The Art of the Film Improviser

posted November 23, 2011

Whether composed on the fly or in his studio, Neil Brand’s music for silent films is always keyed by the footage

Neil Brand. Photo: Tom Catchesides


Neil Brand has been accompanying and composing for silent films for more than 25 years. Appearing around the world, he has built a reputation as one of the finest exponents of a century-old art.

His list of credits is long and varied, taking in several British Film Institute releases of silent classics, but also early avant-garde and Russian pre-Soviet cinema.

Tom Courtenay as Stan Laurel
His work ranges broadly across not only silent film, but the theatrical arts. He has, for example, toured widely with his shows “Where Does the Music Come From?” and “Neil Brand – the Silent Pianist Speaks.” He has also accompanied the renowned British comic Paul Merton on BBC television and on his nationally touring show, “Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns.”

Brand has also scored many television and radio dramas and documentaries for the BBC and others. He writes music for theatre, has written two award-winning musicals and eight radio plays including his 2006 portrait of Stan Laurel, Stan, which he adapted to great acclaim for BBC4 TV.

Brand’s book, Dramatic Notes: Foregrounding music in the Dramatic Experience (Arts Council Publications/University of Luton Press, 1998) is an introduction to the world of scoring music to drama with a series of interviews with distinguished practitioners.

The “doyen of silent film accompanists” as BBC Radio 4’s Torin Douglas called him, Brand keeps extremely busy. In 2008, the warmly received world premiere of his new score for Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent-film masterpiece, Blackmail (1929), entertained 5,000 people during the annual Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy. Daniel Gumble wrote on the CineVue blog: “Brand’s score has breathed new life into an already outstanding piece of work. He…has taken each of the film’s signature themes and developed them to an unprecedented degree. At times humorous and sweet, at others threatening and frightening, Blackmail, with this score, is surely as powerful and effective as any of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed achievements.”

Of a 2010 performance at the Barbican Centre in London, with Timothy Brock, another renowned figure in silent-film music, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Gumble added: “The results, I am glad to say were absolutely stunning. Brand’s score somehow manages to provide additional tones, textures and layers to the piece, enhancing each of the elements that made Blackmail such a success in the first place.”

Anthony Asquith's "Underground." Credit: BFI National Archive
Brand – and not only he – has high praise for Brock whom he calls “the world’s greatest exponent of conducting to silent film. He can synchronize music to film just by eye and by beating; he doesn’t do it with click or anything like that. He does astoundingly complex stuff to picture, and fits it perfectly. It’s amazing to see him work.” (Brock is the Chaplin family’s musical director, and has in recent years restored all Chaplin’s music for his films. He’s also a fine composer and orchestrator for silent film.)

In October 2011, Brand and Brock joined forces again on Brand’s new orchestral score for Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928). They presented the world premiere of the BFI’s restoration of the film, again at the Barbican theatre, performed again by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Silent-film accompaniment and composing was in something of a slump until Kevin Brownlow’s 1979 restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon, Brand believes.

[The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present in March 2012 Brownlow’s even fuller restoration of the film, with a score by Carl Davis, who will conduct a full symphony orchestra during the five and one-half hour production.]

Silent-movie audiences are fortunate that even so long tamed, Napoleon is capable of a conquest that makes careers like Brand’s viable.

Neil Brand spoke to Moving Image Archive News from his South London home.

MIAN: What has demand been for your musical performances with film, over recent years?

NB: I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I have to say that over the last five, I’ve seen a really big upswing in interest and awareness of silent film. I put that down to the turn of the millennium. It’s as if in 1999 nobody wanted to know very much about silent film because it was considered specialist. And in 2001, suddenly the whole of the 20th century was up for grabs, and in a funny sort of way silent film was no more distant than the Beatles.

Also at around that time a whole new generation of students came along who were interested in silent film for its own reasons. They weren’t looking at these movies as museum pieces or hangovers from a previous age. They were looking at them as working pieces of narrative in their own right.

Perhaps because we’re moving away from the technology of silent film, people are less intimidated by the alien nature of it?

I’m sure that’s true. Also I think there is an awareness now that because modern media tends to be quite fast moving, and particularly cinema, visual media, is very fast cutting, there is something about the silent-movie method of storytelling. You have no sound and everything is taken in visually, and you tend to have a slower pace of shot, but the shots are interesting in and of themselves. It’s quite an involving process. I think that may have made a difference.

