Neil Brand is one of the most successful film pianists in the UK. He is a silent film accompanist at London’s National Film Theatre and he was invited by the DCA in collaboration with the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival on the 30th of September. The show started at about 7pm during which he performed the one -and a half-hour long film “The General”, featuring one of the most legendary actors of Hollywood, Buster Keaton. The performance of the live music during the projection of the film was spotless. I found myself laughing at the moments that I should be laughing, following the narrative untangle its way to the end.
The next day, Neil Brand visited St Andrews where he performed his own show in the Byre Studio Theatre on Abbey Street. The staging of this show was made possible as part of the Department of Film Studies Speaker Series. The world-known tour The Silent Pianist Speaks certainly entertained the St Andrews audience. The famous pianist explained to us how the creation of the sound for a particular sequence or a particular film is… well in simple words – is something that you have to feel. You have to sense the mood without the sound and then you have to gradually add the sound and enjoy it.
For the beginning of his partly comedic solo, the dramaturgist shared with the audience his own story about his acquaintance with sound. He went on to play the score for one of George Melies’ shorts “Voyage across the impossible: a cinematic imagination.” While he was playing the piano, he began explaining what was happening in the film. He created his own voice over and came up with a different story guiding us, also, to see his story.
He subsequently engaged the audience to an interactive game of identifying their emotions, trying to teach them how to find their own voice. With the constant help from the projection room, he performed the score for Rene Claire’s “Deux Timides”, pausing and starting to ask the audience questions. His questions included, “Do you think the man and the woman are going to kiss now? Or, do you not?” or “Hands up if you think this particular framing means something?” He always ended up mouthing out the correct answer and so as he continued playing the piano he slowly translated the answer into the sound narrative.
He finished by playing the first five minutes of the film “The fiddler of Florence” by Paul Czinner, a film that he has never seen before. His attempt to manage and play the sequence guessing the original mood that the film was firstly made in, was simply brilliant. Multitasking can be easy when the three actions you are doing do not complete each other. But what Brand created by looking at the screen and playing the piano whilst trying to accommodate his own very thoughts of what he thought was happening, sounds pretty hard to me.
The show left me wondering what must it take to become a film pianist? Reading body language for once but Neil Brand’s synchronization of rhythm, emotion and style are either inherent or really hard-worked. Either way, they are needed for the profession of a film pianist, something so rare and old, but elegantly established into contemporary society.