The Castro Theatre audience for the screening of The Last Edition at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will have their enjoyment of the film enhanced by live accompaniment from musician Stephen Horne. Stephen has long been considered one of the leading silent film accompanists. Based at London’s BFI Southbank, Stephen also plays at all the major UK venues as well as major festivals across Europe and North America. Although principally a pianist, he often incorporates flute, accordion and keyboards into his performances, sometimes simultaneously.
He regularly performs internationally and in recent years his accompaniments have met with acclaim at film festivals in Pordenone, Telluride, San Francisco, Cannes, Bologna and Berlin. He has performed his score for A Cottage on Dartmoor at many venues, including New York’s Lincoln Center and Washington’s National Gallery of Art. As an adjunct to his work in silent film, he occasionally collaborates with a small group which recreates magic lantern shows. He is also a specialist in dance accompaniment and plays regularly at the London dance academies.
We talked recently with Stephen about his plans for the Castro performance, his methods for developing accompaniments and of his own enjoyment when in the audience.
In watching a film, and in considering the music you will perform for it, do you tend to follow the first ideas that occur to you, or wait until you have finished watching?
It all depends – there have been plenty of cases where both have happened. I tend to know fairly quickly what general approach I’m going to take and then ideas about how to deal with specific moments sometimes hit me like ‘no brainers’.
What did you think of the The Last Edition on your first watching, and which themes do you wish to emphasis with your accompaniment?
Firstly I thought Rob [Byrne] had done a fabulous job with what I imagine was difficult source material. It’s a great little movie and a fantastic candidate for restoration. I don’t mean ‘little’ in the pejorative sense, but there’s something of the ‘pot boiler’ / Saturday night popcorn movie about it. But I love those kind of movies!
I think the local audience will particularly get a kick out of seeing San Francisco as it was back in 1925. One initial idea I had was to use lots of songs that specifically reference the city. But I then found out that nearly all of the famous ones were composed after this film was made. There seems little point in being clever if people aren’t going to realise what you’re doing! The only reasonably familiar one that I found from before 1925 was Irving Berlin’s ‘San Francisco Bound’, which I may well use. If anyone has other suggestions, let me know! Perhaps we can turn the show into a singalong!
How do you like to approach the writing of music and its performance for historical films? Do you think it is desirable to emphasis a style that would have been contemporary to a film’s release?
Well it’s not specifically what I do, although I love hearing authentic period scores by other musicians. Although I’m increasingly compositional in my approach, for a long time I completely improvised my accompaniments. This was largely dictated by the fact that, when I started accompanying films at London’s National Film Theatre, I didn’t get advance screenings. So most of the time I would accompany a film ‘blind’ during the actual public performance. That was hard obviously, but I’m very happy that I learnt my trade that way, as I think it forced me to react from moment-to-moment: climb inside it, so to speak. And it certainly sharpened my responses!
You frequently make use of a number of instruments in your accompaniments. Do you tend to use particular instruments for certain moods or styles, and which might we expect to hear during The Last Edition?
Usually when I watch a film in preparation, those moments leap out to me. Again there are no rules, but I often use flute in reflective moments and the accordion to underline shifts in geography or culture. But both instruments can also be useful in comic moments. At the risk of disappointing, when I first saw The Last Edition I thought ‘this is a piano solo film’. There’s something about it’s muscular no-nonsense style that seems to require a straight-down-the-line accompaniment. But now I can see a couple of brief opportunities, so who knows?
For The Last Edition you will be performing solo. How do you compare this experience to accompanying a film as part of group of musicians?
It’s both more and less stressful! More in the sense that there’s no-one else around to give you a breather or absorb your weaknesses. Less in the sense that, as I’m usually in charge when playing in a group, I’m responsible for other people… and there’s nothing more stressful than that! But in terms of quality of experience, they both have their own rewards.
Finally, what do you personally like to hear as an audience member when watching an accompanied film?
I’m very non-prescriptive: I’ve liked both period-authentic and modern accompaniments. I’m not keen on overly repetitive scores and I like them to have a decent amount of synchronisation with the film (which is not the same as Micky Mousing [the close mimicry of the music accompanying a film to physical actions as they appear on screen] ). I don’t even mind musically anachronistic interventions, as long as they’re intelligent and I can ascertain that they’re responding to something real in the film. I enjoy hearing a musical thought process evolve, even if it runs counter to what I would do.