Also, what I’ve noticed, particularly with a younger generation, is that they love the boldness of silent film: not just the boldness of acting and mis en scène, but the design boldness of it, the uses of black and white, and of interesting set design or costume. That all seems to carry a different emphasis than what today’s media carry, with their slightly more throwaway, consumerist take.

What kinds of signs are you seeing in terms of programming and demands for your own services.

The audiences are growing, for a start, particularly with comedies. I was very lucky to be involved with an extremely high-status comic in Britain called Paul Merton. He stars in a programme [Have I Got News for You, the BBC’s flagship panel show ] that can regularly command many million viewers on a Friday night. He’s very interested in silent comedy and has not only produced some TV programmes about silent comedy, which I was involved with, but we also went on the road with these films. And we were regularly playing to a thousand or fifteen hundred people. And since then, if ever I’ve played comedy I’ve tended to get hundreds instead of tens in the audiences.

Also, for the high-profile things like the London Film Festival, last November we filled Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, which is seven or eight hundred. I play in the open air in Trafalgar Square during the London Film Festival and in 2010 for the first time we got about 4,000 people.

In general there is more willingness to come out for these films, and an expectation of having a good time, as opposed to when I first started doing this job, and expectations were fairly low. Now they’re very high.

In the US it seems that silent film has often been something people suffer through, to learn the history of film, and the entertainment element doesn’t seem to have worked, for some time. Perhaps that is changing.

Neil Brand & the Dodge Brothers. Photo: Adam Prosser
In Britain and in Europe I’m seeing the best of the situation because I tend to play events in Europe that are regular, every year. And there’s one in particular, in Bonn, the Bonner Sommerkino. They hold that in an open square at Bonn University, and that can hold 2,000 people, and it runs for eight or nine nights. And they can play extremely esoteric stuff there, very unusual films, films that aren’t well known, and they will get that number coming out.

I think it’s partly longevity; they’ve been doing it for a long time. But also there is a sense that people have a real desire to know about these movies and to experience what they have to offer. When they work well, which is often the case, there’s a uniqueness about turning out on that night for that show with that music, because that is unrepeatable – the next time it won’t be quite like that; you’re there experiencing it in the moment and no one else can ever feel what you’re feeling, in that moment, at that time.

When you perform, what’s the breakdown, for you, between composition and improvisation? Do you go in with ideas for what you’re going to play?

Yeah, I’ve always improvised, and I love improvisation, and I’m quite happy to improvise to a film I’ve not seen before, because it does tend to draw music out of me that surprises me, particularly if the film is good and I’m really getting into the movie, it will produce the best music of which I’m capable. Having said that, I tend to plan the first couple of minutes, at least. And if I know there’s a high point or set piece in the film, I’ll have a rough idea of what I’m going to do with that.

But I find that the two different disciplines of composing and improvising require two different parts of my brain. If I’m improvising there’s an immediacy about it; I have to produce stuff there and then; whereas when I’m composing for silent film, I really take very detailed time and trouble over it.

I understand that when you compose, you work with a shot by shot analysis. What’s happening in your brain, when you’re doing that?

Neil Brand aims to get the hang of plot, mood, setting, and characters. Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail." Credit: BFI National Archive

People have asked me, don’t you ever run out of music? Absolutely not, because with every scene there are at least three levels of drama going on, and I’m looking at all three of those levels to see what is being sparked at any particular moment.

The outer level, the environment of the scene, is what’s going on outside of the scene, where is the scene taking place? Is it a hot day? Is it a cold day? Is it in a war? Is it in the middle of a party?

Then there’s the scene among the characters. What’s going on among them? What are the nuances of their relationship? Who’s in charge of the scene? Who has power?

And then the third level is, what’s going on in their heads? Are they thinking something different to what they’re saying? Is there some overriding context to them that another character maybe doesn’t understand or know about?

These give you tremendous amounts of material to link your music to. But with a good filmmaker – I’m thinking of someone like Hitchcock… With a Hitchcock silent, you’re producing a musical statement about once every five to ten seconds. And under those circumstances it makes sense to go deep within the drama and find what’s there, and really score it tightly. And as an improvising player, of course, I can’t do that. I’m always playing something more surface, a little more facile than I can produce as a composer.

Different approaches for different kinds of films?

Yes, the only way that it does move from improvisation towards score is if I’ve played a film a lot of times. I’m thinking of something like Pabst’s Pandora’s Box which I must have played 25 or 30 times in my career, maybe more. That, now, I have certain ideas that are so tried and tested that I know they’ll work, and I’ll come back to them every time I play the film.

