I just began exploring live performance for silent films, coming years excite me: Jonny Best

Julia G and Abdulla Risvan

Jonny Best | Photo: AJ Joji (Special Arrangement)

Jonny Best is a resident pianist at the British Film Institute’s Southbank Theatre. He performed live music to five silent films in the 27th edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala.

The films he performed in were F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist horror thriller Nosferatu, Erich von Stroheim’s erotic drama Foolish Wives, Swedish comedy-drama The Parson’s Widow, Victor Sjostorm’s 1921 philosophical film The Phantom Carriage and Curtis Bernhardt’s captivating film The Women Men Yearn For.

In this interview, Jonny narrates his journey.

How do you prepare for a live performance?

It depends on how well I know about the film. For 'Nosferatu', I am not at all bothered about the film because I have played in that film quite a few times. 'Foolish Wives', was a difficult one as this was my first time. So I did a little bit of reading and thinking about the film. I tried to think about the kind of sounds I was looking for. But in the end, it’s an improvised performance and I do not intend to plan too much. I need a trigger to get off the mark. Then I want to follow the film as best I can.

Jonny Best

How long have you been doing live performances for films?

I started playing piano when I was six. I have been playing for films for almost 10 years now.

Do you include any other instruments along with the piano?

In England, I work with different kinds of instruments. I work with violinists, cello players, percussionists, accordionists, harmonica players, jazz musicians and pipe musicians. I also collaborate with Indian musicians. There is no limit to the kind of music you could experiment with in silent films. I really think imagination is the only limit.

What is the core reason for giving musical accompaniment to silent films?

In all my career, I have worked with music in theatre or opera. They are all storytellers and I have always been fascinated by that. I was seeking a new challenge. I wanted to try something completely different. Then I came to know that there wasn't much difference in terms of how music works in opera and silent film. On the one hand it's very distinct and unusual, and on the other hand it’s a very simple step from some of the things that I have been doing.

Did you find it challenging when you started working on silent films?

Initially yes, but gradually I started to enjoy it. And then I was improvising by sitting at the piano, exploring what sounds I needed. I instantly found a deep interest in it. It was very difficult to begin with, but it's like that in every case.

Jonny Best

What is the scope of performing live music for silent films in this modern age?

Live music engages the audience. It is the liveliness, the fact that musicians are right there making sound is a very distinct sort of energy. What excites me the most is that I'm at the beginning of exploring what I can do on this journey. I hope that in five or ten years, if I come back to this film 'Nosferatu', I will find completely new things; things that I’m not even imagining now.

What do you think about the audience's response to such films? Do the films get the recognition they deserve?

Yes. I think whatever response the audience has is the right response. I never judge audiences. I like honest audiences. If they love the film, they get on their feet and tell you. If it’s not impressive, they tell you that too. The audience is very critical to me.

(The writers are film enthusiasts who graduated from the Central University of Punjab. Currently, they are a part of the 27th IFFK media cell)

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