Keeping Time with Timothy Brock

Interview by Thomas Gladysz

For more than thirty years, Timothy Brock has made a name for himself as one of the few composer-conductors who specialize in music for silent film. Vogue magazine has called him “the silent-film music guru.”

In large part, Brock’s musical life has focused on his own compositions as well as on concert works by early 20th-century artists. Brock has penned three symphonies, two operas, four concertos, six string quartets, and other orchestral pieces.

As a conductor, Brock endeavors to bring lesser known repertoire before the public, be it concert music or film music. His concert series of Entartete Musik (“degenerate music”) by composers banned by the Third Reich introduced a number of significant pieces to the United States, including Hanns Eisler’s music for the communist-themed film Kuhle Wampe. Brock has also restored landmark compositions such as Dmitri Shostakovich’s only silent-film score, for New Babylon (1929), Erik Satie’s Dadaist music for René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), and Camille Saint-Saëns’s L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908).

In 1986, at age twenty-three, Brock composed his first silent-film score, for G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, and has since written nearly thirty silent-film scores, most all commissions by orchestras and film institutions, from the National Orchestra of France to 20th Century Fox. Brock has composed scores for two other films starring Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl and Prix de Beauté, as well as for classics as varied as the Robert Flaherty documentary Nanook of the North and Fritz Lang’s science-fiction epic Woman in the Moon.

Within the silent film community, Brock may be best known for his work on the films of Charlie Chaplin. Since 1999, he has served as score preservationist for the Chaplin family, having made thirteen live-performance scores and critical editions of all Chaplin’s major films; each were based on Chaplin’s own compositions. (In 2014 he conducted at SFSFF’s celebration of the Tramp’s centenary.)

As a composer, Brock holds Chaplin in high regard. “He was a gifted composer for melody but had a great sense of orchestral color, too. He was the perfect composer for his own films because he knew his characters inside and out, especially their vulnerabilities.”

Brock has also done extensive work on the films of Buster Keaton, composing original scores for a handful of the comedian’s short and feature films, including One Week, Cops, Sherlock Jr., College, The General, and Steamboat Bill Jr. This year, Brock returns to the festival conducting his 2010 score for The Cameraman.

“What interests me is the way Keaton constructed his films, with a tremendous feeling for rhythm and atmosphere,” Brock notes. “Chaplin was the same way. It’s extremely musical. Perhaps it comes from them both being raised in the theater, I don’t know, but one can set up a metronome with almost any scene and the action and emotions seem to line up precisely on cue every time.”

For Brock, concert screenings of silent films are more than just an exercise in nostalgia. They are, rather, a deep dive into the films themselves. As a composer, Brock’s silent-film music has a contemporary sound yet is rooted in the past. None of his scores contain anything musicians wouldn’t have known at the time of the film’s release. Similarly, as a conductor, Brock is an advocate of period performance practices. He regards pre-1930 standards—little or no amplification, for instance—as the level orchestras should strive for when performing this special type of repertoire.

Do you remember the first time you watched a silent film as an audience member?
I was ten. It was an all-day affair at the Granada Theatre in Seattle with film-organist Andy Crow. I think I watched the organist more than the film that day. But I remember two films: Keaton’s Cops and Murnau’s Nosferatu. It was Nosferatu that had the most impact on me because it was the first time that music genuinely frightened me. Yes, the images are frightening, but it was the music that really got inside of me. I remember covering my eyes during certain parts but it didn’t help because I couldn’t cover my ears as well.

What can the festival audience look forward to in your score for The Cameraman?
My score was commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which is why it only calls for seventeen players. But they are fully engaged as this film calls for a wide palette of actions: crowd scenes, boat races, fire-engine chases, love and love lost scenes, and a lot of pathos. There’s even a Chinatown gang war. The challenge in any silent-film score is making all those elements seem like small parts of a whole musical idea, but not just by restating musical themes at appropriate moments. The composer tries to interweave the music within the film’s imagery and not distract from it.

What is your approach in composing for silent film?
Film research is a very large portion of what I do. It’s important for me to know under what context the film was made, what would have been expected of the original composer if a score had already existed, and what the director’s musical preferences might have been. I start by watching the film in its entirety two or three times in complete silence. On the second or third pass I may write down potential musical ideas. Then I start composing in earnest in short segments, about twenty to thirty seconds at a time. Some days I can compose up to three minutes of film in one day, some days it’ll be fifteen seconds.

You’ve said conducting for silent film is its own discipline. What do you mean?
The only similarity between symphonic conducting and silent-film conducting is that both disciplines have an orchestra in front of you. If you’ve got a Mahler or Debussy score on your stand, the conductor answers to no one except the composer. Whereas silent-film conducting is an art form dominated by enveloping and mesmeric imagery whose tempos are relentlessly driven by a mechanical device in the back of the hall.