even though they are silent and shot in black and white, Sefton says.

“The live component broadens the whole thing,” Sefton says. “But there is a kind of universality to this stuff. It might be more difficult to get them to sit down and watch a talking black-and-white movie with a story. But the level of which the high art of slapstick operates, I think there is not much of a leap from Buster Keaton to ‘Ren and Stimpy.’ I never found any communication barriers with this stuff.”

Bull, who spent his early years in Germany, was a big fan of silent comedies as a child. “I grew up in the ‘70s, and they were having them on TV all the time,” he says. “I would probably say in more recent years, I haven’t followed [silent movies] that much, so it’s kind of nice for me to get back into the old love I had for these type of movies.”

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He’s looking forward to playing for an equally engaged crowd. “That’s what is so great about live performance,” Bull says. “You can be good and practice, but it’s nothing like having an audience there and reacting to them.”

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‘The General’

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA

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When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Price: $25 general admission: $12 for children 12 and under and UCLA students

Contact: (310) 825-2101


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