Buster Keaton and Me

Q&A with Neil Brand

22 November 2017

On Sat 9 December we welcome composer, musician and broadcaster Neil Brand (BBC4 Sound of Cinema, Sound of Song, Sound of Musicals and Radio 4 Film Programme regular) to DCA when he will present an evening of Buster Keaton, playing live piano accompaniment alongside clips of his funniest moments and the magnificent feature Steamboat Bill Junior.

Ahead of his visit to Dundee, we chat to Neil about silent film, what it’s like being a film accompanist, and what you can expect from an evening with him and Buster Keaton…

How did you become a silent film pianist?

"my job is to focus the audience..."

I’ve always loved films and been able to play the piano by ear but I actually studied Drama at university. On leaving in 1980 I was involved with a group of college friends in running a theatre company and arts centre in an old cinema in Eastbourne (the Tivoli, now pulled down). In 1984 The Eastbourne Film Society used the centre for screening films and asked if I would be interested in accompanying Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jnr - I agreed, put together about 20 minutes of material and trusted to luck. At the first performance I found I was able to improvise with the film and grew in confidence with every laugh, even though at the end I couldn't remember what I had played! Shortly after I auditioned for the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) and became one of their regular piano accompanists.

How do you prepare to play a silent film?

That depends - if it's a film I don't know I ask people who have seen it what they make of it, and to give me some idea of the story arc - but I try not to see it beforehand, and certainly don't play it before playing it for the first time in front of an audience - that way my score is fresh and I find my way into the problems and pleasures of the film at the same time as the audience.

What is your main role as a film accompanist?

As I see it, my job is to focus the audience as intently on the content of the film as possible, to metaphorically lock the auditorium doors so the real world can't intrude, and then draw them deeply into what the film is doing, be that comedy, tragedy, romance, action or horror - the piano should build a bridge between a film of 1895-1929 and an audience of 2017, smoothing out the rough edges, barrelling through the bumpy bits, stopping to enjoy the pleasures and timeless moments and disappearing, up to a point, into the background of the experience. I am delighted when people say 'I forgot you were there...' because that means the music sounded like it was being created by the film itself.

Are you excited about your upcoming visit to DCA?

I have played DCA a few times before a good few years ago - I love playing there and I'm very thrilled to be coming back to Dundee. The audiences are so warm, the DCA is a superb venue and I know that this show will be a real crowd-pleaser.

What can audiences expect from an evening with you and Buster Keaton?

"will amaze and delight audiences..."

Firstly, and most importantly, laughs - but also a glimpse behind the magic to give a sense of the man himself - Keaton uses every trick in the book to make the impossible happen on screen, and all his physical comedy was learnt onstage with his family's vaudeville show - by the end you will have had more laughs in two hours than ever before, and understand a lot more about the greatest of the silent clowns.

What is your favourite Keaton film and why?

The one I'm showing - Steamboat Bill Jnr - it was the first Keaton film I ever played (indeed my first public performance as a silent film pianist in 1984). It has wonderful characters as well as stunts in it, and will amaze and delight audiences in this beautiful new print that shows the film in better condition than it has been seen since it was made in the 1920s.

Don’t miss Neil Brand at DCA when he presents An Evening with Buster Keaton – Sat 9 December, 19:00.

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