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Silent film pianist impresses at LOC
By Allison Brophy Champion
Published: February 19, 2009
British pianist Stephen Horne entranced a full theater in Culpeper Sunday afternoon with his inspired score to “A Cottage on Dartmoor.”
His performance was an inaugural experience for many in the 200-strong audience, as evidenced by all the hands that went up when asked if it was the first time they had heard live music to a silent film.
The crowd got on its feet following the emotional hour-and-a-half show, applauding heartily for a couple of minutes.
It was one of the finest moments so far in the Library of Congress Mount Pony Theater —also a first — and the audience knew it.
Horne, who plays piano for the British Film Institute and London Studio Centre, composed the original music to “Dartmoor” six years ago when BFI released the 1929 silent thriller on DVD.
He has performed it worldwide since.
Sunday in Culpeper, he played with fervor and expertise — no sheet music in front of him, his eyes fixed to the screen. Horne’s composition — which is about 30 percent improvisation — seemed made for the movie, twisting and turning with hope and dread across stark landscapes to an ending you might not expect.
After “Dartmoor,” Horne provided a peek into his art form, talking aloud about his musical processes as he accompanied the opening sequence of “The Soul of Youth,” a 1920 silent film.
It’s “a tough story,” he said, about an orphan whose mother dies and then is abandoned by an adoptive mother. Horne offered “a romantic feel” at first because ultimately the movie is about the boy’s search for a family.
He said he tries to evolve the music as the movie changes, emphasizing facial reactions and things as intangible as the wind or fluttering eyelashes. When the boy’s mother dies, the music sounds like a funeral march.
“It’s so important to have people like Stephen Horne who keeps this tradition alive,” said Mike Mashon, head of moving images at the LOC in Culpeper. “There are others like him around the world, but not many,” he said of silent film accompanists.
Often times, Horne has never seen a film before he sits down to play to it.
“I do have quite a good memory for films,” he said, adding, “It’s a photographic process.”
Horne said he’s always been “charmed” by silent films. “It just sort of grabs you,” he said.
Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.