FAQs

1. How did you get into being a silent film pianist?

I’ve always loved films and been able to play the piano by ear but I actually studied Drama at university. On leaving in 1980 I was involved with a group of college friends in running a theatre company and arts centre in an old cinema in Eastbourne (the Tivoli, now pulled down). In 1984 The Eastbourne Film Society used the centre for screening films and asked if I would be interested in accompanying Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill Jnr’ – I agreed, put together about 20 minutes of material and trusted to luck. At the first performance I found I was able to improvise with the film and grew in confidence with every laugh, even though at the end I couldn't remember what I had played! Shortly after I auditioned for the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) and became one of their regular piano accompanists.

2. How do you prepare to play a silent film?

That depends - if it's a film I don't know I ask people who have seen it what they make of it, and to give me some idea of the story arc - but I try not to see it beforehand, and certainly don't play it before playing it for the first time in front of an audience - that way my score is fresh and I find my way into the problems and pleasures of the film at the same time as the audience.

3. Do you think your drama background helps you to play silent films?

Absolutely. I see a story as one through line, with subtexts operating continuously that I try to find - I try to see how characters are developing so that I can get ahead of the action, even with a film I haven't seen before. I try to play films 'from the inside outwards', in other words I try to feel the emotions of the film myself, then turn those feelings into music, the way that an actor turns them into performance.

4. What is your main job as a silent film pianist?

As I see it, my job is to focus the audience as intently on the content of the film as possible, to metaphorically lock the auditorium doors so that 2015 can't intrude, and them draw them deeply into what the film is doing, be that comedy, tragedy, romance, action or horror - the piano should build a bridge between a film of 1895-1929 and an audience of 2015, smoothing out the rough edges, barrelling through the bumpy bits, stopping to enjoy the pleasures and timeless moments and disappearing, up to a point, into the background of the experience. I am delighted when people say 'I forgot you were there...' because that means the music sounded like it was being created by the film itself.

5. Is there a difference between playing something live and composing a score for it?

Yes, very much so. When I'm playing live I don't try to hold a score in my head, I go down interesting new byways in the moment of playing, particularly when I'm playing a film I've played a lot. That way the music will sound fresh. When I'm composing something I don't have the inspiration or adrenalin of a live audience, I have to think quite carefully about every moment of it. I'm lucky that all the films I have scored for orchestra I have played many times on the piano and so a 'score' has begun to form while I've played it which forms the basis of my orchestral score. It means that when I have scored a film I can't play it on the piano for a good few years afterwards because I've tried to put my definitive score into the world of orchestral texture - after that the piano won't be enough in my mind, until I have put a bit of distance between the work I did on it and playing it as an improv again.

6. Where do you begin with scoring for orchestra?

I still work to melodies and rhythmic motifs the way I would as a pianist but I always start by thinking what instrument would best represent my idea of the film, or a specific character within it? In Underground, I knew from the start that the troubled Kate would be 'sung' by a Cor Anglais, which is a dark, oboe-like sound. She is vulnerable, often shot in shadow, and I needed the audience to empathise with her otherwise the whole second half of the film wouldn't work. Then I try to make the music work alongside the momentum of the film, but not commenting too directly, ust pointing up the subtext of the story and supporting the drama.

7. How do you go about writing your radio adaptations for actors and orchestra?

Choosing the book is the hardest thing. Wind in the Willows is a picaresque book full of individual scenes, Christmas Carol is a single, intense arrow-shot through the story. Both have wonderful opportunities for music, and that's what I start with. I adapt the book with a view to chain-linking the 'musical' high-points, then try to move as swiftly and smoothly from one to the next. Once the text is adapted I record myself reading it onto computer at roughly the right speed and then score that from start to finish. I also try to have at least one read-through with actors before I finish the scoring so as to judge the momentum of the piece. I also tend to cut a lot of text in rehearsal. Then I cue the actors to the music in the recording itself.