A Conversation with Silent Film Accompanist Stephen Horne – Coming to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, May 28 – June 1

by Sean Martinfield | See: All, By Sean, Sean's Reviews and Interviews

Pianist Stephen Horne is one of the most sought after musicians in the world of silent film accompaniment. He returns to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival which celebrates its 20th Anniversary at the Castro Theatre, May 28 through June 1. Stephen will accompany the following films:
Castro TheatreWhen the Earth Trembled, aka, Quand le Terre Trembla and The Strength of Love (1913) – Friday, May 29, 4:00 PM

The Ghost Train, aka, Der Geisterzug (1927)– Friday, May 29, 9:30 PM
Visages d’enfants, aka, Mother (1925) – Saturday, May 30, 1:00 PM
Ménilmontant (1926) – Sunday, May 31, 12:30 PM
The Swallow and the Titmouse, aka, L’Hirondelle et la Mésange (1920) – Sunday, May 31, 9:30 PM

The discovery, restoration, preservation, and distribution of films produced in the age before Talkies is very much a blossoming industry and one which inspires international attention and co-operation. Where and why the films were produced – along with how a print or fragments from multiple prints managed to survive – sets this particular art form apart from all other cinematic expression. Musical accompaniment is an integral part of the Silent Film experience. For over three decades, from roughly 1891 to 1927 – some variety of live music was used to amplify the dramatic content of the narrative and, eventually, to enhance the commercial appeal of the featured performers. Stephen’s solo appearances at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco have not only proven to be a major contribution to the success of the annual festival, but have secured the attention of young viewers who can now view a silent classic – such as A Cottage on Dartmoor and with accompaniment by Stephen Horne – on their wrist watch.

“For me,” said Stephen, “the important thing is to make these films continue to have a life. This is an audience in the 21st century. It doesn’t mean that you talk down to them – that you accompany a silent film with Lady Gaga or whatever. You have to strike a balance. You have to acknowledge that what played well at the time the film was produced may not play well now. We can be true to the intent of the filmmaker without necessarily being completely true to how the film was initially presented.”

First on the bill for Stephen is When the Earth Trembled, a 48-minute romance drama set against the backdrop of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Stephen accompanied the world premiere of the restored film last month in Amsterdam.

When the Earth Trembled“It’s quite a nice little film. Don’t get your hopes up for it being any great cinematic masterpiece. It has more than just historical interest. It’s a neat little story and it does have some very short images of the aftermath of the earthquake, so you’ve got some shots of the devastation. That’s something to be excited about. As a film, there’s relatively little material that is recognizably San Francisco. But the film is interesting because it’s like the first disaster movie. When I watched it, I was quite intrigued at how much it follows the narrative pattern of subsequent disaster movies – in that you’d quite expect the earthquake to be the climax of the film, that everything would lead up to that. It actually happens in the first third of the film and everything else is about the consequences. It’s quite interesting when you think about things like The Poseidon Adventure – where it happens in the beginning and everything else is about trying to escape from the ship.”

The 1906 quake reached a magnitude of 7.9. The special effects created for MGM’s 1936 classic treatment of the event, San Francisco, were aided by the talents of the great silent film director, D.W. Griffith. The chilling roar of the trembling earth was handled by the studio’s much-awarded sound director, Douglas Shearer. How will Stephen convey this horror at the keyboard?

“Well, there may be an intervention in the film – which I don’t want to give away. If we manage to bring it off, hopefully, it will be a surprise for the audience. I can do a lot on the piano with acoustic effects – like, strumming the strings and things like that. But, that’s quite limited. I’ve just proposed an idea which will bring an extra element of theatre to the event.”

