Buster Keaton enjoys Bristol first

Slapstick 2015 stages world premiere of Günter A Buchwald’s score for Keaton’s Seven Chances

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Buster Keaton enjoys Bristol first
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In 1927 the film industry changed forever. With the release of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer suddenly the silent era was battling with the 'talkies' that synchronised picture with sound and gradually made the orchestras, improvisers and composers of film theatres redundant. 

Bristol's annual Slapstick Festival, established ten years ago, takes us back to the age before synchronised sound, where live music played an essential part in bringing the silents to life. An event that, in presenter and comedian Chris Addison’s words, ‘gives you the feel of what it was like to be 90 years in the past,’ Slapstick’s Comedy Gala at Colston Hall on 23 January was an occasion of sheer joy. 

The uproarious event featured three films from the very best silent comics of all time – Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton. This wasn’t just a night for film buffs, though. With soundtracks written and performed by composer and pianist Günter A Buchwald and musicians from The Bristol Ensemble, as well as an appearance from rock legend Rick Wakeman, it was an evening rich in new musical discoveries.

‘The silents were never silent and Slapstick presents world class music, from piano improvisation to full orchestral scores,’ writes the festival’s director Chris Daniels in the 2015 programme. This year, the festival specially commissioned a score from Günter A Buchwald for Buster Keaton’s ingenious Seven Chances. A leading figure in the renaissance of silent film composition and improvisation, he answered with a beautifully refined soundtrack that responded brilliantly to the elegant chaos on screen. Throughout Keaton's hilarious feature – in which a man discovers he is to inherit a fortune if only he can be married by 7pm that same day – careful drum raps matched the ticking of clocks; string murmurs illustrated a man’s vision through thick-lensed glasses; bow slaps amplified the impact of falling rocks. 

Similarly in Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant – a beautiful and clever film edited painstakingly from 90,000 feet of film into the 2,000 feet it exists in today – Büchwald’s score brilliantly traced the action. At times the score provided sweeping background music, fit for the setting on a ship, at others tiny details were enhanced by a sound effect. A particularly nice touch was the switch from non-diegetic (background) scoring from diegetic (present in the plot) scoring at a restaurant in which a violinist is entertaining diners.

While Buchwald meticulously plotted his scores, pianist Rick Wakeman revealed how he had ‘written out 30 pages within a few days before reducing that to just one’ for Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business: presumably a sheet with a few cues. It made for a rather relentless and unvaried ragtime soundtrack and Wakeman also missed a few opportunities for sound effects, like the moment a piano was destroyed or the several knocks at a door that featured throughout the film.

The contrasts in styles of the two composers threw into sharp relief how personal interpretations of a film – and how it should sound – can be. And it’s difficult to imagine the three films presented tonight not working, whatever their soundtrack. The audience was in stitches throughout.

 

 

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