Jarvis Cocker and Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli join cellist Philip Sheppard to launch third season of all-star improvisation to silent comedy classics
When it comes to creating split-second comic mayhem, cellist-composer Philip Sheppard takes his inspiration from such masters of the silent screen as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. In the old movie houses a lone pianist improvised along to the on-screen antics; but once a month at Kings Place concert hall it’s what Sheppard calls “Whose Line Is It Anyway? meets chamber music”, as he and a crack line-up of players spontaneously generate a soundtrack for silent comedy classics. His special guests to launch the second season of Not So Silent Movies… on Sunday 30th September are Jarvis Cocker, who made his name with Britpop band Pulp, film composer Dario Marianelli, who in 2008 won an Oscar for his score for Atonement and has composed the score for Anna Karenina, and John Etheridge from the band Soft Machine, whose guitar-playing has evoked awe in such luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Pat Metheny and Sting.
The audience for Not So Silent Movies… regularly ends up helpless with laughter, but the exuberant Sheppard and his colleagues stick to some serious rules: there is no rehearsal, not even the most basic sheet music, and no-one can view the films ahead of the show. The programme of films is not even chosen (by Sheppard and his 5 year-old son) until the night before.
“We end up with as much slapstick on stage as on screen. There is such a buzz from playing with no safety net … It’s the biggest adrenalin rush I’ve had as a performer, and that’s what makes it work. When it’s over, you can’t repeat it – it really is a one-off. I love throwing caution to the wind and creating a spontaneous composition with a team of musicians who are at the top of their game.”
The ensemble has no leader, no-one calls the key, and the players happily take suggestions from the audience as to which note or which instrument should kick things off. “I’ve played at Ronnie Scott’s before now, but Not So Silent Movies… is much freer than jazz. We’ve had phrases that start off as Brahms and end up as hip-hop, or which morph from Purcell to Stevie Wonder. At the same time, there is a sense of respect for the genre we happen to be working in at any moment. Something happens – we make a connection. On one occasion we were so in synch that we all just stopped playing for four bars … The silence was spine-tingling!”
Sheppard also admits that things can sometimes go awry, but, as he says “that can also be brilliantly hilarious”. Nor is he beyond tempting fate still further. On April Fools’ Day last year he made all the players swap instruments (he ended up on the violin) and invited a four-year-old girl up from the audience to conduct.
Beyond Sheppard himself, the ‘house band’ for Not So Silent Movies… includes: bass guitarist Guy Pratt, best known for his work with legendary rock band Pink Floyd, though he has also played for people like Madonna and Michael Jackson and somehow finds time to moonlight as a stand-up comedian; Geoff Dugmore, of the seminal band Killing Joke, who recently played drums for evergreen French rocker Johnny Hallyday at the massive Stade de France near Paris; harpist Julia Thornton, who was a student with Sheppard at the Royal Academy of Music and who later spent time as percussionist for the ever-cool Roxy Music; Pip Eastop, one of the UK’s leading players of the French horn (with sidelines in the trumpet and photography); Elspeth Hanson a violin and viola player who performs with the electric string quartet Bond; clarinettist Peter Furniss who regularly appears as a guest with the leading UK orchestras, and the multitalented Mark Neary, who plays a bewildering array of instruments and collaborates regularly with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher.
Returning guest artists lined up for the 2012-13 season include percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, composer Roger Eno, and Stephen Warbeck, who won an Oscar for his score for the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.
Philip Sheppard first had the idea for Not So Silent Movies… over a decade ago. His CV is as genre-defying as his ensemble’s improvisations. Now a professor of cello at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music, he also lectures in composition. As a young player he worked with such figures as composers Sir Michael Tippett, Gordon Jacob and Hans Werner Henze, but he has also made recordings with, among others, David Bowie, Noel Gallagher, Jimmy Page and singer Scott Walker. In recent years, following the Manchester Passion on BBC TV in 2006, he has become much in demand as a film composer, particularly for documentaries produced in the US, and is now firmly established on what might be termed the Sundance circuit. His first work for the big screen was In the Shadow of the Moon, which featured interviews with the late Neil Armstrong and other NASA astronauts, and his other scores include Bobby Fischer Against the World, Sergio (an Oscar-nominated documentary) and, for French TV, Juliette Binoche: Sketches for a Portrait. Released in UK cinemas this September is another documentary with a score by Sheppard: Liz Garbus’ Love Marilyn, which features Uma Thurman, Glenn Close, Lindsay Lohan, Paul Giamatti and Jeremy Piven.
He also wrote the scores for in-i, Binoche’s National Theatre collaboration with choreographer Akram Khan, and for Khan’s project with prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem, Sacred Monsters. On an altogether larger scale has been his involvement with London 2012: he composed the music played at the closing ceremony in Beijing in 2008 when the city handed over the Olympic Flame to London, and he arranged no less than 205 national anthems for this summer’s Games. No improvisation here, but 52 concentrated hours of recording at Abbey Road Studios with the London Philharmonic Orchestra!
While not quite ready to fill a stadium, the audience for Not So Silent Movies… has been growing too. Having regularly sold out the smaller of Kings Place’s two halls, the show has now moved to the larger Hall One. “Three generations of audiences come to see us; film buffs, music aficionados and the genuinely bemused inquisitive,” says Sheppard. “It really does comprise people from four to 94. Silent film buffs love it, of course, but we also have a strong showing from students who’ve just surfaced at lunchtime on Sunday and who want to have a good laugh in the afternoon. They didn’t grow up watching silent movies on TV like I did. These films don’t need CGI to make their point. They’re still totally fresh.” And so, indisputably, is the music that accompanies them at Kings Place.