Stella Dallas (1925) Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film.
“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.”
“The silent pictures were the purest forms of Cinema.”
There is nothing quite like the live experience of Silent Film to reconnect us to the power of pure visual storytelling. Coupled with the immediacy of sound every performance is unique, appealing to our basic human need for connection and illumination. From the earliest flickers of light on cave walls to projected images on the cinema screen, it’s here in the dark that we make sense of ourselves, individually and collectively. The Silent era is a wellspring of creative innovation and imaginative possibilities, testing the boundaries of the new medium in visionary ways. If you wanted effects in the early days of film you had to hands on invent them, grappling and redefining your Craft in the process. For contemporary artists/ musicians and audiences, stripping the medium back to the clarity of black and white with musical accompaniment, experienced directly by the audience, is a creatively liberating experience. In the hands of the right accompanist(s) an entirely different relationship between moving images and sound emerges. It isn’t about lazy emotional button pushing, providing sound effects, an overlaid decorative soundtrack or the ego of the musician(s) on stage. At its best Silent Film accompaniment is the Art of placing the film centre stage- taking your cues directly from what the film projects into your own soul, mirrored in the hearts and minds of the audience. At its highest level it’s an Art of interpretation rather than illustration, integrating sound and image to such a degree that as a viewer it becomes impossible to consciously separate them.
The Hippodrome Cinema, Bo’ness. Image Courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.
Now in its 6th year, The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is an annual event unlike any other, bringing the best Silent Film accompanists in the world to Bo’ness every March. Held in Scotland’s oldest purpose built picture house (opened in March 1912) and other sites in the town, it’s the perfect place to rediscover Film. The atmosphere of the Hippodrome is intimately spacious, combining a sense of community with a celestial high domed ceiling of deep indigo peppered with stars and a rising sun above the screen, decoratively restored circa 1926. Night and day are perceptively under one roof and enfolded in the circular embrace of the architecture, you feel part of the seemingly infinite space above, ready to be transported beyond the everyday. The building is reminiscent of an astronomical observatory or a pre-Deco temple of dreams and illuminations. Heightened perception and the collective experience of Cinema is part of the architectural design and also central to the appeal of a festival “where Movies and Music come alive” through palpable energy of live performance.
Musical improvisation in direct response to film is a particularly skilled Art of being absolutely present in the moment, aurally serving the story/ vision on screen and communicating human experience sonically with the audience. Over the years I’ve watched many orchestras, ensembles and soloists accompany Silent Film, but I have seldom seen a more complete union of Craft, musicianship, artistry, intuition and expression than in the extraordinary duo of Stephen Horne (piano, flute, accordion) and Frank Bockius (percussion). Their interpretation of Ewald André Dupont’s Variety (1925), harnessed the raw emotion and human complexity beneath the story of love, lust, moral corruption and redemption. Set in the circus carnival world of Hamburg and the theatre that was Weimar Berlin, it is the ill-fated tale of an unknown orphaned female immigrant, named after the cursed ship Berte Marie which brings her to port and into the life of a married carnival owner. Leading the audience deeper into the light and shade of the human psyche Horne and Bockius are perfectly matched. Although the duo has played at film festivals internationally, this was the first UK performance by Bockius, a collaboration made possible by the support of the Goethe –Institut, Glasgow. The level of applause from the audience clearly demonstrated that I wasn’t alone in being transfixed and elated by their satisfyingly layered interpretation. With no fixed score, the singular energy and intensity of their performance produced an unforgettable cinematic experience, one that simply cannot be replicated by any form of technology that currently exists or has yet to be invented. Between celluloid and sound the human connection was absolute.
Actor Emil Jannings in Variety (1925) Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema
Being in the service of cinematic storytelling is a quality shared by both artists and from the first note to the last the result was totally immersive. Variety is a film which like the paintings of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann portrays humanity’s base instincts, the sharp off kilter rhythms of a society wrestling with its own demise, lost in sensual distractions of the dance hall, cabaret and brothel, poised on a knife edge of human passion and obsession. Introduced by a drumroll of spectacle and channelling the spirit of Kurt Weill with entertaining unease, Horne and Bockius established in their opening sequence the moral compass of this work which is a good deal more complex than David Cairns’s accompanying film notes would suggest. The aural stage is set in alignment with tone and inner conflicts of the film, like the self-reflexive irony of the “Parisian Beauty Pageant”, a parade of dishevelled and dispossessed humanity placed on an inverted side show pedestal.
