Recognised as the ‘doyen of silent film pianists’, Neil Brand has been accompanying silent films for nearly 30 years and is considered to be one of the finest exponents of improvised silent film accompaniment in the world. He recently presented the BBC Four series Sound of Song, hot on the heels of his previous series, the highly acclaimed Sound of Cinema.
After accompanying Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring and an evening of Christmas-themed silent cinema in 2015, Brand returns to the Royal Albert Hall in 2016 to accompany the iconic silent classic Beggars of Life. We recently had the opportunity to interview Neil about his fascinating profession and his passion for silent cinema.
How did you first get into silent film accompaniment? Has piano always been your instrument of choice?
I could always play the piano by ear, and what I heard that I liked, I would try to recreate the harmonies. The result was that I was a better improvising pianist than sight-reader from a very early age, and when I went to university to study drama I found they needed my musical skills as well. I was asked by Eastbourne Film Society to accompany Steamboat Bill Jnr in 1984 and enjoyed that first experience so much I tried to make a career of it. I auditioned for the National Film Theatre and from then on really learned about the riches of every country’s output of silent films.
I’ve always loved the piano because it is such a ‘complete’ sound. You can be an orchestra on the piano.
Do you usually prepare a set piece of music for each film you accompany? How much improvisation is involved when you play?
I seldom if ever prepare anything except the first few chords in the seconds before I play, as I much prefer to be ‘in the moment’ and feel the music working as I watch and accompany the film. With some well-known movies I have played them so often that a ‘score’ has begun to form, made up of ideas that seem to work. Those have given me the basis for the orchestral scores I have written. But usually I see what comes out during a movie and follow those ideas and themes to see where they go.
Buster Keaton in The Frozen North (1922)
What would you say are the key elements of effective musical accompaniment?
First and most importantly not to let the audience ‘out’ of the film – the music must feel as if it’s being created by the film and must hold the audience inside the movie, making them forget everything else. That’s why I don’t play familiar music and often try to make the music as simple as possible. Then, the music should reflect the movie from second to second, so that there is no slippage between what we are seeing and what we are hearing. That way the audience can really lose themselves in a film.
Most people are familiar with the work of Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy, but are there any silent films that you feel have been particularly neglected? Any hidden gems you’d like to recommend?
I’ve become a big fan of the ‘B movies’ of silent cinema, the less well-known movies that don’t take themselves too seriously but just entertain, and also genre pictures that have their counterparts in mainstream movies today, so films like Beggars of Life, Capra’s movie Submarine, a Soviet space sci-fi that I’m scoring for DVD release called Cosmic Voyage, the lesser-known comics like Charlie Chase and Raymond Griffith, dramas like Diary of a Lost Girl and Cottage on Dartmoor, gangster pictures like Underworld or Docks of New York, horrors such as The Unknown (Lon Chaney as an armless knife-thrower!) and Waxworks – action pictures, westerns, anything with trains in…sensational stuff!
In March the Hall we screened Beggars of Life with live accompaniment from the Dodge Brothers and yourself. What drew you to this project? Why do you think Louise Brooks has endured as a cultural icon whereas many silent stars are now largely forgotten?
I was looking for a film that would suit the Dodge Bros’ brand of Americana and came across this classic set amongst hobos riding the rails of late 20s America – its like a pre-Depression Depression movie, full of action and real romance. Perfect for us as it works well with Blues and Skiffle as well as having some tunes that were exactly contemporary with the film, including the title song.
Also, Brooks looks so modern in every film she plays in, so there is somehow a bridge between the age of the film and the modern audience. I think that’s also what the music should provide, and it is very easy to play for LB as she is so watchable. People respond to her in a way they find difficult with many 20s actresses.
Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life (1928)
Why is silent film important? What would you say to convince someone to try one?
Silent film gives us at least two experiences in one – film and music. The effect is actually very theatrical and unlike either cinema or a live concert – every performance is unique and will touch us as an audience in a way no other art form can. It is very hard to explain that to somebody who has never experienced it so I can only say, if you haven’t tried it, give it a go. You will be doing yourself a favour and will want to see more. Also, if you don’t try it, you are missing out on the riches of the first thirty years of cinema.
Which films would you like to bring to the Hall in future? Are there are any you haven’t performed before that you’re very keen to try?
There are so many, of every genre, many of which I’ve mentioned above. The main point of silent film at the Hall is to entertain in a unique way, so the field for movies is wide open. I love the cabaret-style ambience here, the bar being open, the relaxed atmosphere – that is the hallmark of enjoying silent film, not to treat it like a museum experience but as it was supposed to be treated – as a relaxed, life-enhancing moment spent in two times simultaneously.