In his own words – silent film accompanist Neil Brand
September 18, 2018

Pianist Neil Brand has been providing improvised accompaniment for silent films for 30 years, and is the leader in his field.

Neil recently contributed to a new BBC series Secrets of Cinema presented by Mark Kermode, and is back at Battle Festival by popular demand with a show combining movie history and music, with some rare silent cinema clips and of course Neil’s inspired playing.

On how he got into silent film accompaniment… 
I could always play the piano by ear, and what I heard that I liked, I would try to recreate the harmonies. The result was that I was a better improvising pianist than sight-reader from a very early age, and when I went to university to study drama I found they needed my musical skills as well. I was asked by Eastbourne Film Society to accompany Steamboat Bill Jnr in 1984 and enjoyed that first experience so much I tried to make a career of it. (Royal Albert Hall blog)

On the difference a live soundtrack makes…
With a digital soundtrack, you sit back and let the soundtrack wash over you. There’s always a thing where the audience is aware that there is a live instrument playing in the same room where they are watching the film, and that actually works in a different way, pulls them in a little bit more to the music. (Glasgow Film Festival)

On the amount of preparation required…
I seldom if ever prepare anything except the first few chords in the seconds before I play, as I much prefer to be ‘in the moment’ and feel the music working as I watch and accompany the film. With some well-known movies I have played them so often that a ‘score’ has begun to form, made up of ideas that seem to work. Those have given me the basis for the orchestral scores I have written. But usually I see what comes out during a movie and follow those ideas and themes to see where they go. (Royal Albert Hall blog)

On the perks of the job…
There’s a real sense of control about it – I can tell people how to feel about these characters, I can tell people what I think about the film. So you’re leading people through the movie, you’ve actually got a tremendous amount of power, and that’s a great position to be in. (Glasgow Film Festival)

On composing for film…
You need to be thick skinned to go into film music. It’s something that requires the best you’re capable of and will eventually be the most rewarding music you can do. Thousands, possibly millions of people could end up hearing your music but with it comes a hell of a lot of pressure which emotionally you need to be able to handle. You need to be the sort of person who isn’t going to blow up because something you’ve done doesn’t work due to the cut changing. (M-Magazine)

On making BBC4 series The Secrets of Cinema
In going to the BBC with this subject, I felt like someone arriving with an enormous tin bath of material. And I realised that what they wanted to put before the public was three teacups. What I’ve been most pleased with is that the audience reaction suggests that we got the right three teacups. However, I can’t take responsibility for that; it was such a process of editing, such a process of working it out. And obviously I would rather have had something closer to sixteen buckets. (Edinburgh University Press blog)

Neil Brand: Sound of Silents is at Battle Memorial Hall on 25 October. Tickets are – Adult £10, Child £5 and available online now