Sunday 23 May 2010

The Silent Pianist Speaks ...

What on earth ... silent, yet plays music presumably, and speaks .. but this is Neil Brand .. who started his career in Eastbourne playing his debut as a film accompanist with the Eastbourne Film Society in 1983 – the silent film was Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jnr”.

The Film Society in 2004 brought the silent classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc “(1928) with piano accompaniment by Neil Brand, to Eastbourne when a new print became available in England (it had been banned by the authorities for its poor English propaganda!).

Neil by London & Cambridge photographer Tom Catchesides

The programme note says “some members of the Society may wonder why we should have set such great store on this screening, but those who find it strange are unlikely to be those who have attended previous silent cinema screenings by the Society at which films were accompanied by Neil Brand at the piano. Such screenings rarely bring out the largest audiences - it’s their loss”, and I absolutely agree.

I have never been to a film, a silent one at that, where I was completed sucked into the ‘narrative’ – the passion play. The actress’ eyes were riveting – it is an unorthodox piece in that it is shot largely in close-ups with sparse backgrounds – I was completely absorbed within this atmospheric presentation.

There is not one single establishing shot in all of “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, it is filmed entirely in close-ups or medium shots, creating a fearful intimacy between Joan and her tormentors. If you go to the Danish Film Museum in Copenhagen you can see Dreyer’s model for the extraordinary set he built for the film.

Dreyer, returned to the actual trial records, combining the 29 cross-examinations into one inquisition; the charges of heresy are set within a Church court, in which the judges, their faces twisted with their fear of her courage, loomed over her with shouts and accusations ...

In selecting Falconetti to play Joan .. there was something that struck Dreyer .. there was a soul behind that facade .. he did screen tests without makeup, and found what he sought, a woman who embodied simplicity, character and suffering.

I hope some of my passion, still at the forefront of my memory after six years comes across – I can still remember the metal baskets containing the steaming hay for the cows, the ghastly monks or churchmen, they loomed large, I can still smell the hay, the dung, the heavy smoke from the tallow candles, I itched with the hay, I can feel my senses assaulted from my involvement within this setting and the events unfolding in front of me.

Renee Falconetti - c/o Chicago Sun-Times - written by Roger Ebert

This is where I first saw this Silent Pianist, who speaks ... I went to the film thinking I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy this – but I so respect Mansel Stimpson’s selections and his knowledge of film, he is an active member of the National Film Theatre in London, that I went along expecting to sort of watch, but keep an eye on Neil to see how he played to or with the film .... well you now know how I came out – totally emotionally enthralled by it, and I hadn’t watched Neil at all!

Yesterday Neil came to a small Sussex village hall to put on two shows – one aimed at children .. but definitely with us adults in mind, and another telling us adults, who attended both, how his career started and giving us an exposition about silent movies.

Both shows were wonderful .. and I was able to visit my mother, wander over to Berwick (about 9 miles from Eastbourne), have a walk at one of the local nature reserves, see the show, revisit my mother and return for the evening performance .. on a glorious summer’s day – really the first of this year.

To top the day – I had a wonderful subject for my 250th post .. and collected another two along the way: Neil has kindly said he’d do a guest post for us sometime .. and the nature reserve (to the left) presented some interesting facts.

Now to Neil .. the Silent Pianist .. it is time for you to speak .... he returns to his roots – Eastbourne, via London, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Abu Dhabi to Berwick – from zero to half a million listeners, through his international reputation with a programme on BBC’s Radio 4, to a few dozen yesterday .. he suits my style – an eclectic mix. He’s so down to earth and it was an absolute pleasure to be there to learn more about this master of the silent art.

As I mentioned he played at the Film Society for Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jnr back in 1983, then in 1984 got his first audition at the National Film Theatre, (with a gentle prod from our cinema buff Mansel Stimpson to the NFT’s Kevin Brownlow, who was one of the panel of judges that day) – that was it ... The Silent Pianist was on the road ...

