My Granny was a piano accompanist for silent movies in the 1920s and while I inherited some musicality through the generations, one specific gene missed me. That is the skill to accompany through improvisation. You can’t be taught it as it’s an instinctive art and I envy and applaud those who can.
One of those is Richard Hills, and he demonstrated this art in the best possible way, not on piano but on organ. The Caird Hall organ, to be precise, in the latest Silent Movie Night, presented by the Friends of the Caird Hall Organ. This was his debut in Dundee, and while ones concentration might have been fixed on the silver screen, his contribution was as colourful as the films were monochromatic.
I have enjoyed hundreds of wonderful evenings in the Caird Hall but this stands up beside the best of them. Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Hills at the organ console? Some combination!
Hills introduced the concept of keyboard accompaniment as a musical “join the dots”, but it’s not as simple as that. Yes, you adopt a theme for each character and scene but there’s still a needed spontaneity and ability to switch moods in a second’s notice.
With Laurel and Hardy’s 1929 “Big Business”, where the hapless pair cross swords with old adversary Jimmy Finlayson, anything from Johann Strauss to Hearts and Flowers were background to the slapstick the threesome indulged in. Brilliant on screen, but if you diverted your attention long enough, Richard’s clever accompaniment, complete with well-timed sound effects played a major part in the fun.
Same with Keaton’s classic 1928 “Steamboat Bill, Junior”. Such was the scenario, music from Showboat was a major contributory factor with Old Man River and He’s Just My Bill, popping up on occasion. However, forget the music for a moment and revel in Keaton’s timing and fearless stunts. The storm scene was one of early cinematography’s finest moments.
This evening is a bit of an institution, and long may it continue. The two or so hours passed in a trice and for me, the next Caird Hall Silent Movie Night can’t come quick enough.