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Silent Movie Music Masterclass

Friday 8 February 2013, 18:06

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

I sit down with Neil Brand, Britain's foremost silent film accompanist, for a masterclass in movie music.

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Kermode Uncut: Silent Movie Special

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    Comment number 1.

    Can someone tell me which film the image used as a cover picture comes from?

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    Comment number 2.

    Ah, it's from the 1917 Cleopatra. I'm going to have to track that one down...

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    Comment number 3.

    I once went to a performance of Paul Merton's Silent clowns, for which Neil Brand was the accompanist, and he's a unique talent. The second half of the show was a screening of 'Seven Chances' and even though i'd seen it several times before, seeing it on the big screen with an audience and Brand playing live, enhanced the film in a way that can't be replicated with a recording. As i understand it, he improvises his compositions, so each performance is different and audiences have new experience each time.

    Mark, you've said that The Dodge Brothers have play accompaniment to silent films like Beggars of Life. My question to you, did you play from a written score or was it improvised?

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    Comment number 4.

    Brilliant post Mark!

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    Comment number 5.

    That was fun to watch. However I'm disappointed that the Good Dr didn't request a horror tune!

    I have nothing against silent movies, but unfortunately generic piano accompaniments tend to put me asleep after 10 minutes. The best silent movie soundtrack is Richard Einhorn's specially composed oratorio "Voices of Light" for Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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    Comment number 6.

    That western bit was nice, although when you asked him to represent happiness on screen i thought you were going to barge him aside and start playing the Exorcist theme.

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    Comment number 7.

    Perhaps I missed this. But did the musician(s) see the film prior to transmission to get the feel of what was to be "improvised" and/or to mark out the relevant pages to go to at the relevant points in the film. Also, is there anything about other potential preparation such as rehearsal etc?

    Just wondering.

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    Comment number 8.

    Great stuff - I'm always in awe of musicians who just play something they've made up in their heads, so talented.

    Is it just me or are the vintage "sexy pix" are a bit scary???

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    Comment number 9.

    Meh - piano in silent movies irks me: I always feel the poor piano is made to over-work expressing far more than it can cope with; it needs real people to interact with around it or by itself imo. Perhaps back in the day it worked.... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-Xm7s9eGxU

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    Comment number 10.

    This is great, and I look forward to your radio doc. Anything to promote the silents, an incredible era of film making that needs to be appreciated and preserved. The artistry of the accompanist is just one facet of the whole package. There was a time when lazy promoters of silents would just smear the generic "Hearts and Flowers" and the like over scenes (wonder if that was in Neil's book). Now we have albums released by unclassifiable guitar genius Bill Frisell, and bands like the Beau Hunks of music for silents (Keaton and Laurel & Hardy films respectively). If you ever release your Dodge Bros / Neil Brand Ghost That Never Returns soundtrack, I'd snap that up, I found it more interesting than the movie (it kinda peaked with the classic editing in the prison riot scene).

    I don't know if anyone's had this idea already, but why not pitch a Silent Film Proms evening to the BBC. They've done film soundtrack Proms, so it wouldn't be much of a stretch. The program could consist of a few shorts and a feature, or excerpts from features, and you could vary the groups providing the music, full orchestra, solo pianist, possibly a quartet or skiffle band. They could take advantage of widescreen and push the academy ratio silent to the side and show musical performers in the remaining real estate (unless they go all Abel Gance on it). This might be the right format to convey the experience of watching with live accompaniment to a mass audience (perhaps a lightning in a bottle situation, but its the only way I can think of to get across a fraction of the vibe).

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    Comment number 11.

    I enjoyed that. Thank you both.
    Bizarrely, these days in the age of 3D Ultra-HD digital multichannel audio productions the book could be made easy to use by the tool of random access pages on a tablet. Maybe there's a market for the same tool but in a digital form for modern day accompanyists ... ?

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    Comment number 12.

    Great fun to watch - and listen to - on a Saturday morning. It was my traditional time for the cinema as a child, though I'm not old enough for the silent era!
    My grandfather (in-law) was a silent film projectionist around the village halls of the country. When he talked to us of his experiences he mentioned pieces of music that were written and ready for a piano player to use to accompany the film, so I assume a number of them had this book.
    To, partly, answer a question from P J Hughes, I don't think they always had a rehearsal so it depended very much on how skillful the pianist was. Some pianists had their own favourite pieces of music by famous composers and which they knew well, and they would slot these in to the appropriate scene.
    Sadly, Grandad is no longer with us but he would have loved hearing Neil Brand playing from the book.

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    Comment number 13.

    One of my favourite blogs you've posted, a brilliant celebration of glorious music

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    Comment number 14.

    I remember being somewhat disappointed after meeting Neil Brand after a screening of, IIRC, Griffith's 'Broken Blossoms' and discovering that he'd pulled out some stock tunes and improvised the rest of the score. I was disappointed because almost every silent film had an accompanying score, many of which are extant today.

    I heartily recommend that Silent Movie buffs make the trip to Pordenone in Italy for the annual silent film festival, where each screening is accompanied by (where possible) the original score, both on piano and with orchestra.

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    Comment number 15.

    This is just terrific. You've made my night Mark and thank goodness that people like Neil are around.

    Great post.

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    Comment number 16.

    This reminded me how good the showing of The Ghost That Never Returns was at the New Forest Film Festival in 2011. Any plans to revive the festival? (please...)

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    Comment number 17.

    Oh yeah just throw in a reversed shot there.

    Are you specifically trying to give me nightmares?

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    Comment number 18.

    Just a slight corrective to what Ewanmax says. While it's perfectly fair to have a preference for hearing the original scores for silent films - it's not mine, but different strokes, etc - it's not true that this is what happens at the Pordenone festival. I attend every year and typically about 80% of the screenings are accompanied by new improvisations, by one of a resident team of pianists (including Neil). The other screenings are largely accompanied by newly composed scores for larger ensembles or orchestra. I can only recall original scores being recreated on a handful of occasions.

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    Comment number 19.

    Not really a fan of silent movies but if I could play the piano I would find a copy of that book as soon as possible.

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    Comment number 20.

    I love my silent movies. From Caligari to Nosferatu, Orlac to Waxworks, Sunrise to City Girl, but I can honestly say the music never stays with me. Maybe it does its job in a subliminal way, but, for me, a silent movie soundtrack may as well not be there. Silents are all about the image and always will be. In fact, in a strange turn of irony, film music in the talking age is a much more powerful tool than its silent predecessor ever was. Maybe I would change my mind after experiencing live accompaniment in a cinema, but I'm sure that would be for no other reason than the fact I'm simply hearing live music.

 

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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

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