Stephen Horne: The Re-Animator

Photo courtesy of Pamela Gentile

Interview by Christian Bruno

Look at any review of Stephen Horne’s performances and you frequently find the words “exhilarating” and “sublime,” typically in the same sentence. This speaks to Horne’s facility and sensitivity, how his accompaniments create true cinematic experiences. But if you’re a devoted fan of the Silent Film Festival, you likely already know this.

At previous festival editions over the past half a dozen years, Horne has treated audiences to bristling tensions in A Cottage on Dartmoor, the melodrama of Rotaie, tenderness in I Was Born But..., and the dark abstractions of Jujiro.

Although his piano scores traverse a wide range of moods and settings, it is his musical assuredness that breathes life into these images. But there is also a certain modesty of his performances. The music is so appropriate, you might forget that he is playing—Horne would actually find this a compliment!—as you get swept up in the moment.

Part of his elegance in shaping these moments comes from the inclusion of flute and accordion, often simultaneously. These accents enlarge the drama onscreen in such subtle and effortless ways, an experience best had live.

In residence at London’s BFI Southbank and a regular at festivals like Pordenone and Telluride, Horne counts San Francisco audiences among his favorites. “There is a special reverence for film,” he says, “but also they are quite discerning about the music.”

I recently spoke to Horne about his accidental beginnings and the experiences that animate silent film.

It is a common question, but how did you get your start in silent films?
It was a happy accident really. When I was studying music in school, I think I spent more of my time at the cinema than going to concerts. I had seen silent films before, but I hadn’t put it together, playing music for these movies. Then a former teacher of mine, who programmed a film society, knew about my ability to make up music on the spot. She invited me to accompany a silent film—Joan of Arc. She came to my house and projected the first reel, we watched it on my wall. And I thought, “wow, this is different”’ So I only saw the first reel. When I played it live, I played the last hour cold, as they say. I call it my trial by fire [laughs]. Most people think of that film as pretty difficult. Maybe I was just naïve. And I have to say as I return to that film over the years, it becomes harder and harder to play. After university, when I moved to London, I was looking for work. The National Film Theatre, which is now BFI Southbank, advertised a job for an accompanist for silent film. I sent my CV to them, telling then how experienced I was—with my one performance! Back then, we would play for the films cold. This was before DVDs, there weren’t screeners. We wouldn’t be able to watch the films ahead of time. So you begin to create this library of music, of themes and so forth, that you draw on.

That brings up this question of stamina. When you’re performing, you are really working that whole time. Especially when one imagines you creating all that music in the moment.
Well, that’s where it is unlike, say, classical concerts. A pianist might play for a half hour, then have an intermission before playing again. I found that early on, particularly if I’d accompanied two or three films in a row, my back started to hurt. You have to pace yourself. But also, for the audience and their stamina. A film like Metropolis is a great example, where the last hour is so frenetic, basically an hour-long climax. You don’t want to overwhelm the audience with this intense music the whole way through, it is too much. You need to find places to withdraw at the right moment, give them a kind of break while keeping the energy of story.

Do you have a favorite genre or favorite actors you like to accompany?
Well, not particularly. I like good films [laughs]. But that’s true. Actually, I recently worked on the latest Treasures from American Film Archives [Treasures 5: The West], accompanying some westerns, a genre I am not particularly fond of. But I grew to love it. I think it was the challenge, really. Of making music that didn’t sound like westerns of the sound era. This was the era when the genre of westerns was beginning to form, so they were a little freer with telling the stories, with where the films could go.

Among the great things about your performances is how you supplement your piano playing with other instruments—usually at the same time. What influences your choices of instrumentation? And what we can expect with Mantrap?
I play piano, flute, and accordion on the Mantrap score, although the latter only briefly. The flute is meant to specifically represent Clara’s flirtatiousness. There is a period flavor to this score, with some Jazz Age stylings and elements of ’20s-era Gershwin. But I’m more concerned with reflecting the meeting/clash of worlds represented in the film: the city world of Clara; the  backwoods life of Joe; Ralph’s misguided notions of “West.” Mostly, I wanted to capture something of the quality of Clara Bow: sexy, adorable, vulnerable, and strong—sometimes all at once!

A version of Mantrap with your score was released on DVD. What will be the differences between the live performance and the studio version?
One can’t predict how live performances will differ from recorded ones. Although usually less
perfect. At their best they can have an energy and momentum that doesn’t often happen in the clinical environment of a studio. Put it this way: I have a recording of my accompaniment of the San Francisco screening of A Cottage on Dartmoor that I think it superior to the DVD version.

What is it that you like about accompanying silent film?
From a personal standpoint, I have this power. I am the conduit through which the audience is experiencing the film. Now that’s a huge responsibility, as I am forever influencing their experience of the film. Thinking about the audience, for me, the perfect balance is a 70-30 split: they are engaged in the film more than they are aware of me. I am not the center of attention. I have people, especially those new to silent film, who tell me that they totally forgot I was there. That’s a bit of a compliment.

Where does your music come from? Are there sources you draw on, or a particular philosophy?
There is a huge debate around this, and I think it might be more so in the U.S. than elsewhere. How faithful must accompanists be. If you’ve been to the San Francisco festival, you have heard every kind of musical interpretation there is. But for me, my philosophy is whatever supports the film, whatever dramatizes it and brings it to life. That is what’s important. Since I am creating the music myself, I try to keep within the style and mood. I might create music that suggests the time period, for example. I see myself as a re-animator, not necessarily a re-creator. That, a little bit like Dr. Frankenstein, I am bringing these films to life.