Festival puts sound into silent movies

Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

Fri, 19 May 2017 15:19:00 BST

Yorkshire Silent Film Festival takes to the screen across the county

Jonathan Best A UNIVERSITY of Huddersfield researcher is putting the sound back into silent movies.

Musician Jonathan Best (pictured left) – established as a pianist and festival organiser – is playing a key role in rediscovering the art of improvised accompaniment for the masterpieces of early cinema, and his latest epic challenge is to play for a screening of the renowned 1925 version of Ben Hur.

This is one of the events during the second Yorkshire Silent Film Festival.  Organised by Jonathan, it features screenings at 15 venues throughout the county.  The final event (31 May) takes place at the University of Huddersfield itself, when one of the best-known contemporary exponents of movie accompaniment, Neil Brand, will play for a screening of Marlene Dietrich’s first film as a leading lady.

Yorkshire Silent Film Festival As a musician Jonathan Best has worked with some of the UK’s leading theatre and opera companies and led a series of festivals as artistic director or executive producer.  It was when he booked Neil Brand – who has presented several TV documentaries – to play for a film at a festival in Birmingham that he first encountered the art of silent movie accompaniment and was determined to try it for himself.

This developed into a passion for film accompaniment and improvisation, leading to the establishment of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival.  It also led Jonathan to study the subject academically by enrolling as a postgraduate researcher at the University of Huddersfield, where he also teaches improvisation to music students, who sometimes work with film.

When Neil Brand (pictured below) comes to the University’s St Paul’s Hall on Wednesday, 31 May, he will play for an 8pm screening of The Woman Men Desire, a rarely seen classic shot in Berlin in 1928 and featuring Marlene Dietrich’s first starring role, as a femme fatale.  Before the evening event, Neil will hold an afternoon workshop with students and other participants.

Neil Brand Jonathan Best’s activities at the festival include his accompaniment to a screening of “the most epic silent film of them all” – 1925’s Ben Hur.  It takes place at Halifax’s Square Chapel Centre for the Arts on Saturday 27 May (7pm) and Jonathan will be joined by percussionist Trevor Bartlett.

Providing accompaniment for silent movies is an art that has had to be “reimagined” by musicians, according to Jonathan.

“It is about providing film music, but generating it as an improviser rather than as a composer, and you need to create a sound world that makes sense for the film.  The point is to be the bridge between the audience and these very old films.”

By the 1920s, silent film had become an extraordinary art form, said Jonathan.

“The absence of sound isn’t a deficiency.  Silent film became an extremely sophisticated means of telling a story – very different from sound film.  It is a very distinct approach to telling a story through moving images and with live music and it has things in common with opera and music theatre.”

For his researches at the University of Huddersfield, Jonathan Best is supervised by Dr Geoffrey Cox – a film maker and composer – and by Dr Catherine Haworth, who is an expert on movie music.

  • The 2017 Yorkshire Silent Film Festival has featured 19 films, including Buster Keaton comedies and early movies by Alfred Hitchcock.  Tickets for the 31 May concluding event at the University of Huddersfield can be reserved online.  Specialist projectionists for the screenings have been provided in collaboration with the Halifax-based charity The Projected Pictures Trust.  

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