Kieran White – Breaking the Silents: Music for Silent Movies

– in conversation with David Scarth.

Kieran White is a pianist and composer. Recently he has revived the art of playing a live piano score to a silent movie. His performances have been rapturously received for their humour and musical invention. I recommend watching this very engaging short film about Kieran. You’ll see clips from the films and hear some of the musical themes mentioned below:

Kieran and I are old friends and we had a lot of fun during this conversation.

DS: Hi Kieran!

KW: Hello Mr Scarth!

DS: To start with, why don’t you tell us something about yourself and your career as a musician and how you got into writing music for silent films, for the benefit of people who don’t know you.

KW: It probably all started with my grandad who was a bit of a mad eccentric. He could get a tune out of anything, like a kettle, and was a great musician. He really inspired me and he also used to play for silent films back in the day when it was quite commonplace to do so. I got into music when I was about 12 and started piano lessons. From the age of about 14 I did nothing else. I just played piano all the time. I got up and played piano; had breakfast, played piano; I went to school and played piano for assembly; morning break, played piano; lunch, ate my dinner, played piano; end of school, played piano; got the bus home, did my homework, played piano; had my tea, played piano, went to bed. That was it.

DS: Shame there wasn’t a piano on the bus. Missed opportunity there.

KW: Yes. Complained about that to the council but they didn’t do anything! Back then I was an absolute classical music snob. I fell in love with the romantic composers: Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, and Rachmaninov. That was it, apart from a few errant voyages into the world of pop music. For instance, I bought a Wombles record! Some Abba. The first record I bought was “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing“.

DS: I’m starting to see where your musical influences come from!

KW: I’ve always enjoyed working out things like TV theme tunes and playing them in inappropriate scenarios. I once managed to fit the theme from “Captain Pugwash“ into “Blue in Green“ by Miles Davis and was instantly hounded by the jazz police! But I’ve always had a very eclectic taste in music. I bought “Dark Side of the Moon“ by Pink Floyd which really opened my mind and changed my life. I started getting into prog rock then. At university, I started listening to more 20th century music – the usual suspects: Stravinsky, Bartok – and started developing an interest in jazz. I ended up doing what most musicians do: basically teaching and gigging for years and years. At university, I mainly wanted to learn about composition, but at the time anything vaguely tonal was frowned upon. So I was a bit discouraged then; although I wrote a few bits and pieces now and again.

Then, to cut a long story short, one winter morning, I was chatting to a friend of mine, Brian Brown, who was a member of a local film club. They were planning to show Buster Keaton’s “The General” and asked if I’d be willing to compose a piano score for it. I thought, that’s a really interesting idea and I was quite excited by it and, of course, my grandad used to do it. I was quite nervous at the prospect. The film is 80 minutes long and writing a piano piece that long is no mean feat. I actually didn’t get round to it until about 11 days before the performance. I kept making excuses for not doing it. But when I eventually settled down to do it, one of the things that first inspired me was a scene where Buster is sitting on the connecting rods between the wheels of the train and going up and down…

DS: Oh yes, a very famous scene…

KW: …and I came up with this theme, which is sort of bittersweet, a bit like Prokofiev (plays the piano).

Anyway, since then I’ve written another score for a Buster Keaton film, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” And I’ve just finished writing a score for an early silent Hitchcock film, “The Lodger”, which is very different to what I’ve done before. Also I’m writing this one for piano and clarinet, with my wife Kate playing clarinet.

DS: What are some of the processes you used in writing your film scores?

KW: I think it’s very important to keep it sounding as organic as you can. I like to use a lot of leitmotif, which allows you to give a kind of musical description of various personae in the film, or to material objects like the train in “The General” or the ship in “Steamboat Bill”. It also helps to convey emotional states of the characters. For example, Buster’s love for Annabel in The General (plays the romantic theme from the film on the piano) …

DS: It’s a beautiful melody.

KW: It’s a nice little tune, but it changes quite a lot, depending on what’s happening in the filmic dialogue. For example, there is a scene where Buster is hiding under a table and he realises that Annabel has been kidnapped…(plays a quizzical – sounding variation on the theme).

As you know, I’m also not shy about putting musical jokes into the score. There’s a scene where Buster has been pursued by the unionists and is trying to obstruct the railtrack by placing lots of wooden doors on the track…(plays a bit of ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors). There are lots of little references like that in the score, some really obvious, some less so.

