(May 2013) Stephen Horne takes silent film accompaniment up a notch
This year the brilliant Stephen Horne accompanies two of the silent films in the Marcel L’Herbier season, Le Vertige and L’Inhumaine. We have asked him how he does it. Interview by Sara Cozzarin
How do you approach your silent film accompaniments?
My approach varies from event to event, according to a number of variables. Some of these can be quite prosaic – for example, how busy I am or how much I’m getting paid! But principally my approach is dictated by the film itself. Silent films, just like today’s films, benefit from music which is broadly sympathetic to their tone and genre. This usually means music that is not overtly ‘outside the box’. But there are exceptions -for example, L’Inhumaine is a very strange, abstract film, so my music will hopefully reflect this.
Even if a score was originally composed for a particular film, I don’t usually refer to it. One thing I think most people don’t realise is just what a huge amount of time is required to learn to play an original score – and, just as importantly, synchronise it with the film. If a score survives at all, it will frequently be incomplete or not match the surviving prints of the films. I’m not against recreating original scores at all – indeed, I think they are fascinating. But that’s just not my specialism.
Whether you completely improvise or not, you clearly still must have the ability to respond quickly to the image in front of you. Is this particularly challenging? Are there any secrets of the trade?
I started accompanying silents at the National Film Theatre over twenty years ago, and at that time pianists were not given advance screenings of the films that they were booked to accompany. This meant that, for about the first ten years or so, I accompanied every film ‘cold’. This is less of an issue for silent film musicians starting now, with DVDs and the internet, but it formed the way I approached the job. Obviously, to do the job adequately in those circumstances meant having to be able to both improvise and react quickly – turn on a musical sixpence, so to speak. I now frequently seem able to anticipate how a film is going to progress, in a way that feels almost telepathic. But I don’t think this is unique to me – I think it’s a characteristic of my generation of silent film accompanist! Although I have now produced several fully composed film scores, my training was as an improvising accompanist and that’s still essentially how I approach the job.
You are known for using multiple instruments. Which ones, and why? Just how do you make the transitions seamless?
I’ve only been a so-called ‘multi-instrumental’ accompanist for the last few years. For a very long time I only accompanied films on piano. But then one day I started to incorporate the flute, which I had stopped playing after University, and a couple of years later the accordion. Almost immediately it became my ‘USP’ – which can be a bit of a trap, because people expect it of me now! But although I think the piano is still on balance the best instrument for a solo accompaniment, people do seem to like to hear a change of sound world, even if it’s only for a short while. And recently I purchased a Theremin which I hope to use for L’ Inhumaine. I’m not making any promises, though – at the moment the noise I make with it is more akin to a feral fox than the ethereal effect I’m hoping to achieve eventually!
Darius Milhaud’s original score for L’Inhumaine is notoriously lost. I am interested in how you are going to be approaching this film. Were there any sequences that you found particularly inspiring or challenging?
Milhaud’s score for L’Inhumaine was apparently an integral part of Herbier’s conception, so it would be fascinating to experience how it worked with the film. But it doesn’t survive, so for me it’s an academic point. One could put together a medley score out of the music that Milhaud was composing during this period, which would be a perfectly valid approach. But for me the most important thing is for the music to be authentic to the spirit of the film and sometimes this can best be achieved by using techniques that wouldn’t have been available at the time that it was made. For example, I think that L’Inhumaine was trying to create an otherworldly mood and it’s possible that music which might have been considered otherworldly at the time would not have that effect any more. I want to make the film work for the audience that is watching it, by creating something that will have an effect on them equivalent to the one the film is striving for. In general, I like to wrap my own musical bubble around a film. One that is essentially timeless – in the sense of not feeling either overtly then or now.