The really interesting thing is that Neil does not read music – cannot read it .. but he absorbed this love from the local cinema .. the world of bright colours, with the new reverberating magnetic sound of the 1960s ... here he saw “My Fair Lady” (1964) and learnt the 6th and 7th chords – now these are the chords he uses all the time ...

Flowers of the Sussex Downs

... he went on to study Drama at University .. but while growing up his parents realised that he had a natural talent for improvisation at the piano ... so when he got bored, they suggested ‘play a windmill’, ‘play a herd of buffalo’ .. and here we are today – with another NFT member, John Gillett, confirming “Neil is the best silent pianist he knows”.

Earlier I drew attention to the fact that Dreyer selected Falconetti to play Joan of Arc, because he could see the soul behind the actress as she played Joan; while Neil, when he was explaining his ability to play the piano is because he feels the music .. something within him comes to the fore, letting his fingers do the playing – there is no score, there is no repeat.

I find that quite extraordinary; Neil interspersed his performances with explanations and some background notes – all really interesting. What is silence? If you’re watching a silent film where the rain is pouring down, the umbrella looks like it’s about to disappear .. we expect to hear that pitter patter, or those heavy plops of the dropping deluge, or see the umbrella turn inside out, swept away down the street .. but we don’t – it is silent. Silence is weird .. unless we choose it .. Buster Keaton decided to sing in the film “Prisoner’s Song” .. but it’s silent ......

Le Silence (1842–1843), painted plaster sculpture by Antoine-Augustin Préault.

Silent films embraced world culture, many of which have not been available since those times – Neil showed us a 2 minute 1906 complete movie by the Pathe Brothers (Pathé Frères) – but fortunately innovation in restoration and recent film finds have re-opened the door so that classics can again be seen.

In the UK in 1929 there were 25,000 silent film pianists ... in 1930 – there were none! Yet the genre of silent movies is largely misunderstood ... comedy was not an established force, it was not written, it was created by the great actors, directors of the time .. the Chaplins, Keatons, Laurel, Oliver et al .. and how we laughed .. we laughed yesterday .. we certainly laughed as kids .. great belting stomach heaves .. and just wanting more .. the next ‘gag’, the next ‘disaster’ ..

Silent film in this day and age – needs us .. the screen portrays wonderful scenes, the pianist interprets the plot, we are totally involved by our reactions ... you cannot have one without the other for the full impact.

Pictures, Jul 23 1921, Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle (1887 – 1933) on the cover

We were tested at the evening performance to see our expectations of a film as it develops – this was the People on Sunday (German: Menschen am Sonntag), which is a 1930 German silent movie, from a screenplay by Billy Wilder – here Neil showed us the hooks Wilder used to draw us into the film – which side would we come down on .. were the couple happy, or was it a murderous plot .. ?

Then he told us a few anecdotes .. he quite often plays for films he’s not seen before .. and one time this happened – suddenly up pops a ‘title’, which said “now we will play the Latvian Anthem”!? He played on .. thank goodness there were no Latvians in the audience!

Another time he was accompanying a tinted print, this was when the printed film had been tinted up to give it some colour, the trouble was .. the copy had been put back together with all the night scenes together, all the fire scenes together, all the daylight scenes together – you get the picture .. don’t you? There was no chronological order ... the film made no sense, the star character died, then reappeared ... Neil played on (thinking to himself ... that was a radical narrative technique, not seen before!) .. and there was huge applause!

There was lots more .. but I’m sure the master himself will give us some additional flavours in his guest post (thank you in advance Neil) .... if I’ve stimulated any questions .. please ask .. Neil has been very generous with these performances .. giving back to Berwick Church where he was married – this is where the walls of the Church were decorated by members of the Bloomsbury Group: here are two previous posts on the area, which may be of interest.

Berwick Church

The area around this Sussex Church .. Safari here or Safari there ...

