Timothy Brock talks to June Ackerman about his career as a silent-film conductor/composer, his abhorrence for click-tracks, and getting back to the concert-hall stage.
American conductor/composer Timothy Brock, now living in Italy, has made a career of conducting in the dark. One can interpret this statement literally, as the 50-year-old conductor is forced to give up a normally ample stage lighting scheme for a single 40-watt bulb on his conductor's stand, in order for a film projector some 50 meters away to shine through. Unless he is in an orchestra pit far beneath the screen, he is sometimes completely immersed in darkness, save the occasional reflective screen flicker.
“The darkness is fine for me; most of the time I conduct the score from memory, so the darkness would normally be fine if the musicians didn't have to watch me so closely. But they really do. And, depending on the film, the concentration level for all concerned can be a nightmare.”
In terms of synchronization, by all outwardly appearances Brock thrives in the dark there, too, by the mere fact that he performs (and rehearses) without the use of monitors, time-codes or click-tracks. The films are so deeply digested that he knows precisely where each note should be in relation to every frame of the film. From his view, he feels memorization of both the film and score go hand in hand.
“It's the conductor's job to know his film and it's score before the first rehearsal. The tempo is really a muscle memory operation, and synchronization is not any of the orchestra's responsibility, only mine. There's nothing worse than seeing a conductor struggle with a video, or a time-code, and making the orchestra wait while he or she learns their tempi. The only thing worse is using a click-track, which all orchestral musicians hate and is utterly unmusical. I tried it once for a recording session with the NDR Philharmonic many years ago and tossed it after 20 minutes.”
In 2007, during the Cinema Rivtrovato Festival's Chapliniana, celebrating the life and career of Charles Chaplin, he had conducted live all Chaplin silent features and short-subjects consecutively, the first time that had ever been done in history of live cinema. He completed a similar feat in Berlin in 2009, where he conducted all 7 Chaplin silent features at the Kino Babylon, the last remaining silent-movie house in Berlin, constructed in 1929.
Having some 40 films in his current repertoire, I asked him how he could manage to know so many films, and their scores, to such detail.
“Most of the time I'm conducting either an original film score that I've restored, or a new one I've composed myself. So it's not so difficult when you work day-in and day-out on a single film for months and months. It's like asking a milkman if he remembers route day after day. On average I add about one film in my repertoire per year, which is quite a nice and comfortable pace.”
Using only the film as his singular point of reference to musical tempi, color, phrasing, etc., Brock says he conducts to the image as if it were a living thing.
“Conducting a silent-film is very much like working with a soloist in concerto. It moves, it gestures, and creates real emotion in a carefully executed way, and the audience reacts. We play off of those reactions quite a bit, and it can be quite different every time. The only real big difference is that, in this case, the soloist is a bit more predictable in tempi. A projector rarely goes off on a wild tempo spree on a whim.”
Brock's professional relationship with silent-film came in 1986, when he was commissioned to compose a new orchestral score to G.W. Pabst's 1929 film, Pandora's Box. At the time, the 23-year-old felt confident that he was up to the task, but underestimated the time it would take to compose over 2 hours of music and found himself rapidly running out of time. He finished the score the night before the first rehearsal.
“The copyists were still gluing scissor-cut lines (literally) from the score onto the players parts during rehearsals. I think we all got a little dizzy from the fumes. It was mad.”
Since those early days there are now nearly 20 feature-length newly-composed orchestral scores and 7 short subjects to his credit. And his original-score restorations tally nearly 20, 13 of which are Chaplin films, done under the auspices of the Chaplin Estate for whom he has been working since 1999.
Brock's commissions for new scores and for original-score restorations seem to have coincided since the beginning. On most occasions he accepts commissions to write new scores for films whose original score was either lost, or non-existent. Much of his silent-film compositions tend to reflect the time period in which they are set, which most people attribute to his deep knowledge of the period, and in turn emanates from his own pen. Although his silent-film music is thoroughly modern, it is deeply rooted in the past. None of his scores could ever be accused of containing anything the musical world hasn't heard yet by 1930.
“I'm sure that when an orchestra commissions a new film piece from me, they're probably hoping that an influence by my work as a restorer comes into play. I mean, how could it not? Just like the orchestras that commission a concert work from me wouldn't expect it to sound like a piece from the 20's.”
As a conductor, he is a fierce advocate of period performance practices, and regards the pre-1930 playing standards as the level that all orchestras should strive for when performing this type of repertoire.
“At a typical first rehearsal I would say, listen guys, here we're not playing like our parents, but our great-grand parents. Vibrato intenso, with audible shifting, acorn mutes, vibraphone motor on maximum- these are the rules- and the norm. Sometimes they'll cringe a bit, but most of the time they're really into it. The sound is so different than what they're used to, and yet so very effective.”
After nearly 30 years in the silent-film business, Brock says he is happy to be returning to concert-hall repertoire more regularly. For most of the 1990's he was chief conductor of the Washington Chamber Orchestra, performing a silent-film only occasionally as a part of their regular season, until becoming music director for the Chaplin Estate which has occupied a large portion of his time both as a composer and conductor.
“I have zero regrets for my career as a silent-film man, but I do so enjoy the occasional concert without a giant white screen in front of me. And to be able to choose my own tempo! Man, that's living!”
As he did while at the helm of the WCO, Brock has tried to maintain his ongoing series of unearthing lost concert works from the early 20th century. During his Entartete Musik series, he gave the first U.S. performances of many lost or re-discovered works by composers who were suppressed by the Third Reich in the 1930's and 40's. Brock conducted many of the first U.S. performances of composers like Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann and Hanns Eisler, all of whom are now slowly emerging into their rightful place among standard orchestral repertoire.
Since becoming a resident of Italy, he has put in new efforts to perform a generation of little-known Italian composers who, under the rule of Fascism, were banned from public performance, or holding any prominent musical position.
“Most of the composers whose work I've been trying to find here were either partial or fully Jewish Italians, whose lives were destroyed by the Fascists here. But like elsewhere, this repertoire deserves to re-discovered and judged according to their quality, and not their circumstances. If it's a good piece, orchestras should be programming it. But first we have to find it.”
As he looks back, Brock did not expect his path to be so musically nuanced, but he does seem to enjoy the work. He has been commissioned by the Wien Konzerthaus to compose a new large symphonic score for the three-hour Fritz Lang epic FRAU IM MOND (1929) premiering April 2015 with the Radio Symphonie-orchester Vienna, a new score to the very first Chaplin film, KID AUTO RACES (1914), commissioned by Cineteca di Bologna in celebration of the 100th anniversary of “The Little Tramp”, and a new score restoration of the Chaplin feature, THE KID (1921), commissioned by the Chaplin Estate.