Backstage Stories

The Sounds of Silence

April 9, 2024

The Sounds of Silence

The Granada Theatre’s grand Centennial Festival Weekend kicks off on April 12th with a nod to the theater’s movie house past with a double feature of two historic films, including Buster Keaton’s silent picture, Sherlock Jr. The iconic film will be set to the soundtrack of legendary composer Michael Mortilla playing live on the piano.


Mortilla is an award-winning composer and sound designer with over 1,000 produced works for film, TV, radio, theater, dance, and the concert stage. He’s performed at The White House, the 1996 Summer Olympics, and in the early 1980s was a touring company pianist with the Martha Graham Dance Company. He was the icon’s musician of choice for most of her events and projects.

Silent Films and Music

Contrary to its name, silent films were never silent. They always had live music performed in conjunction with the showing, mainly to cover the noise from the projector. In the beginning, these shows were considered a novelty, like a carnival attraction, and not high art.


However, through the years, and in the hands of a musician and composer like Mortilla, the experience has evolved and elevated.

Silent Film Maestro


Photo credit: Lon Casler Bixby

Throughout the 2000s, Mortilla has been one of the top composers and performers for silent film. He often works with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Turner Classic Movies, and The National Film Preservation Foundation.

But Mortilla’s specialization in silent films was a happy accident.

“I was teaching at UCSB and I tuned pianos on the side for extra money. One day I arrived at an older woman’s house and she had a terrible piano, I nearly walked out. It’s a good thing I didn’t because my career would have never been what it was,” said Mortilla.


He tuned her piano and played a song for her, and when he was done the woman loved his performance and asked for his card. She referred Mortilla to a friend who ran the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and needed a musician to accompany a silent film. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mortilla, who held the positions of Principal Musician, Resident Composer, and lecturer at the University of California Santa Barbara in the late 1980s, last performed at The Granada Theatre during a screening of the silent film, Safety Last. In fact, Mortilla called it his favorite performance of his 50-year career because of the audience’s incredible reaction to the movie and the music.

He’s hoping for a repeat performance during the 100th anniversary celebration. Sherlock Jr. is the most requested silent movie, and Mortilla estimates that he has performed with the film over 45 times.

Improvisation is Key

But even if you’ve seen every one of those 45 shows, they’re never the same.

“Every time I perform solo on the piano, I’m improvising so each show is different,” explained Mortilla. “I don’t come from a classic music school background; I started as a drummer and that’s all improv so I apply the same approach on the piano.”

According to Mortilla, the key to successfully crafting the soundtrack to a silent film is to create an emotional experience for the audience through the music.


“I come from a theater and dance background so it’s all about storytelling for me and that’s best done from an emotional standpoint,” he said. “If I can make the audience feel what the character is feeling they become more invested in the film.”

Mortilla has composed hundreds of theater pieces and in that role, the music is always about following the narrative of the performance. When he moved into his role with Martha Graham’s Dance Company, he found that music was the bridge that connected the dance movements with the narrative.

“It’s less literal in dance, but together dance and theater are like a silent film,” explained Mortilla. “Like dance, there is no audio in silent films. It’s the music that creates a heightened level of emotion.”


Tickets are still available for you to experience the incomparable performance of Mortilla and Sherlock Jr. this Friday, April 12.