One last thing – one of our audience, an American lady – certainly with her twang – was really interested .. as her grandmother, who hailed from ‘horse heaven’ country in Washington State, told Margaret that her first job was playing sheet music in a music shop to encourage sales of this new music, and then went on to become a silent film pianist – small world?!

Neil Brand – The Silent Pianist Speaks ...

We saw clips with or from: Charlie Chaplin – the thief at the fair; Fatty Arbuckle and a young Buster Keaton in the 1921 film “A Garage”; Buster Keaton’s “One Week” 2 part; the whole of “Big Business” where Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy want to sell Christmas trees in California – November - this clip shows the film and location .. still there today; Pathé Frères; German (film) Expressionism; and many others .. YouTube has many clips ...

Dear Mr Postman – my mother and my uncle would have loved this post .. and I’m sure my uncle would have often been to the National Film Theatre – sadly it’s too late for me to ask him .. I took him to a few of the Film Society Films, and let him read each season’s notes .. and he was fascinated at the choices Mansell made for us – and was so pleased we’d seen Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday .. I had to get it for him on video, so he could re see it ... he loved the genre! Happy Days. Happy Birthday too .. to my sister-in-law for tomorrow.

PS: I credit Mansel Stimpson, who writes all our Eastbourne Film Society Programme notes as I have used some of his words and phrases; as well as Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times – again the paragraphs and sentences in italics use a great many of Roger Ebert’s words – for more go here.
The Curzon Cinema - Eastbourne: Roy Galloway is the owner-proprietor - this where the film society films are shown.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Paul C said...

I like your point about silent films embracing world culture. It's for that reason I like watching classic films to be able to understand their times better. It's especially entertaining because the good films had some wonderful artists work their magic.

Wilma Ham said...

Wow, music certainly makes the movie. A threatening roffle, quickening music to make your heart beat go up, I certainly react to it.
So what does Neil play to, the physical appearance of the scene or the emotions the actors are portraying or does he just pick on what is most outstanding in the scene? This is all very interesting, thank you Hilary.
Love to you both, xox Wilma

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Paul .. that's the point Neil made .. that they embraced world culture in those early years of the 20th century, before sound arrived.

The realisation to me .. was the fact that the genre wasn't established .. therefore each director and each film was testing boundaries - because there was no way of communicating to the audience .. except by the pure brilliance of the actors and the directors putting their story across.

I hope Neil will elaborate on this for us .. he told us so much .. the history of film .. it's that bedrock, before colour, scores and sound came in bringing us the film we know today.

It's great to see you .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma .. It is wonderful watching the comedic greats .. with Neil’s accompaniment supporting, while the Joan of Arc film was absolutely brilliant ... totally enhanced by his playing.

Neil only plays the piano and organ .. to my knowledge .. but I’m sure he can improvise on some other instruments .. but not in public – I hope he’ll confirm for us.

As I understand sometimes he will have seen the movie before hand .. but on others it’s intuition of what might or might not occur .. he said he plays from ‘his depths’ .. ie he’s obviously got something, that certainly I don’t understand, that’s intrinsic deep within him & the music flows to his fingers.

I hope he’ll let us know .. I know he hasn’t always seen the film before he plays live at the show .. The Silent Pianist speaks is a wonderful historical portrayal of that era .. such fun!

Sorry it’s cold and wet down there .. today it’s going to be hot –with a big drop in temperature tomorrow .. oh well .. that’s England .. Thanks for your comment .. and your love .. hugs back Hilary

Mandy Allen said...

Hi Hilary, this post really kept my attention (as all of your posts do, actually!). I saw the title first with the initial picture and knew I would love it. I deal in grand pianos so have a keen interest in piano music and pianists. It's such a shame that interest in these great performances declines over time.

I also love the photo of Berwick Church, as I am in a visiting choir and sing at a lot of churches and cathedrals around the country.

Enjoy the journey.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mandy .. many thanks - honoured you feel that way ..

How amazing you deal in Grand Pianos - I'm sure Neil will be interested when he gets here ..