The Ghost Train (1926)“The only film that was completely new to me for this festival was Ménilmontant, a 45-minute avant garde film. They sent me a downloadable link to view it. For all of the films – I will come partially prepared. Traditionally, I have always been an improvising accompanist. These days, I now come more prepared than I used to. That has a lot to do with the fact that I now incorporate other instruments. I find that though I’m quite happy to play for some on solo piano, when I use other instruments I like to have a purpose and a meaning. So, that’s one thing that I prepare. I also like my accompaniment to have recurring themes and melodies so that you feel it’s a score and not just noodling.”
Stephen totally changed my perspective on silent film when he accompanied Anthony Asquith’s 1929 masterpiece, A Cottage on Dartmoor, at the 2007 festival. He had actually recorded his score for the DVD released by The British Film Institute earlier that year. I asked Stephen if he regretted that many of his live accompaniments were not recorded. Have those scores faded from memory? Would he be able to call them up for some future booking?

Andre Antoine, Director“It’s sort-of yes and no, really. I would never say that every single screening has been 100% new. I do fully admit to recycling ideas and preparing for them in advance. Among the things that have been most striking are probably still in my memory. I think there is a certain beauty to the ephemeral nature of live accompaniment, the live experience. The fact that it’s the only one we’ll ever hear – that performance, in exactly the way that it was on that occasion. I have a recording of the San Francisco performance of A Cottage on Dartmoor – which I think is superior to the one I gave on the DVD. It’s an interesting thing when you record for a DVD that you don’t get any missed notes, because you can go back and re-record. But there’s a power to the live performance when it flies like it did that night. There were plenty of wrong notes, but it had this kind of energy that you don’t get in this kind of clinical environment of the studio. But, yes, it is quite a strange thing to have got twenty-five years into your career and think it’s all been fleeting. I would like to record some of my music. There are a couple of projects I’m trying to get off the ground before the end of the year. Time is the main problem. I have a busy performance schedule and these projects keep getting bumped by a year here and there.”

Diana RowanStephen will collaborate with Bay Area harpist Diana Rowan for director André Antoine’s 1920 production of The Swallow and the Titmouse (L’Hirondelle et la Mésange). The title refers to two supply barges servicing areas still suffering from the effects of the war. Not released until 1984, Antoine’s six hours of footage were assembled into an appealing seventy-nine minute drama by celebrated editor Henri Colpi (Hiroshima Mon Amour; Bilitis). Stephen and Diana have also worked together on The Manxman – Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film, released in 1929.

Over the course of the SF Silent Film Festival’s twenty-year history there has been a certain amount of colorful discussion about traditional accompaniment, i.e., holding a score to whatever music had been around up to the time of the film’s release – a vast volume, to be sure. Though I never fully subscribed to that position, thanks to the wide variety of outstanding musicians and ensembles who have played the Festival, I no longer hold to it at all.

“I’ve never pitted myself against another musician. I just came back from this festival in Finland called Loud Silents – which specializes in non-historical accompaniment. So, you have accompaniment by DJs, electric guitars, and heavy metal. It was ironic, because usually I’m considered more of an experimental musician and there I was representing tradition. I’m a very non-didactic person. I would never criticize another musician doing what they do. I think it’s a balancing act. I think it’s important that historical practices are maintained. I’ve heard some historical scores that have moved me a lot.Selfie, Stephen HorneThe San Francisco festival is very good at that. My own approach is to play the film that I see and feel, primarily. In terms of the musical language, I’m not thinking too much of history, although I personally avoid anachronism – such as, incorporating an instrument that was not around in the 1920s, like electric guitar. Having said that, in Finland I put together and led an accompaniment for Hitchcock’s Blackmail that included electric guitar. So, my feeling is – never say never. I think I do things for authenticity. But the authenticity I’m for is to be true to the spirit in which the film was made. There are some films where I think modern interventions can work because the underlining spirit of the film is modern and freewheeling. But generally, it can be a distraction. That’s my personal approach. I am more concerned with trying to create music that is timeless rather than of a particular time, so that you’re not sitting there thinking that it sounds like music from the 1920s or from the 21st century. It’s just a score that feels right in that moment.”

Click here for more information and to order tickets online: FESTIVAL 2015

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