Thursday, July 11, 2013

Musician Stephen Horne interviewed about Louise Brooks film, Prix de Beauté

On Thursday, July 18th the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen the rarely shown silent version of the 1930 Louise Brooks' film, Prix de Beauté. Made as the European cinema was converting to sound, the film marks Louise Brooks' last starring role in a feature.

Less well known than her work with G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl), Prix de Beauté is an otherwise very good film marred, in ways, by its foray into sound. Brooks' voice was dubbed, not always effectively, and sound effects were added.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen the silent version recently restored by the Cineteca di Bologna in Italy. The film's running time is given as approximately 108 minutes. (By comparison, the running time found on the KINO DVD is 93 minutes.) Accompanying the July 18th screening is British musician Stephen Horne.

Stephen has long been considered one of the leading silent film accompanists. Based at London's BFI Southbank, he has performed at all the major UK venues including the Barbican Centre and the Imperial War Museum; he has also recorded music for DVDs, BBC TV screenings, and museum installations of silent films. Although principally a pianist, he often incorporates flute, accordion and keyboards into his performances, sometimes simultaneously. Stephen performs internationally, and in recent years his accompaniments have met with acclaim at film festivals in Pordenone, Telluride, San Francisco, Cannes, Bologna and Berlin. Most recently, he accompanied some of the Hitchcock 9 silent films which have played around the United States.

Via email, Stephen answered a few questions about his upcoming accompaniment to Prix de Beauté.


THOMAS GLADYSZ: How did the assignment to accompany Prix de Beauté come about?

STEPHEN HORNE: I think the film was already in the minds of the festival team, because of the amazing response to Louise Brooks' films at earlier festivals. I mentioned to [SFSFF Director] Anita Monga that I'd played for the film a couple of times, so maybe that's why I was asked to accompany it.

THOMAS GLADYSZ: What were your impressions of the film ?

STEPHEN HORNE: I did watch the sound version before the silent screenings that I accompanied. Normally I wouldn't consider this necessary, but on this occasion it was invaluable. I'm not sure that this restoration is truly the original silent version - I suspect that this doesn't actually survive intact and what we have is a recreation, using the sound version as a starting point and working backwards, so to speak. I think that both versions have their problems - they're imperfect gems - but for me the silent version works much better. And there are certain sequences that are sublime.

THOMAS GLADYSZ: What is your approach to composing for a silent film?

STEPHEN HORNE: My approach varies from event to event, depending on many variables - some of them quite prosaic, such as how much time I have! On occasion I'll be commissioned to compose a fully notated score, either to perform solo or with other musicians. Most often my approach is improvisatory, but 'planned'. By which I mean that I'll watch the film and prepare certain musical elements, along with certain specific effects, such as when I'll switch between instruments (for those that don't know, I'm something of an instrumental multi-tasker). I like the elastic quality of an improvised performance, which I think can sometimes respond from moment-to-moment in a way that is hard to do with a fixed score. But equally I recognize that people like a good tune! So I try to thread melodic elements throughout, which I guess creates something of a hybrid: an improvised score.

THOMAS GLADYSZ: Were there any special challenges in composing the score for a silent film that is today best known as a sound film?

STEPHEN HORNE: I think it's simplest to assume that the audience hasn't seen the sound version. Obviously several people will have done, but the event should ideally stand on its own terms, as a silent film / live music event. However, there are some challenges that this silent version presents, particularly all the images that specifically reference sound effects: the repeated close-ups of loudspeakers, etc. One has to make a decision about whether to acknowledge them musically, or 'play through' them instead.

THOMAS GLADYSZ: Music, song and sound are integral to certain passages in the film, especially the film's climatic ending. Did that prove a challenge?

STEPHEN HORNE: Unless you're playing an instrument that can produce comparable sound 'effects', I think it's best to approach these things in a slightly abstract way. In the tango song scene I've chosen to focus on a couple of specific elements within the scene - rather than trying to create an impression of vocalizing, for instance. However, the song in the final scene is inescapably important, so I think that I have come up with a rather clever solution to the problem. But you'll have to wait to find out what that will be!

This sheet music and 78rpm recording were issued in France to tie in
with the 1930 Louise Brooks' film Prix de Beauté

THOMAS GLADYSZ: Were you able to integrate the two songs used in the sound version into your score? If so, how?

STEPHEN HORNE: See above! But again, I'm largely gearing the performance to people who are coming to this film without having seen the sound version. The songs are not generally known now, so while it's important that I play a tango when they're dancing / singing a tango, I don't think that it has to be the one sung in the sound version. But just wait until the climax...

THOMAS GLADYSZ: What can those who attend the Festival screening look forward to?

STEPHEN HORNE: A lovely but flawed film, elevated to near-classic status by the transcendence of Louise Brooks. On a musical note, I've noticed that the music I'm preparing often starts in a major key, before resolving to the minor. I think this is the influence of the Brooks persona: full of joy, but with a lingering note of melancholy.

THOMAS GLADYSZ: Louise Brooks fans will want to know.... Is there any chance the silent version and your score will be released on DVD?

STEPHEN HORNE: I would imagine that there's a good chance a DVD will be released, unless there are some copyright issues of which I'm unaware. But whether my music will be included is a question that is in the laps of the Gods of film restoration!


For more on this superb musician's approach to accompanying silent film, here is a video interview from 2009. Stephen Horne spoke to Marek Bogacki at the Killruddery Silent Film Festival about his career in silent film music.

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