I hope you'll be able to get to see him sometime or hear him on Radio 4 - I'm not sure if he's on the play it again button .. I must look myself - as I'd love to hear him and his talks on the ipod when I'm up at Mum's just sitting with her.

If you get a chance - have a look at the other posts I posted .. they're quite interesting about the Bloomsbury set and the East Sussex area ..

though I'm sure you've been down to this neck of the woods .. in your tours ..

Thanks so much and lovely to see you - you too have a great week .. Hilary

Liara Covert said...

As you remind people of the power to be experienced or awakened in silent comunication, you are unconsciously sending out vibrations too. One can appreciate cinema and instruments as guides to reconnect with the power of internal dialogue that is ongoing and profound.

Patricia said...

This was a great post and I so love music and yes music is vital to the movies. What a talented player to highlight right from the title to the end.

Great links so I could check out the You Tube prospects for the next rainy afternoon - thank you

Appreciated your comments on my post today....I often think: Oh yes! I will have to share that with I do silently.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. that's interesting that I send out vibrations too regarding my experiences of silent communication .. I probably do quite a lot of that, so I must remember that my internal dialogue is likely to be profound .. it is definitely ongoing.

I certainly thoroughly enjoyed the performances being absorbed into the whole ..

Good to see you .. thanks for being here - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia .. it was a lovely experience .. and you would have loved it. I'm sure there must be some youtube clips of Neil's performance .. I hope he'll give us those when he comments (or direct me in the right direction).

I put rather a lot of links in - so very grateful you appreciate them .. I probably could have put more - but enough is enough & hope I got the main ones and the ones everyone is interested in.

That's a pleasure being over with you .. I enjoy the book and film recommendations and thought processes ..

Thanks for being here - this was an amazing afternoon bringing back memories for the film .. an experience we should all have a chance to watch .. not just the comedic roles .. have a great week - Hilary

Blue Bunny said...

deere hillree,

hi! yoo remerbirs me?

i iz my jannies bloging manijir??

well, i back!


how is yoo?

i iz good, thanks yoo for asking.

i bin reeding wit intrest in this post.

about feeling itching hay... i luvs that feelin.

and about... "Buster Keaton decided to sing in the film “Prisoner’s Song” .. but it’s silent ......" that is my most favrit part of the hole movee!!!! he was maeking so mutch emoshins, i was crying wit joys.

two ladies named joy -- Megan JoyGirl Bord and JoyChristin -- my good new frend of a blog. She lives on a boat and does the hoola-hoop!!! do yoo knows her?

smal werld, eh!?

see yoo soon!

wit hugs and good feelings.


Blue Bunny.

Jannie Funster said...

hey, Hilary!

i love to hear Jim tell of visiting the town movie house when he was a boy, and hearing the pianist (an elderly lady0 watching the film and making up music to go along!

i would've loved to have seen that.

Maybe one day I shall!!

AWESOME you had such theatre experiences with Neil Brand.

And got to enjoy that nature reserve at Berwick.

And I LOVE that chick's hair-do! Now that is brilliant classic art! Kelly would look so cute in something like that.


J.D. Meier said...

Congrats on 250!

I'm amazed how some actors and actresses can say a lot with so little. I've never seen Joan of Arc, but from your pic, her eyes look expressive and I bet they tell the story well.

katejones2410 said...

Awesome! Thanks for posting this kind of story. I am inspired.

Tess said...

What a wonderful day you describe and I'm so happy you're finding time for enjoyable things and fitting your mom in. I'm real interested in the Joan of Arc movie in silence. I feel the power in it all. This is another amazing post and I respect and honor the time and research you put into your blog.

Thanks for being you Hillary. xo

Susan Blake said...

Hi Hilary! What an interesting post! (Well, they always are!) I love piano music to the extent that I know (if indeed I am incarnated) I must have played in another lifetime. This life I only longed to! Watching films without music would be unimaginable!

Unknown said...