The beauty of this performance was the way that the internal motivations and impulses of the characters (which we share regardless of what age we live in) are revealed. Sound becoming integral to how we read film might seem like an obvious observation, were it not for the lack of this skill in much mainstream filmmaking and the consequent dulling of our collective senses. In the hands of Horne and Bockius accompaniment is more than a soundtrack, it’s integral to film’s internal architecture- emotionally, intuitively and intellectually, which is what made this performance so satisfying. Drums were used as a potent undercurrent of unconscious drives rather than an obvious illustrative driver. It’s achieving a deeper level of musical dialogue which makes this subtle duo such distinctive and consummate performers. The anticipatory combination of snare drums, coupled with the snake-like deception of the flute when ambiguous Femme Fatale Berte Marie transforms desire into persuasion is masterful. There was a musical knife edge lived in this performance that captured beautifully the moral dilemmas of the characters and the prevailing Zietgeist; transitional moments of complicity when a dutiful husband abandons his wife and becomes a murderer, surrendering to his passions and abandoning reason. This sense of teetering on the brink of moral collapse was communicated magnificently in sound and image, enhancing our experience of a largely unknown film and bringing its themes vividly to life through direct engagement with our internal and external senses.
This quality, like the world on screen has an immediate physicality; it’s in the blood beat raw energy of unbridled, exuberant Jazz, the plucked interior strings of the piano resonating in the nervous system, the heavy breath bellows of the accordion and in the melodic shame that twists like Carnival owner “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings) fingers through his belt when the awkward truth of his adultery is exposed. The way we experience the film as a live performance is simultaneously visceral and cerebral, triggered by inner projections of sound that enable us to discern more than just black and white morality or simplistic Melodrama. The precarious trapeze movement of Karl Freund’s “unchained camera” is coupled with the concentrated power of the close up, enabling audience identification with the human face and emotional trajectory of the film. The escalation of tension throughout this performance wasn’t loudly announced but crept in like the emotive power of jealousy itself. In the ticking suspense of night a Tibetan singing bowl scrapes and chimes with Huller’s inner torment; realising that the woman he has abandoned his wife and child for is sleeping with his acrobatic partner. In a café scene where he sees cartoon confirmation of this deceit, tension and Drama build in the scraped lower register of piano and crescendo of cymbals, a vibration of trembling emotion, surfacing in anger and causing the room to spin. Back in the dressing room preparing for the show, applying ghostly grease paint like a sad clown, we hear Huller’s resolve in the plodding rhythm of the piano adding emotional gravitas to the resignation we see contained in his desolate eyes. This isn’t cause and effect sound tracking but something far more nuanced, psychologically real and inwardly complex. The tone and human step of the piano conveys the loss of all happiness we see in Huller’s face and posture, in unison with the drum and skull motifs on the acrobat’s costumes which portend the entwined fates of the three unhappy lovers. I feel certain that if the author of the accompanying film notes had experienced this particular performance with its inner depth and insightful range of sound, his perception of Variety would be significantly expanded- because that’s exactly what great live accompaniment does. Over five days Hipp Fest provides opportunities to experience something spectacularly unique in cinematic terms and to reappraise how we watch, enjoy, appreciate and make films. It’s an experience that can’t be replicated at home watching a DVD, a posting on You Tube or seeing film on any reductively small screen.
The crowd pleasing Laurel and Hardy 1928 triple bill; From Soup to Nuts, We Faw Down, and Liberty accompanied by John Sweeney (piano) and Frank Bockius (percussion) was pure unadulterated enjoyment where the musical and comic timing resoundingly equalled each other. I can’t begin to explain why having a crab in your pants up a skyscraper scaffold or poking someone’s throat so they stick out their tongue is so damn funny! It’s a brand of physical comedy never goes out of style; universally timeless human foibles and outlandish scenarios stacked one on top of the other until all you can do is collapse in a heap with laughter, wiping the tears and cream pie out of your eyes. I haven’t had that much fun in a cinema for a long time, the accelerated pace and set up of visual gags brilliantly enhanced by the sheer quality of musicianship. Laughter really is the best medicine, especially when it’s shared.
Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.
Harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry’s interpretation of Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan (1924) was a moving, magical experience of childhood wonderment and adult recognition. True to the spirit of J.M.Barrie, who encouraged his audience regardless of age to see again through the eyes of a child, Baldry’s musical alignment with the film’s themes; loss of childhood innocence, the nature of motherhood and unconditional love, made this more than a whimsical fantasy for children. An early work by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, the film’s luminous, enchanting imagery, beautifully crafted special effects of fairies and flights of imagination are tempered with human fragility. The direct appeal to the audience; “do you believe” in fairies? to save Tinkerbell could easily have felt like pantomime, but Baldry’s musical interpretation of this film created the environment for a deeper level of perception. This moment of communal applause and engagement from the audience felt more about the magic of cinema and the collective function of storytelling, linked to the ancient bardic tradition of the harp, than just an amusing theatrical device. The direct appeal to camera presents the viewer with a mirror. How do we know who we are and what tribe we belong to? Art, Poetry, Music and in the case of Cinema, all three combined. In her introduction to the film Elizabeth-Jane Baldry highlighted the near loss of this explosively volatile silver nitrate film and the truly miraculous rediscovery/ restoration of the only surviving print in the world. Her performance naturally invoked childhood memory and I think for adults in the audience this was not without the acknowledgement and poignancy of loss. The harp is the perfect instrument to express this delicate vulnerability, the joyful state of eternal youth and the imaginative space that is Neverland. Exploring the timbre of the instrument through tactile sound; hands and metal on strings and the harp’s sound board, Baldry created a sense of the essential, ephemeral nature of human life; the loss and resistance we feel at different stages of maturation and the imaginative wonder that sets us free.
Early Chinese Cinema was brought into focus at this year’s Hipp Fest with a series of screenings and events in collaboration with the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. John Sweeney’s sensitive accompaniment to Sun Yu’s Daybreak (1933), starring Li Lili was a captivating study of society, politics and gender in a time of rapid industrial modernisation. The film encodes natural/rural and urban environments with the morality of good and evil, virtue and corruption, yet the human element of the drama is fascinatingly harder to define. The dynamics of the central female character; an innocent country girl sold into prostitution who becomes a strong willed, defiant, self-sacrificing woman, embodies the conflicted ambiguities of violence, revolution and the human cost of an emerging nation, driven by production. Daybreak also reflected the emphasis on silent women at Hipp Fest 2016, celebrating the work of (now lesser known) stars of the era such as Pola Negri, Beatrice Lillie, Anita Garvin and Marion Byron.
Hipp Fest has established a tradition of commissioning and touring new scores for Silent Film including this year’s world premiere of Hans Walter Kornblum’s Wunder der Schöpfung (Wonder of Creation 1925) with accompaniment composed and performed by Jazz duo Hershel 36. The stars being in alignment in terms of the band’s name, interest in space and a strong family connection with astronomy would have made this film an obvious choice, however gravitating towards what you know is not always the most creative or ultimately satisfying option for the artist(s) or the audience. Although the early animation and perceptions of space are of technical /historical interest, this episodic fusion of science, religion and fiction in seven parts has the overwhelming tone of an educational lecture, begging the accompanist to delve into its documentary subtext. I got the feeling that engagement with Silent Film was primarily a vehicle for Hershel 36 the band, rather than an opportunity to significantly push the creative boat out. There were hints of exploration in terms of the spatial qualities of sound which could have been developed further, but too often this promise gave way to snippets of synth soundtrack reminiscent of Blade Runner or The Clangers. For such expansive subject matter the accompaniment felt frustratingly narrow, although to be fair experimentation and experience in working with Silent Film are necessary for a deeper level of interpretation which the timescale of a single commission doesn’t usually permit. With the calibre of accompaniment at the festival so outstandingly high, I found this new score disappointingly obvious and hope that if Hershel 36 choose to accompany Silent Film again, they challenge themselves and the audience, dig deeper into their primary source material and really come to grips cross-disciplinary practice. Enthusiasm for your own music isn’t enough when it comes to accompanying Silent Film, you’ve got to examine your intent (it’s not about you it’s about the film) and refine your Craft as an artist (or group)in response to what’s on screen- doubly so in a professional arena where the bar is set so comparably high. Anything less than that looks and sounds painfully superficial and artistically self-indulgent, whatever the musical style. The finest performances at the festival were those that altered or enhanced perception of what was projected on screen. I am still thinking about them and I know I’ll remember them months and years from now.
