Joined: 25 Jan 2005
Location: Bonnie Scotland
|Posted: Mon Sep 10, 2007 11:30 pm Post subject: NEIL BRAND: The Silent Film Pianist Speaks
Neil Brand discusses working with Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy
JAY RICHARDSON WRITES...
I’m sat, listening to Neil Brand expound upon the history of silent film, when he glances over, across the hotel lobby and acknowledges his principal ally in reviving interest in the works of Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. Without breaking stride, Paul Merton sallies on past and announces “don’t believe a word”.
As a jobbing silent pianist, and by that I mean he’s constantly being invited to perform at the world’s most prestigious film festivals, Brand routinely eschews words for eloquent arrangements of music. Yet as someone whose career spans from before the talkies to the present day, at least according to definitive internet movie website IMDB, which eerily traces the 49-year-old’s collaborations back to the 1910s, the composer, actor and dramatist can’t half talk a fascinating history.
The previous day at a nearby cinema, I’d witnessed him score a restored print of Buster Keaton’s classic The General and heard Merton, for whose Silent Clowns TV show and live performances Brand played piano, chuckling at a film he’s undoubtedly seen tens of times, if not more. Like many in the audience I suspect, I was initially distracted by the novelty of this bespectacled chap at the piano, though after a while I ceased to notice even his distressingly bright shirt. A significant factor in this was obviously Keaton’s consummate physical performance, but another was the cocooning insulation of the accompanying music.
“It’s odd,” Brand reflects. “What you tend to find is that most audiences, for the first five or ten minutes, they’re mentally struggling with the fact that they’re watching a film and can’t hear anything else. Then something just clicks, I don’t know what it is that pulls them in.
“Still, I’m loath to keep them in that state, so that they don’t think of their environment or that they’re listening to a piano. I’m not one of those people who thinks that the best film score is the one you don’t hear. The best film score is the one you hear when you need to. What makes The General funny is that Keaton is under threat of death the whole time and you’ve got to play up that feeling of danger, it’s almost as if there’s no comedy without it.”
Brand enjoys “playing a film organically from the inside out, trying to get right inside the tune like it’s another character, though the screen is absolutely dictatorial, I only serve”. But in his Fringe show, The Silent Pianist Speaks, he’s using clips from some of silent cinema’s greatest scenes to send up aspects of his own 25-year career, as well as prising apart the artform to “show people who haven’t been to a silent film before that this music is analogous to a dramatic analysis going on second by second”.
What’s more, he’ll also be attempting to score a film he hasn’t seen before, playing a different sequence every day from a film to be chosen at random by the BFI.
“When you don’t know what’s coming up it’s a challenge, a real mental workout,” he maintains. “When I get it wrong, it’ll always get a laugh. Essentially, I’m saying that I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of this scene, is she going to … ah, ah … no. She’s not. Though curiously, when I’m saying ‘look at this moment here, this is what I’m specifically trying to do with the tune’, it feels more involving for the audience.
“When they’re really into it, they react to a silent film as if it were a sound film and often you hear coughs quelled or a laugh stifled in case they miss something. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting there, so deeply entrenched in playing that I forget they’re there too until the laughs come. So I’m looking forward to engaging a bit more directly.”
Because of the relative scarcity of surviving silent era prints, plus the enduring popularity of the big name comedians and certain landmarks like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Birth of a Nation – which interestingly, while scoring the KKK’s ride, Brand will “try to capture Griffiths’ sense of dramatic excitement, but underscore it with a funereal dirge to acknowledge our contemporary understanding of the social terrorism” – he has played a select number of films on countless occasions, yet maintains he rarely finds the repetition tedious.
“Most of the films I get to play are very good, because those are the ones that people want to see,” he explains. “Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business I must have played nearly 30 times in less than two years, but you never get bored of it because there’s always that little detail you missed the first 29 times.
“Yes, the laugh always belongs to the man or woman on screen but you can take a bit of credit for it, because when the audience has reached a peak and there’s been gag after gag on top of gag, that’s when I do my best communicating. I find myself rising on the gales of their laughter.”
Neil Brand is appearing in Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns across the UK throughout November and December 2007.
"Any bird can build a nest, but it isn't everyone who can lay an egg!"
Ross Owen, Grand Sheik,
Fra Diavolo Tent, Scotland