Hi Hilary,

It is beautiful post as always. Your story reminded me a movie theater downtown Tokyo close to my parent started to live. It was not silent movie theater, but the theater looked not like movie theater, but like theatrical play theater. There was a piano in front of the stage.

Thank you for your reminding me my old place.
Shaw Funami
Fill the Missing Link

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi BB .. I doos remerbirs theee .. & your Jannie – itz gud to see u.

I tought u’d enjoys ze post .. the itchy hay .. of courz u’d luvs that.

We saw that clip on Saturday .. and it made such an impression .. again .. as U sayz .. Buster Keaton was very clever with his directorial ideas .. very glads U spotted this wiv ur blue eyes.

I do knows ze two Joys .. hoola hooping on her boats – 'nd I like ur Joys connecshuns .. tis a smals werld ..

Zee Us soon agin .. I must gets to answer others’ kind comments too .. wit hugs & cool feelings from a wet & damp south coast .. xxoo Hils

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jannie .. I thought you’d like this post .. but am so interested to hear that Jim used to go to a local movie house & listen to a lady pianist playing away, making it up as she went along. Neil mentioned that in Manchester there were 175 cinemas in 1926 showing silent movies .. obviously a hugely competitive market – if you didn’t like the little old lady’s playing .. you went to the next cinema .. !!

I know I was extraordinarily lucky to see the film with Neil playing .. it made such an impression on me .. & Falconetti’s performance was truly amazing .. she had no make up .. but with the direction of such close up takes .. her character imposed itself onto the audience & the horribleness of the Inquision.

The Reserve is a tranquil place .. a post to follow .. Kelly would enjoy the Reserve .. she could skip round! .. do you think you could get Kelly’s hair like that? It would be fun to see .. with your super new camera in 6 – 8 weeks ..?

Great to see you .. and thanks for coming over – two comments! Bye for now .. hugs to you all xxoo Hils

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi JD .. thank you for the 250 .. it’s great to have got here! The wonderful appreciative comments are what makes it so special.

Neil really showed us how clever those early actors, directors and creators of film were in putting together an art form for us to see .. but his playing to the film .. it is 110 minutes long! .. really pulled it all together .. but Saturday was a privilege to be there & meet up with him & hear more.

Good to see you - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Tess .. thanks it made a change and I thoroughly enjoyed the tranquillity of the day. I’m glad I expressed the power of the movie .. Falconetti made such an impression on me .. while Neil made the understanding of silent movies with a little of their history much more informative – opening my eyes to things I certainly hadn’t thought about.

Thanks for your comments re my posting .. I enjoy doing it & that makes all the difference .. then the wonderful commenters make the icing on the top! I couldn’t do it without you all and your input and appreciation ..

Really good to see you Tess .. have a great week .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Kate .. I'm glad you enjoyed the post - thank you for the visit - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi SuZen .. thank you! Delighted you enjoyed it .. me too .. I’d have loved to be musical .. and your idea about playing in a parallel life? Perhaps you have hidden music in your depths and could improvise as Neil does?

The thought of watching films without music for us is difficult – but of course that’s how they started over 110 years ago .. and how the craft was learnt, technology came along at a very fast rate ... the history was so interesting to hear ..

Thanks for being here and your comment – very much appreciated .. Hugs back .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Shaw .. how interesting that you remember the downtown movie-theatre in Tokyo .. it’s exactly as Neil was describing .. where the piano was rolled out and a pianist came along to accompany the film on show ..

Glad to hear it brought back memories of your parents and early life .. and lovely seeing you here – thank you .. Hilary

Chase March said...

Hi Hilary,

That's pretty amazing to see that someone can improvise the music to a silent movie. I'm always amazed at how people can create music without knowing how to read it.

Perhaps, this would be a good activity for students to do as well. I could have them improvise music to accompany video clips.

