Interview with silent film accompanist Meg Morley

Australian-born pianist Meg Morley, just after have launched her debut solo release Through the Hours on 07 June 2017, have played in Bologna during the 31th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival (from June 24th to July 1s) On the occasion of his performance we had a nice conversation about his role as a silent film pianist.

Valerio Greco – You come from a completely different field than accompanying films: you have an impeccable curriculum, reading that you work in full time at the English National Ballet School, and you have collaborated with other dance companies such as the London Contemporary Ballet Theater and many others!

Meg Morley – Accompanying dance might seem completely different to accompanying silent film but I think they’re actually very similar, and I know of a few silent film musicians who have a dance-accompaniment background (e.g. Stephen Horne, John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrysch). And I think it’s been somewhat easier for me to enter the world of improvising for silent film because I have the background in improvising for dance: in a dance class you’re improvising with motion (i.e. exercises at varying tempi and with varying mood/quality – all of which are intrinsic to particular movements/exercises but also which are set by the teacher), and for silent film it’s the same but with the exception of a storyline being present so your improvisation has to take on a different structure – i.e. a more planned and multilayered approach I think.

V.G. – And you are a jazz pianist at the same time and right now you’ve made a debut with your beautiful music album Through The Hours! What’s the story there? M.M. – Thank you. I don’t know if I’d call myself strictly a ‘jazz’ pianist… Perhaps you could call me an ‘improvising pianist/composer’ who loves jazz and a mixture of a lot of other music. The word ‘jazz’ means different things to many different people (but that’s a separate discussion we could have!). I’ve always loved improvising and writing music but I’ve neverrecorded my own music, nor promoted myself as a creative artist. However in the past couple of years a number of things have happened that have made me realise how much I seriously want to pursue this. I now feel ready to write, record, perform and collaborate in different creative contexts – and I feel very excited about that. I’m happy with the EP that I recently released (Through the Hours). Many people have told me how much they enjoy listening to the EP (and yet only 5 people have bought the EP haha!… this is the curse of platforms like Spotify for the creative and ‘unkonwn’ musician… but again that’s a separate discussion we could have!). I loved the process of creating the EP – I learned so much from it – and I’m looking forward to recording a lot more!

V.G. – In fact your passion for silent movies is recent, but was it a love at first glance?

M.M. – Well, I’ve always appreciated silent film but I actually didn’t engage much with it until I went to hear John Sweeney play a live improvised piano score for Keaton’s The Navigator in 2011 at the Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square, London. I was so inspired by how John’s music contributed immensely to the film and gave it so much more dimension. The film itself is fantastic, of course, but John’s playing was what really inspired me – as I immediately wanted to be able to play like that too. However it wasn’t until a few years later (late 2015) when I was introduced to the London Cinema Museum and the Kennington Bioscope, that I really thought “Wow – I think that I could possibly play for silent films as a serious profession!”. And since playing for my first silent film/s in early 2016 I have been hooked! I love it!

V.G. – Favourite movie you have played for?

M.M. – That’s difficult to answer. I loved playing for Hitchcock’s Blackmail at the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival a few weeks ago, but then I also loved playing for The Woman One Longs For at the London Cinema Museum recently. So I don’t have one particular favourite film yet, but I do think that I’m falling in love with the genre of film noir at the moment.

V.G. – It’s the first time that you’re going to play in Bologna, but you’ve already been in Italy at the Pordenone Masterclasses during the Giornate del cinema Muto silent film festival together with great musicians like Neil Brand, Stephen Horne and others. How was it for you and what have you learned about?

M.M. – Pordenone was such a great experience and it really opened my eyes to the world of silent film – I was completely overwhelmed (in a good way). The musicians who ran the workshops and played for the films during the festival are world-class and were so supportive and kind – and it felt great to be a part of this community for the week there. I learned many things, and one was that there are certain ways of playing ‘successfully’ for silent films, but that it’s also very individual – i.e. each tutor in the Masterclass program had a different style, and different ideas. They would all agree on certain aspects about playing for silent film but then their approach and choices for specific scenes was extremely different. It was so interesting, and very inspiring.

V.G. – You will accompany the movie Le Mogli e le Arance (1917), and you told us that you have never seen it. It’s a common thing for musicians who do this work King Vidor said that “probably 50 percent of the emotion came from the music”. A great commitment for you!

M.M. – I don’t know but perhaps King Vidor was right. I think in terms of the music evoking emotion: it’s an unconscious and also a conscious process for the audience: an audience member may be aware that they’re watching a film and that the music is affecting them (perhaps it’s annoying them or that they think the music is extremely good/moving etc) and this is a conscious process, or they may be completely absorbed in the film and be totally unaware of how the music is affecting them – which is an unconscious process. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but I think I agree that 50% of the audience’s emotion comes from the music that is being playing (consciously and/or unconsciously). I also think that the aim of the musician is to really ‘listen’ to the film and to try to draw out it’s emotional content/agenda if they can find it and if the shots and the editing in the film allow the musician to do a good job of this!

V.G. – Projects for your future?

M.M. – Next weekend I’m recording an album with the Meg Morley Trio (with UK double-bass player Richard Sadler, and Italian drummer Emiliano Caroselli). The album is of my original music and Richard and Emi are great musicians and such lovely people that it really doesn’t feel like work. The three of us are also going to do some projects with silent film soon too which I’m very excited about! In terms of big plans for future projects: I’d love to write a full score for a silent film … but that’s just a dream at the moment so right now I’m just happy playing, recording and performing music!

Valerio Greco

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