My work in silent cinema performance started with an unexpected idea and commission from an art centre in the Outer Hebrides. Through that commission I was also to discover that silent movie music was in my blood, with both an aunt and a great-aunt working as cinema pianists in the heyday of silent cinema in London and Dublin.
Until this point in 2010, I had worked mostly in jazz bands, improvisation and in new music performance, but since my very first performance to a silent movie I have been hooked and mostly because of the sense, shared with the audience, that live music restores a kind of forgotten magic to the cinema-going experience.
My approach to cinema performance and composition for silent movies is that of an accompanist. The screen is the star of the show, but the experience is completed by the musical elements, and in composing music I write in terms of creating subtle support rather than demanding equal presence with and for the film.
My approach is also that of providing a unique and fully composed score for each film, and I love to research and work with the deep musical and historical contexts and history of the film to nuance the composition with ideas and meaning whilst retaining the central principle that the music is an accompaniment not the main act.
For example, my score for Nosferatu involved considerable research of the folk music of the film’s rural settings and of the communities of the Carpathian mountains, a context of very settled Jewish and Christian communities with shared musicalities. This, firstly, led me to the music of the Hutsul culture and communities and, secondly, to the ceremonies and rituals of death and burial in the western Carpathian region, especially with regard to requiem fanfares using Alpine-like long horns and to the startlingly irregular tuning of church bells both of which were determined to be the ideal last-heard sound of the deceased as he or she was laid to rest.
Of course, all of that is a layer on top of the requirement to provide the necessary ‘creep and fear’ narrative elements to the score.
Previously, I had worked with film maker, artist and storyteller, Ian Stephen on the film A Boat Retold (2011, directed by Sean Martin & Louise Milne: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1857607/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm), and on The Blue Men (2011, directed by Andy MacKinnon), with stellar jazz singer and improviser, Maggie Nicols.
In 2011, I received the commission from An Lanntair to compose and perform a new score for Murnau’s Nosferatu, that was critically acclaimed, and the pleasure was repeated in 2012 with a new commission and performance for Dreyer’s Vampyr.
In jazz and new music, I have given performances at the Purcell Room (South Bank Centre, London), and on British Council Tours in France, Belgium and Holland, as well as playing in the Czech Republic with Ian Stephen.
In 2012, I was selected by the trustees of The John Cage Trust, New York, to give one of the 100 Hours For Cage performances organised to mark Cage’s centenary. My ensemble gave a recital called Silence & Transmission, which was broadcast to New York from Stornoway.