Great post with lots of info. Thanks!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chase .. I thought you'd enjoy it - thanks for surfing by! The more I think of Neil's achievement at accompanying us with the Joan of Arc silent film over 110 minutes is pretty amazing .. and the history of it .. I found fascinating. I remember 'making up music' when I was playing the piano .. but as I had no sense of rhythm - it wasn't going anywhere .. but doing it in public in front my friends in class would have been awful .. I tried the prayers occasionally & that was dreadful - I want to bury my head in the sand at the thought of it!!

I'd have thought the kids would have enjoyed it .. and as you say I've linked across a few clips .. the silent films were usually short and sweet - just long enough for a lesson & some interaction.

Music for thought - or silence for thought - now that would be a good topic for you too?! Great to know you enjoyed it .. have a good week - Hilary

Barbara Swafford said...

Hi Hilary,

It sounds like you had a lovely day filled with a little of everything. Getting to see your mom (twice), plus go for a walk, see two shows... You make it sound so relaxing.

And your post, again is filled with so much history. The Joan of Arc story has always intrigued me.

Happy 250th post.

((Hugs)) to you and your mom

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Barbara .. good to see you - yes it made a change .. I usually see Mum twice a day .. as it happens she was sleeping when I went (but I'd allowed time in case) .. it was a relaxing day - I even had time to get home & pick up the Film Society's Programme note on Joan of Arc for the lady who'd organised Neil's visit.

Glad you enjoyed the post with its information .. it was a wonderful day .. and yes - a good post for my 250th post!

Thanks for your thoughts & hugs .. same to you .. have a lovely weekend - Hilary

Anonymous said...

Hi Hilary,

It's very nice to read so many comments from people interested in the subject and process of silent movie music. Just to answer a few questions - I only improvise on the piano although I do score for orchestras - I enjoy playing films 'at sight' because then I feel the most instinctive music coming out of the piano - the problem is that that can be a bit of a lie-detector test - if I'm not enjoying the film the music will communicate that as clearly as it would positive emotions! Yes, when I've seen a film I can plan and make decisions in advance, and sometimes catch a really good moment like a surprise or a dance and make them special, but playing a great film I've not seen before produces the most sustained and potent music of which I am capable. And sometimes I even remember the tunes afterwards!

In terms of 'what' I play, I look for three things in every scene - 1. the environment, where the scene is taking place, is it raining, is it a war-zone, whatever. Then 2. the drama itself, what is going on between the characters, who are they, what do they want - then finally, 3. what's the subtext to the scene, what's going on in their heads, what are the big themes we're dealing with, jealousy, sacrifice, love etc. There will always be something to play in one of those three elements, often a theme that will link alll three. For what its worth I learnt that technique of 'reading' a film from the Robert McKee 'Story Structure' course, when he was dealing with telling stories through film.

If anybody is interested in stories of the original musicians for silent films I have a section on my website dedicated to 'The Originals' - there I have collected as many eye-witness accounts and diary entries as I can find.

best wishes,

Neil Brand

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Neil .. thanks so much for coming by - I'll remind everyone you've replied when I publish my next post tomorrow.

So by the looks of it - you do read music .. which would make sense - even if as a young person you hadn't learnt that yet.

Playing as the originators of your art used to do - I would imagine bring the music from your depths .. as you explained to us at your talk ..

Gosh - it must be fascinating playing a genre that allows you to improvise, to play to score, and also play as you feel, or as just comes .. a real artist, who is exploiting his art to the professional fill.

To the authors who come over and comment, and to those of us .. who just write = me! .. what you're describing is the method of writing a story - it's interesting for a non-author, like me, to read.

Interesting that you mention Robert McKee - I have his book here "Story" .. so now I shall read it with an added interest ..

I'll certainly have a look over at your site .. and section dedicated to The Originals .. and thank you for pointing us in that direction ..

It will be an interesting read ..

You too - have a good summer .. and hope to meet up with you again at some stage ..

and perhaps you'll consider a blog post here? It would be great ..

Many thanks for a wonderful informative afternoon and evening .. and for coming back to comment - it is appreciated ..

with best wishes - Hilary