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As a tribute to the silent film era, IFFI 2019 has a section devoted to these movies. NT BUZZ meets the man who has been providing live music accompaniment during the screenings

The sounds of silence


Before the advent of sound technology in movies, filmmakers used to create silent films which relied on powerful visuals and some text to tell the story. These movie screenings were always accompanied by a musician who would provide live music to enhance the narrative and make it all the more immersive.

And this is precisely what British pianist Jonathan Lindsay Best or Jonny Best as he is popularly known as, specialises in. Except, there is a huge difference.

“What we musicians who work with silent films today tend to do, is very different from the way silent films used to be scored in that era. At that time the music tended to be made out of bits and pieces of existing music. Whereas we improvise music on the spot, while the screening is happening live. Thus, in a way we are reinventing these silent movies in quite different ways,” says Best, who began performing improvised piano performances for silent films in 2014 and has since performed in festivals across the United Kingdom like the Leeds International Film Festival and the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (Bo’ness). He also went on to start his own festival – the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival which has had three editions, bringing live-scored silent film to cinemas, theatres and village halls across Yorkshire.

Apart from this, he is also an academician. His PhD research at University of Huddersfield Music Department (where he also teaches) is a phenomenological study of silent film piano improvisation. He is also researching keyboard accompaniments of the silent era.

“I think what I love about silent films is the fact that they are a very pure form of visual storytelling.  It’s a very intense type of cinema, a little bit like going to the opera, where you have visuals and music together. Although the film may be 90 or 100 years old, the music is done in the present. This connection between past and present, I think, is so profound. And the audience responds to that as well. A film can feel new when you make new music,”

he says.

He believes that there are some things that silent films can do better than sound films, which has to do with “a sort of visceral power of the films”. “Silent films are more ambiguous in a way. There’s space for it to be more intriguing,” he says.

And given that the music is spontaneous, Best states that there is a particular sort of mindspace that the musician needs to get into while improvising, to feel free and happy with whatever happens, even if what comes out isn’t exactly the way you want it to be. You have to forgive yourself instantly and move on with the song. “You can’t play everything, neither does one want to. You have to look at the screen and choose what you want to play. You have to judge how far to go, when to pull it back, whether the pace you set is absolutely right, whether you need to speed up, etc. The improvisation is always imperfect but it is always unrepeatable,” he says. Each performance, even if he has played for that movie before, is always different, because of the spontaneity.

Of course, he adds, a familiar idea may crop up again, because in improvisation one does rely on one’s habits and music personality. And he does “borrow techniques” from other composers.

A lot of times too, Best does not have the opportunity to see the film beforehand. “Some films are very hard to see as there may be only one copy of it that exists in an archive somewhere. All I know is the title, the synopsis and maybe a few still images so I just have to play based on what I see,” he says. But even if he knows a film very well, Best admits that he gets a fresh look at it and discovers things he may not have noticed before. “It is always lovely to go back to a film. One is never quite finished with it,” he says. In fact, he says, this is especially true of the film ‘Pandora’s Box’, which was part of the screenings at the International Film Festival of India 2019. “I don’t think I will be done with ‘Pandora’s Box’ till I die,” he says. Plus, he is always trying to shape the film better than he did the last time.

But even if he has had the opportunity to think through the film beforehand, he asserts that one cannot make a plan beforehand to use an idea in the scene. “If I make a note and stick it on the piano, it gets in the way of me responding to a film in the present tense,”

he says.

Apart from the G W Pabst directed ‘Pandora’s Box’, the other two films which were screened at the festival were ‘Battleship Potemkin’ directed by Sergei Eisenstein and ‘Blackmail’ (his personal favourite) by Alfred Hitchcock. “‘Blackmail’ was Hitchcock’s last silent film and was made around the time when sound technology was being rolled out in movies. And so the film was shot a second time with sound. Today, both the versions exist and it is quite interesting to compare the use of sound in both of them,” he says.

Shifting back to talking about ‘Pandora’s Box’, Best states that this film is “complex and subtle, an ambiguous film with dark passion, resentment and destruction, a sort of fascinating black melodrama”. 

He says: “It is also one of the greatest films that Louise Brooks acted in and you just can’t take your eyes off her. In fact, that is one of the pleasures of silent films. In a way, what we do when we make music for silent films is collaborate with the actors onscreen and work with them to communicate the performance.”

Best further mentions that there is one particular scene in the film that he still finds difficult while performing. “A difficult scene is usually one that is unpredictable, especially in the times when the film keeps cutting between several different scenes. And in ‘Pandora’s Box’ there is this one scene when she goes backstage at a theatre and things get really complicated as there are a lot of things happening in different places,” he says. He adds that choices have to be made on what to play. “If you change the music too much, the scene can get fractured. But if the music does not respond enough to the scene, it feels as if you’re not with the film. So there’s a balance that need to be made and that is hard to do sometimes,” he says.

And though silent films are no longer in vogue, there are still a few of these being made and Best has collaborated to perform music for these during the live screenings. But in these new ones, he admits that the experience is different in a way. “With the old films, I am collaborating with people who are long gone so there is no one telling me what to do. So there is a responsibility to respect the film, the making of it and the audience viewing it, during the performance. But in the new ones, it is a more immediate collaboration as the director is alive. But the director is accepting that the music is spontaneously created. So while we can make a plan, at the end of the day it is improvised, so who knows?” he says laughing.

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