DS: One of the great things about hearing you play the scores is that there are almost as many jokes in the music as in the film itself. It’s rather like getting a BOGOF, you know, two for the price of one. When I’ve been to your performances, sometimes people are laughing at the film, because it’s a real classic comedy and very funny. And sometimes they’re laughing at the musical jokes in your score. It just enriches the experience so much. It’s tremendous.

KW: Sometimes the jokes are quite hidden. In “Steamboat Bill Jr”, I have a motif that keeps appearing when you see the boat (plays a few notes) and it doesn’t become obvious where it came from until the end when the boat sinks. See if you can spot it (plays some more).

DS: Oh yes, the theme from “Titanic”.

KW: The Hitchcock is completely different. It shows, to a dangerous extent, my serious side!

DS: How did you find that, going from writing two comedies to writing a more serious score to a suspense movie? How much of a change was that for you?

KW: I’ll tell you what, it was incredibly freeing. I love making people laugh, it’s one of my main things. But I’m not particularly extrovert. I have quite an introspective side. Not that extroverts don’t have an introspective side. I’m not saying that about people  – apart from you!

DS: Hmm…(Both laugh)

KW: Yes, it was quite freeing because I didn’t have to keep thinking of new jokes all the time and I could explore something more serious. I’ve always found it more difficult to accept people’s appreciation of my serious side. I know I can make people laugh, but, in terms of making people feel things more intensely, I don’t… ‘wear the badge’.

DS: Is there some part of you that doesn’t want to expose your soul to people, do you think?

KW: Yeah, there’s probably something in that.

DS: There are some lighter moments in “The Lodger”. it’s not heavy all the way through and the lighter moments provide a bit of relief from the suspenseful stuff.

KW: (Kieran plays the sinister sounding main theme from ‘The Lodger”) That’s pretty heavy! But there is a scene involving some catwalk models in their dressing room and they’re all discussing the murders that have taken place, laughing and giggling. I used an old musical hall tune called ‘Pretty Baby’ (plays the song) which is quite jolly. When one of the girls looks at her reflection in the mirror and becomes worried that the killer may be after her…(plays the “Pretty Baby“ theme against dark, foreboding harmonies)…so it goes quickly from lightheartedness to fear.

DS: As you mentioned, “The Lodger” is written for piano and clarinet and your wife Kate is playing the clarinet. Your previous scores were performed with solo piano. How much more of a challenge is it going to be to coordinate two players playing together whilst synchronising to the action on the screen?

KW: Yes, it will be a challenge.

DS: How’s it going? I know that you and Kate are rehearsing it at the present time.

KW: It’s a particular challenge for Kate as she is playing and blowing for so long, so I’ve made sure I’ve put plenty of rests in!

DS: You allow her to take a breath now and again! When I’ve seen you performing the two Buster Keaton films, you often use your improvising skills to keep in time with the film. That’s going to be a lot harder with two performers, isn’t it?

KW: Yes, I think we’ll just have to learn it really well. Another problem is that Kate was my page turner on the Keaton films, and at one point, she had to climb under the piano to rescue my foot pedal which had slipped out of reach. It was a bit like a Mr. Bean moment. She actually had to lift my foot and put the pedal underneath it!

DS: Well, Kate’s very talented. I’m sure she can grovel around under the piano whilst playing the clarinet! Have you thought about the future? After you’ve performed “The Lodger“ a few times, will you be looking to score a new film? Would you like to tackle a different film genre?

KW: I’d quite like to do a black comedy and combine the humorous and the sinister aspects. Have you seen the film “Company of Wolves”? It really captures Angela Carter’s writing, like a dark fairy tale. For instance, there is a scene in that with a rocking horse going backwards and forwards like crazy and you could do something like…(plays a nursery rhyme tune with dissonant harmonies). Something like that would suit me down to the ground.

DS: That sounds exciting. Well I’m looking forward to being able to see you perform “The Lodger“. I guess we’ll have to wait until we get out of lockdown before we get the chance. But thanks very much for sharing your thoughts.

KW: My pleasure.

Piano: A Private Passion. A short documentary about Kieran.

Kieran’s website (features clips from the two Keaton movies):

Some reactions to live performances by Kieran:

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