“When you accompany a silent film, you have to just jump in and swim.”Mike Nolan
Brig writer Rachel Swan sits down with acclaimed musician and University of Stirling graduate Mike Nolan to discuss his career, influences, and scoring silent films.
Background and influences
Brig Newspaper (Brig): Hi Mike! Can you elaborate on your background and how you actually started working as a silent film musician?
Mike Nolan (MN): “I started playing the piano when I was about 5. My granny played piano- all the hits from the 1920’s. My dad was in the air force, and when he left his colleagues asked him if he wanted this piano. He took the piano, and we moved up to Scotland. I’ve been here since 1969. I started lessons and played mostly classical piano really, and I always had an ear for making stuff up. Just silly wee tunes, I’ve still got some of them in spidery handwriting.
“I went to music school and learnt how to play the organ there and kept writing things. Joined Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh and was writing music for dramas and other projects. I worked in burlesque cabaret too, at a venue called Café Graffiti.
“I’ve played folk, traditional jazz, some contemporary stuff, so my palate was pretty wide and remains so to draw on for my work.
“I was always interested in film, and I did a Film and Media degree at Stirling in the early 90’s. I started this part-time while I was still working, but eventually went full time.
While I was there, I went to see a showing of films from the Moving Image Archive which is now in the National Library of Scotland. Senior Curator Janet McBain presented these films- many of which were set in Central Scotland and Stirling- with a musician playing piano accompaniment.
“I’ve since gotten to know the guy who was playing the piano,” Mike laughs. “Acclaimed musician and former child actor Forrester Pyke, who sometimes appears at the Boness Silent Film Festival (Hippfest). I introduced myself to Janet after that show and expressed my interest in undertaking this type of work.
“This started an association for myself with the Scottish Film Archive back in the mid 90’s. I performed in a variety of shows for them, including the Movies on the Move tour in 1996, celebrating 100 years of cinema in Scotland.
I also played in many regional film theatres including the Macrobert Centre in Stirling, the Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), and Yorkshire, playing the Silent Film Festival there“
I came to Hippfest as a performer during the launch of the very first one. In the very early years I even played along to some of those same Scottish archival films, alongside some comedies and longer feature films.
I’ve been attending consistently as a performer and as a film fan ever since, which brings us to present day and the work I’ve done this year.”
Brig: What are some of your biggest musical influences?
MN: “I’m a musical magpie. I really love jazz pianists like Fat Waller , the great comedian jazz player, is probably one of my pianistic heroes. I love Oscar Peterson too. On the other end of the scale- someone who Peterson had on his tv show actually- I was really interested in Keith Emerson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, especially as a teenager. He was such a showman. He had the technique and the stage presence and was just mad, ‘rocking up’ all the classics. It was a lasting impression on me as a teen. I also grew up with the Beethoven and the Chopin, and that’s what is under my fingers to an extent. I try to have open ears, I’m interested in all kinds of music. Give me Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age on a pipe organ, like I saw an artist perform recently.”
Writing process and performance
Brig: What is your personal process for writing accompaniments to moving images and films? Are you more improvisational or do you have it all worked out prior?
MN: “There are a whole range of approaches, but I tend to improvise rather than write the score down implicitly. It really depends though on a multitude of factors such as what the film actually is, the duration of the film, when you as a composer get to see the film and how much time you have to work on it.
“Usually for longer narrative films, I’ll watch the film to get a sense of the overall themes. Then sketch out a couple of melody themes or musical styles I think will fit the film. I’ll paint and colour it in, so to speak. I might stick with those initial impressions or I might alter it.
“This year at Hippfest I accompanied one screening of a film called The Man Who Laughs,and I had a main ‘overall’ theme for that. The shape of the music and melody is based on the titular characters infamous fixed smile. That is the shell I worked, allowing me to improvise within that general idea in a jazzy way. Given that one of the other central components of the film is a love story, I had a general love theme that I worked with too, which is much simpler and quieter than the aforementioned jazzy smile piece.
It’s very rare for me to ever write something all the way through. I’ll find a style that fits the film, that doesn’t distract or get in the way, and improvise from there using that as a jumping off point, which is what most of the players within the silent film world do, give or take. If you try to be too specific and ‘stick to the script’ you get lost and lose your sense of connection to the film. You have to just jump in and swim.
“It’s about being as present as possible. You often want to merge into the film so much that you don’t realise there is music actually playing. It is just innate and ‘belongs’, as opposed to sticks out or distracts.”
“The idea is to be invisible. This semi-improvised approach generally means the score will be different each time, but with overarching themes I draw off of.”
Brig: If you’re using more than one instrument throughout a film score, do you take care to ‘be invisible’ when you change over?
MN: Absolutely. A musician never wants to break the fourth wall and have the attention be on them rather than the film. If I ever do use multiple instruments, it’s about being as discreet as possible. I think especially during longer narrative silent films, the audience is interacting and connecting with it differently compared to films with audio. It feels even more important to preserve and not disrupt that connection.”
Brig: Have you ever included any memorable unplanned deviation in any of your performances that went against what you’d outlined prior?
MN: “Two instances spring immediately to mind. During my early days accompanying Scottish Film Archive material during the Movies on the Move tour, I played an accompaniment for an episode of a serial. There’s a scene where she is being pursued by this stereotypical Highlander man across the mountain. Suddenly I find myself playing the melody of Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music. I didn’t know I was going to do that, and the audience just laughed! Sometimes if you’re aware the footage is a little corny, or not provoking an emotional investment from the audience, breaking the fourth wall can work on those rare occasions.
“The other incident was a purely musical thing which I did plan to do, but hadn’t had an opportunity to rehearse it.
I was playing the piano for Nosferatu, and I took the ‘front door’ of the piano off- the top panel of the piano- so I had access to the strings.
During the famous part where the vampire is climbing up the stairs, that eerie shadow against the wall, I held the pedal down and very slowly drew my thumbnail over the bass strings.
Prior to this, there’s a scene where he’s coming off the boat and behind him, a hoarde of rats flood out of the ship. I did a similar thing on the strings where I created this frantic scurrying sound. Almost electronic in a way. I wanted sounds that made your skin crawl!”
Current and future plans
Brig: Lastly Mike, can you tell us what you’ve most recently been up to and what’s next for you?
MN: Last month I performed piano accompaniment for a film called Safety Last! at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Next for me is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari at the Bo’ness Hippodrome on the 7th of October. I’ll be accompanying the film for the Taste of Silents season!
To find out more about Mike Nolan and his work, visit mikesilentmusic.com
Tickets for Bone’ss Hippodrome Taste of Silents season can be found here, don’t miss out!
Featured Image Credit: Mike Nolan