Silent Sirens: Stephen Horne on playing for the ghosts of silent film

This is a guest post by Silent London award-winning silent film accompanist Stephen Horne, to mark the release of his stunning new album Silent Sirens from Ulysses Arts on 9 July.

Early in my career as a silent film accompanist I had an experience, which in retrospect probably affected the way I think about the work. I was accompanying a Louise Brooks film that, as was typical at the time, I had not seen in advance. The piano was positioned directly beneath the screen, so that the image filled my field of vision. I recall it being one of those rare evenings when I was totally lost in the film and music seemed to flow directly from brain to piano, almost bypassing the hand.

At one point Louise was held in an extended close-up – her smiling, enigmatic beauty framed by silver light. Then she started to speak and, although there was no intertitle, it was very clear to me what she was saying. In fact, just for a few seconds, I could actually hear her voice speaking the words. At least, that’s how it seemed. In retrospect, I realised that I had almost certainly been lip-reading. However, something about the moment, as immersive as it was, made the words transform into the sound of a voice within my head.

Louise Brooks Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1929)

I didn’t give it another thought until some time later, when I realised that there seemed to be something pleasantly haunting about silent films, particularly when accompanied by live music. They can sometimes feel like a form of cultural séance: the audience gathers in a darkened space, hoping to make contact with long departed cinematic spirits. The musicians are almost like musical mediums and, at its best the music they produce can be a form of channelling.

All this is only tangentially connected to my first album, Silent Sirens, which is released digitally on 9 July by the Ulysses Arts label (a physical CD will be available later in the month). It has long been an ambition of mine to record a set of piano pieces, incorporating some of the many musical themes I’ve developed over the past three decades. However, once the tracks were composed, I realised that in some ways they formed a connective tissue with that early, quasi-ghostly experience. Although the pieces are only loosely linked to the films that originally inspired them, there are two things that most of these films have in common. Firstly they share a certain haunting quality, leaving unanswered questions to reverberate in the viewer’s mind long after ‘The End’. Secondly, at least for me, the strongest impression is made by the films’ leading women – the actresses and their roles. Putting these two elements together suggested an overarching theme of Silent Sirens.

To some extent, a professional silent film accompanist needs to be a musical chameleon. The range of genres that evolved during the first 30 years of cinema was, if anything, wider and more fluid than in the sound era that followed. Consequently the musician needs to have some facility in as many styles as possible and to be able to switch between them, sometimes on the beat of an edit. So it can actually be beneficial to have a degree of anonymity – to camouflage yourself in the colours of the film you are accompanying. However, I wanted this album to have its own distinctive tone, so that it felt like a coherent whole. Hopefully the pieces now stand alone, rather than feeling like fragments from scores for unseen films.

Stephen Horne
Stephen Horne

At the same time I didn’t want to forget the silent film community, which has been the principal audience throughout my career. So the accompanying booklet has some information, which will hopefully be of interest. In general terms, inspiration has come from The First Born, The Manxman, Varieté, Prix de Beauté, The Informer, Tonka of the Gallows, Ménilmontant, Stella Dallas, Les Travailleurs de la mer, L’Hirondelle et La Mésange and Visages d’Enfants. Some of the pieces’ titles are taken directly from intertitles in the films.  For instance, ‘The Water Guards their Secret’ is the very last title of L’Hirondelle et La Mésange.

Although the seeds for this project were sown by silent film, the finished product has grown into something more personal than I ever would have imagined. Firstly, ‘Meditation for Miranda’ is the only piece that has no connection to any film, as it was written as a love tribute to my partner. And I also have Miranda to thank for galvanising me to finish the album. I had been kicking the idea around for a few years but, as she pointed out, the enforced lockdown arising from a pandemic was the perfect opportunity!

Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925)

While Covid has no doubt affected the tone of the project, so has the fact that I lost four very close family members over a period of 18 months. The pervasive tone as a result is perhaps melancholic, but for me this has been a very positive way to reconnect with the loved ones who passed. ‘Beyond the Waves’ initially grew out of a film score, recorded during a short, happy break from the grip of lockdown. However, it then evolved into a piece that helped provide some catharsis for feelings about the loss of my niece, Rachel. And the artwork is by my late uncle Philip Worth, a talented artist and one of the most amiable souls I’ve ever known.

While the melody of ‘Beyond the Trees’ is taken from my score for The First Born, its title is a direct quote from my mother, who passed away last November. One day several years ago, while she was still in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she failed to turn up for her daily teatime get-together with my sister Sarah. Their equidistant meeting point was her favourite park café – a short walk that she had managed alone innumerable times before. When she failed to turn up, Sarah rang to check that she was OK. My mother lived in an airy basement flat, where she could look up and see the trees of one of Brighton’s most beautiful squares. It transpired that she had been rooted to her seat for the past hour or so. She couldn’t remember where she was meant to be or how she was meant to get there. This place and route that had previously been imprinted on her memory was now a blank. All she knew was that it was somewhere ‘beyond the trees’. The London Film Festival presentation of The First Born was her favourite silent film event, so now when I play this melody I visualise her, perennially gazing up at the trees.

Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)
Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)

After 15 months of cultural paralysis, silent film events are slowly starting to appear on the international calendar again. With all the continuing variations on a viral theme, fiscal uncertainty and last-minute cancellations will probably continue to be part of musicians’ lives for months to come. Nevertheless, hopefully we can look forward to some degree of normality returning in 2022. And as I finish writing this, I have a sense of coming full circle, back to that night 30 years ago, when I had the momentary illusion that Louise was whispering to me in the dark. Perhaps this album has become another kind of musical séance. Only it is now one that communes with both cinematic and familial spirits.

Read more about Silent Sirens and pre-order here.

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