With over 25 years’ experience in the Art of Silent Film accompaniment, musician and composer Stephen Horne is an artist who consistently raises the bar. The world premiere of his newly commissioned score for Henry King’s Stella Dallas (1925), written for piano, flute, accordion and harp and performed with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry was a highlight of the festival. The story of a mother’s love and sacrifice for her daughter is the story of parents the world over who want their children to have a better life than the one they were born into. In Stella Dallas the cost of the American dream; of bettering yourself, rising above poverty and circumstance, comes at enormous personal cost. Francis Marion’s screenplay presents complex portrayals of Motherhood, the Mother/ Daughter relationship, class, social mobility and the modern familial realities of separation, divorce and re-marriage. From the opening sequence in Springtime there’s the dappled light of Romance in the score but also the presence of underlying shadows; no love without loss. The main melodic theme introduced by the piano is naturally fluid, open and humanely fragile; a sweet melodic line that fades out with passing time and first love lost. Refreshingly Horne knows how and when to use silence and his sensitive orchestration informs our perception of the inner state of the characters. In many insightful ways the contradictions between what Stella appears to be in the eyes of the world and polite society and who she is are explored musically.
From the beginning the score enables the viewer to feel the dignity of the main character; a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, who does her best to adopt the right clothes and manners but remains who she is. There is something unreservedly compassionate about the musical/ cinematic frame through which we see Stella that is intuitively empathic, mirrored in the audience’s investment in the character because she is, like all of us, a flawed individual. Stella isn’t an idealised or demonised stereotype of a woman, but a person; instinctively brash, refreshingly direct, gaudy, gauche, “a disaster” of a mother (as she describes herself) but equally governed by innate integrity; a depth of unconditional love for her daughter that seemingly only her rival, her husband’s new wife Mrs Morrison, can understand. The “other woman”/ stepmother isn’t defined stereotypically either and the two women are brought together, united in mutual concern for the wellbeing of Stella’s daughter Laurel. Stella’s sacrifice in exiting her daughter’s life so that Laurel can move in respectable, educated circles and marry the man she loves is grounded in the sad truth, acknowledged by both mothers, that who Stella is isn’t compatible with securing her daughter’s happiness. The dialogue between harp and piano in this scene sets this tone of understanding between the two characters, their civilised acknowledgement of each other played against type and their selfless love for Laurel.
The emotional range of Belle Bennett’s performance as Stella and Stephen Horne’s music bring the viewer to powerful moments of recognition where we physically and emotionally project ourselves into the frame. A sequence where Stella is standing outside in the rain seeing her daughter’s wedding through a window is a particularly fine example. Initially the wedding march is announced grandly on the piano, then hushes as the viewer aurally stands in Stella’s shoes outside. We hear what character hears with all the intimacy and tenderness of the attendant piano. The brightly fluid theme is irrevocably changed; it heightens in tone to a moment of surrender and transformation we see on Stella’s face. We feel acutely in that in this moment, she is happy to die, fulfilled in witnessing her daughter’s happiness, in transcendence of her own destitution. The music acts like a conduit between inner and outer worlds, like the reflections on the window in this scene- the falling rain reflected on Laurel’s face shadowing a loss that has not been fully brought into her conscious awareness, yet there it is emerging in our own. There is great beauty and impressive restraint in paring down the musical palette, especially in relation to a film dealing with emotive subject matter. We are so used to being emotionally manipulated by mainstream movie soundtracks that to experience the subtleties of what image and sound can be is revelatory.
When Stella reads her daughter’s diary and decides that Laurel would be better off without her, she retreats from the room where her daughter is sleeping into sound, the dark night of her soul through the window is central to the composition within the frame and in the score, the lone flute turning to the isolation of one hand on the piano. We feel Stella turn in on herself in that moment of real time and awakening consciousness, realising what she must do and what she has to lose. It takes humility, artistry and understanding of the human condition to score a film like that, to create a space that feels true to the vision on screen and one that the audience is free to project themselves into without heavy handed, prescriptive musical prompts. Horne and Baldry performed their accompaniment with tremendous skill and understanding, absolutely in the service of the film and there could be no better introduction or experience of Stella Dallas than this performance of Horne’s new score. At its best Cinema humanely connects us all and that shared experience between filmmakers, accompanists and the audience is taken to a whole new level at Hipp Fest. Though I only managed to attend the final two days of the festival the experience was so rich, rewarding and entertaining I would recommend it to anyone, whether you are a film buff or not. It puts the world of talking photographs into perspective and in the hands of the best Silent Film accompanists in the world, the experience of what live Cinema can be is thrilling, inspirational and totally immersive.