How close to the edge do you live as you improvise? There’s the old adage in jazz that if you muff something, play it again and make it appear that you’ve meant it.

That’s exactly what I do, yeah. As long as your stumble hasn’t ruptured the audience’s involvement with the film, you’re fine. If you play a bum note, OK, some people might notice that; you go back and play it again and it’ll sound like it was intended all along.

The only time you can really fail, big time, I think, is if you’ve completely mistaken the arc of a film or the intention of a film and have utterly misrepresented it, and only realized it halfway or three-quarters of the way through. Then, it’s kind of too late.

One of the beauties of playing live is that you can say, ‘There you go, you’ve got to the end; have a drink; we’ll split up and we’ll never see each other again.

You contend that mythology around accompaniment has arisen due to there being so few records of what happened in the days of silent film.

I’m going particularly with my experience with British silents, here. I was brought up, as was all my generation, with the assumption that the music in silent films was no good. And it’s taken years of actually doing the job and coming across cue sheets and even a complete score for a British silent film, which I came across about 10 years ago, to realize that actually the musicians who did the job, in their day, were extremely good. For two reasons: One, they had to be very flexible in their use of the musical repertoire; for a start, you hardly ever had just a pianist; you almost certainly had a small ensemble. And, for an ensemble to be able to make a change in the music, from one key to the next, in a different place every night, which is what it would be because the film would be running at a different speed, so musically there was no point in saying, well, we’ll change on bar 38, because it might be bar 38 one night and bar 60 the next night, depending on how fast or how slow the film was running. That kind of precision with the allowance of flexibility that it needs, I think is amongst the finest musicianship you can imagine. And then when you extend that to the fact that in Britain there must have been, by 1927, 20,000 silent-movie musicians, that’s not 20,000 appalling piano players, that’s 20,000 pretty good musicians. And some of them would have been amongst the best in the country.

And I think the mythology grew up that they were no good because of a concerted effort of propaganda by the film studios when sound came in, because sound was in itself such an expensive gamble. They absolutely had to persuade their audiences that sound was the only alternative. It already had a built-in wow factor by the fact that you could hear sound and you could hear characters speak; but from November ’27, when you had The Jazz Singer, certainly until ’29, when Hitchcock makes something like Blackmail, in silent and sound, sound is not a done deal; it’s still a process that could actually, if not enough cinemas sign up to it, could fail, could take another couple of years, or more.

And part of getting audiences to say ‘Well, I’m going to take my money and go and see sound movies in a sound-equipped cinema rather than see silent, was in saying, ‘Oh, well, the music is always terrible, isn’t it? Those awful lives shows, and here you are, you get the same music wherever you see the film, which did count for a good deal – bad music can ruin a good film. The wrong bit of music in the wrong place can upset a film. So, yes, now you got to see the film with the same bit of music, everywhere.

That did make a huge difference. And I think that’s where this assumption came from.

How is the search for records of what was played going?

Really hard. The music was the most ephemeral thing in the ephemeral history of cinema. There aren’t many people out there able to find things, let alone pass it on to people. There are a few eyewitness accounts. I’ve put what I’ve found on my website. [See the site’s “Originals” section.]

There are some eyewitness accounts, and some cue sheets, bits and bobs, diary entries about the coming of sound and how one musician dealt with it…

But we will never have a consensus of opinion about how good the music was, in any particular time, because it was different in every hall, and there were thousands upon thousands of halls. My feeling is that the music was probably average to good in most halls. Average being, it didn’t ruin the film.

You’ve presented some findings about the life of a particular musician. Are there many musicians you can do that for?

Neil Brand. Photo: Tom Catchesides
That was the only one I’d found, where she’d written a very entertaining diary. That’s on my website, too.

The other place where there’s a very interesting and very clever account of being a silent-movie musician is in Anthony Burgess’s book, The Piano Players. Anthony Burgess’s father actually was a silent-movie pianist. And The Piano Players is a typical Anthony Burgess book – quirky characters and interesting narrative and so forth – but it’s set amongst that world, and it is a really interesting, in-depth look at it, from the really seamy side of it.

But you’d be hard-put to find any filmed interviews with people who were there.

It all speaks to the wisdom of archiving, now.

Yes, but then they thought, ‘What’s the point? Who’s going to want to know?’

An audio interview with Neil Brand, conducted for the Barbican Contemporary Music podcast, is online.

Brand described working on Anthony Asquith’s murder-thriller-romance Underground on the British Film Institute’s website.

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