In the pitch darkness, Mortilla couldn’t see the keys of his piano, an instrument he was supposed to play as accompaniment at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival some 25 years ago.
“That was my first clue that I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Mortilla, who was teaching in UC Santa Barbara’s music and theater department at the time.
Good thing he had planned to improvise the performance anyway.
Mortilla played blind for the next hour, and a man came up to him after the film to invite the New York City native to play more silent showings in Los Angeles.
Mortilla left Santa Barbara to pursue a silent composition career 14 years later, but he returns July 11 to serve as live solo accompaniment to UCSB Arts & Lectures film series.
With a theme of “Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd: Comedy Classics of the Silent Era,” Mortilla will put his fingers to keyboard keys during four performances at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden.
This time, he’ll remember the lights.
“The first performance for me was very significant,” the Burbank resident told Noozhawk. “I basically treat silent films as I treat a dance piece. It’s really about movement and gesture. They’re really talking with their bodies and their expressions. When I’m playing live, I will never ever use a written score.”
Locals may have seen Mortilla bring music to movement of silent movies at The Granada Theatre earlier this year and periodically since leaving in 2000.
A rousing reception from a Granada audience earlier this year is what got Roman Baratiak, associate director of UCSB Arts & Lectures, thinking about the silent theme. Nabbing Mortilla for some screenings was a must.
“He’s amazing,” Baratiak said. “Audiences are appreciative of his talents.”
Few other composers perform classical music on the fly. Mortilla said he developed the skill growing up in Manhattan, tuning pianos on the side and reading the biographies of greats Beethoven, Bach and Chopin — all improvisation composers.
He learned how to play the drums in public school, then the guitar and piano, where he shared the same Long Island teacher as Billy Joel.
Mortilla found work at dance and theater companies and moved west for the UCSB gig in 1986.
Since his skills were discovered, Mortilla has scored music for TV, radio, concert, dance and theater, working and traveling with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Click here to hear a live silent film score.
“The trick to me is communication,” he said. “Bottom line, it’s about music. It’s about storytelling. It’s so important to connect to what’s going on in the film.
“Probably the most important thing for me is being able to scan the image on the screen for every detail I can find. What does that car sound like? What does the environment smell like? A lot of that is given to you in contemporary film. I try to imagine what characters are feeling.”
He emphasized the importance of audience members as collaborators in the experience.
“The audience is going to have a large impact on how I perform,” he said. “They’re not just observers in the film. It’s going to be fun.”