A few weeks ago I went to London's Barbican to see the silent version of Blackmail, with a new score performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and written by tipples topples movie music legend Neil Brand. It was totes amazaboggles, and looked and sounded a bit like this, only a bazillion times bigger, louder and betterer.
Brand's new score improves the movie incalculably. Reminiscent of, but not in thrall to, the likes of Bernard Herrmann, his music reinvents Blackmail as a film that's as witty, taut and tense as much of Hitch's better-known pictures.
Neil Brand has been scoring silent films for over 25 years, and I've seen him perform several times since I first encountered him when he visited my university *cough* years ago. His work with Paul Merton on their 'Silent Clowns' live tour has brought the magic of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the like to new audiences of jaded grown-ups and Transformers-fed children, all of whom had their souls enriched by the wondrous powers of silent comedy.
Brand also accompanied Anthony Asquith's Underground at last year's London Film Festival, which somebody wrote an excellent piece about here, and if you ache for further Brandery that there isn't room for here, have a look at his website.
The Incredible Suit was therefore quite excited when Neil Brand agreed to another future-award-winning interview to discuss his work, his thoughts on silent film music in a modern world and his troubling feelings about Channel Five newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky.
|Hello Neil. Now then, this score you’ve done for Blackmail. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Come on now, don’t be modest. |
I'm hugely proud of it and slightly awed it came off as well as it did. Two things got Blackmail into the full orchestral zone - Cubase sequencing software and conductor Timothy Brock, who took my work and fashioned it into a final orchestration which blew everybody away. Tim has a wonderful way with orchestras and a real perfectionism for hitting his cues, and I gave him some horrible things to hit - shop bells, the first kiss on the cheek,
When I first heard the full score played by an orchestra I cried like a baby all the way through - it was everything I love about movie scores, and the
Are there likely to be any more performances of your scores for Blackmail or Underground? People might not believe me when I bang on about them so they need to hear them for themselves.
I really hope so, although financially this couldn't be a worse time to be dealing in luxury goods like full orchestral scores. Part of this whole initiative for me is to throw a bright light on British silent movies - we have a great repertoire of pre-sound film which is very rarely seen and almost never critically assessed.
The BFI National Archive is doing sterling work to get many of these films digitally restored and out into the public arena, and it matters to me a great deal that they are noticed, nationally and internationally, and our own film industry appreciated from its inception, not just after 1930.
Quite right too. Your score for Blackmail feels definitive, but do you think there’s room for more than for the same film? In theory anyone could have a go, couldn’t they?
Have you ever been tempted to knock out a completely alternative score for something like Psycho or Vertigo just for fun?
I wouldn't dare.
I admire your restraint. So do you sit at home at the piano improvising scores for EastEnders or the news while they’re on? I’d love to hear your music swelling behind Huw Edwards.
No, but that's as good a way as any to train up as a media composer - I couldn't manage music for Huw Edwards but I find Natasha Kaplinsky curiously inspiring...
Erm… OK. Moving on, are we seeing a resurgence in the popularity of silent films with live scores?
Without a doubt. I've been playing these films for more than 25 years and I've seen them go from slightly embarrassing one-off heritage fests to mainstream cinema, with the audiences for them growing exponentially with the availability of the material.
Why do you think that is?
Knowing at second hand just how stressful, thankless and maddening major soundtrack scoring can be for a composer, no thanks. Although if they ever make The Natasha Kaplinsky Story I hope they'll come to me first.
Hmm. Don’t hold your breath. OK, obvious question time. Which film score composers do you admire the most? I will allow you three from the “Dead Or Retired” section and two from the “Still Alive, Still Working” section.
Miklós Rózsa, Malcolm Arnold and Franz Waxman (dead), Richard Rodney Bennett and John Williams (still alive/working).
You meanie. Just for that I’m going to hit you with my hardest, most Paxmanesque interrogatory question. What’s your favourite colour?
Wedgewood Blue - looks great on pottery, also makes some of the houses stand out in The Prisoner.
Like it. Now it’s customary at this point for interviewees to make an unprompted, witty but conveniently concise compliment about The Incredible Suit, even if it’s a lie. Go!
You're gorgeous. GORGEOUS!!
Yes. Yes I am. Neil Brand, thank you very much.
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