Neil Brand at the PFA

Last night my friends Ildi, Peter, Laura, and I attended a special PFA event featuring Neil Brand:


Lecture and Piano Accompaniment by Neil Brand

Gain a new perspective on film, music, and the creative process in this special evening with Neil Brand, one of the best-known silent film accompanists working today. Brand will lead the audience through the creation of an improvised score, playing piano accompaniment to excerpts from Pandora’s Box (G. W. Pabst, 1929), South (Frank Hurley, 1919), and Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak, 1930)—as well as one clip from the PFA Collection that will be a surprise to both the audience and Brand himself—and discussing ideas of emotional color and narrative structure in a presentation that promises to be funny, self-revealing, and provocative. This talk is adapted from a lecture first delivered at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in memory of New Zealand’s Jonathan Dennis, a tireless archivist, champion of silent film, and dear friend of PFA who passed away in 2002.

I must say that the lecture/demonstration exceeded my already high expectations for the evening. Granted, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Though I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing about how a piano player might create a “sound track” for a silent film, I could see why a lot of my friends couldn’t care for it; how relevant is silent film today?

Plenty relevant, I learned from Neil Brand. First of all, he pointed out how much we expect music to be part of the films we see. But isn’t that a bit odd? Why do we want a rousing orchestral accompaniment to big dramatic events like a plane crash or an invasion in our movies? That’s pretty far from reality. Hence, the way that music is created for silent films provides a wonderful window into how music is created for today’s movies. We might not think too hard about the soundtracks of today’s films since we take them for granted. Having Neil Brand create that music for a film that was made years ago — something we don’t experience very often — helps unsettle what we take for granted.

The amazing thing about “piano players” like Neil Brand (he never said “pianists”) is that they often improvise the scores to films! So he is providing real time commentary to the film that must bring out key elements while not being overbearing. And he has to do it when he doesn’t even know what the film will be about ahead of time. Rather amazing how many things piano accompanists would have to keep track of, all the while spinning out music suitable for the film.

Another key insight I got last night: silent films are far from dead. Why? Because there are a lot of amateur videographers — parents, for instances, with videocams who are essentially making silent films. OK — the films of little Johnny or Joanne have some meaningful audio. By and large, however, these videos are just crying out to have a soundtrack. The vast majority of us are not in the creative position that Neil Brand is. While we reach out for the CD of some music that we particularly like and think might fit as background music for our little masterpieces, Brand can write and improvise his own scores. So far from being relic of dead art — Neil Brand has the gifts and skills that I’d love to have for my own media work. Would it be great for me to film aspects of life around me and sit down at the piano to improvise a score for it?

It seems that there is a chance that Neil Brand will be back at the PFA next year. Don’t miss him the next time around!