Pianist makes silent films go down a treat
British pianist John Sweeney is esteemed for his improv skills as a silent film accompanist, writes Andrew Sun
Few musicians can match John Sweeney in the specialised art of musical accompaniment for silent films. Across his home country and much of the rest of Europe, the English pianist is recognised as among the best at enhancing the experience of a silent movie.
Since 1990, Sweeney has been a sought-after performer for the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, the British Silent Cinema Festival and with the British Film Institute (BFI) for its silent presentations.
His reputation as an accompanist is so entrenched, his Twitter handle is @Silentsweeney. "My name is quite common, so all the obvious tags with my name are taken," he says.
Sweeney's immense talent brought him to Hong Kong in early January to add a unique touch and extra dimension to the screenings of restored Alfred Hitchcock silent classics such as The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Manxman (1929) that were presented by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society - and made possible with extra backing from the BFI, the British Council, Hong Kong Film Archive and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
"When I play, I'm improvising. I don't work things out ahead. I am familiar with these Hitchcock films but sometimes I don't get to view them in advance, so I'm leaping into the unknown," he says.
"What I usually try to do is have some sense of what I'm going to start with, but after that I don't know where it will go.
"Hitchcock's films aren't necessarily easy to play for because he does things with editing so there are tricky transitions and you have to find a way to make sense musically from one scene to another."
And no, he's never tempted to throw in a Bernard Herrmann riff from Vertigo or Psycho. "If I started doing the coda from Psycho's shower scene in one of his silent films, it would immediately take people out of the movie they are watching," he says.
The London resident, 56, began his career accompanying dance troupes in classes and rehearsals, and composing for their performances. When the Dance Umbrella festival decided to present some early 20th-century films featuring dance, Sweeney was asked to play music for the screenings. The theatre's director was so impressed that he decided to programme more silent-era works and asked Sweeney to accompany the repertoire.
But although it may be more challenging, the pianist has found he very much prefers playing for live audiences. "I like the live setting more than recording. I like the audience reaction and it is never the same experience twice," he says.
Providing live musical accompaniment for silent films has given Sweeney a greater appreciation of the medium. "When you're playing for films you notice how they are constructed, the editing style and how the films change. I never thought about those things before," he says.
"In a way, my education in films has come by making music for it. As Hitchcock himself said, silent film is the purest form of cinema. It's telling a story completely with images."
Sweeney's association with the Hitchcock classics, which was the BFI's major project heading into the 2012 London Olympics, goes beyond just providing a live score. The national archival organisation also turned to Sweeney to record music for other films' DVD releases. When Hitchcock's Downhill (1927) was shown on Sky TV, its soundtrack was composed by Sweeney.
Over the years he has developed an increased appreciation of the Master of Suspense's works. "What I really like about them is that from the beginning you see Hitchcock's joy in experimenting with cinema. He's having fun in discovering how to shoot things, and use the focus and camera angles. Nowadays we are all blasé about special effects, but when you see his silent films you relive the beginning of cinema. You see a master discovering his craft," Sweeney says.
Cinephiles who've attended silent film screenings with Sweeney as the accompanist might say the same about his ability to conjure compelling, spontaneous and unobtrusive accompaniment to movies that sometimes he's never seen or heard of.
"I think it is a very specialised skill. It is much harder than it looks," Sweeney says. "I've seen other people play for certain films and I think, 'Oh, this is a really easy film to play for'. Then a few months later I might play for that film and I realise this is really hard."
Still, the pianist believes that things are easier now than before. "In the old days, often you played for films you hadn't seen or knew nothing about. With the internet now, you can normally find out something about any film, maybe even see clips on YouTube. You know if it's a happy or sad film," he says.
Even so, the main challenge for those in his profession remains the same. "The question as an accompanist is how you get the music from one point to another. You can get stuck, know you're not doing the right thing, so you have to evolve strategies to deal with it. It's not a perfectible art because you're improvising," Sweeney says.
"I once saw a seminar by the late composer Elmer Bernstein and he talked about finding the heartbeat of a film. It doesn't always happen, but sometimes you find the rhythm of a film early. Then, playing for it is easy. When that happens, the music just becomes a part of the film."
The process can be likened to a jazz musician's improvised solo, except that Sweeney's jams go on for 60 to 70 minutes. Yet, despite being busy creating an instant soundtrack, the pianist considers himself just another audience member watching the movie even as he contributes to it.
"I feel like I really do enjoy the film too while I'm playing," Sweeney says. "It's a different experience than just watching. I have played for films that I really enjoyed but others tell me afterward, 'Oh, that film was so slow and boring'. But because I was doing something I didn't notice it.
"When you do get gripped by a film, it's so much easier to play. Sometimes I'm not even aware I am playing because I'm so engrossed. It's not conscious thinking anymore and it just comes out.
"When that happens, it is a wonderful experience."