York musician Kieran White has composed a new score for a classic silent film. He talks to Chris Titley about the challenges of adding melody to a mute movie
Buster Keaton is one of the great movie stars, and The General is one of his greatest movies. Now knocking on the door of 90 years old, the film’s inventiveness, perfectly timed comedy and audacious stunts are still fresh.
That assessment is shared by Kieran White, even after seeing The General hundreds of times. He had to watch every one of the film’s 75 minutes over and over again as he created a new score for this very old classic.
On Saturday, November 16, he performs it at the Yorkshire Museum Of Farming, with all profits going towards a new engine shed for the Derwent Valley Light Railway based there. Tickets are £5, details below.
Unlike Keaton’s masterwork, which is set during the American Civil War, our story begins only a few years ago when the York Film Club asked Kieran to put The General to music. It was to be the highlight of their silent film festival.
“For a very long time I put it to the back of my mind, and occasionally thought about it, and very nearly gave up on doing it,” says Kieran over a pot of tea at Café Concerto.
“It’s an hour and 15 minute film and I thought that’s ridiculous.”
But then he began to investigate other modern musical treatments of the movie. “I was watching some clips on YouTube with the film set to music and some of it was dank, dour, dark existential angst-ridden stuff, presumably focusing on his deadpan expression.
“Then I heard a Radiohead-style version – and that’s just not right.”
Finally inspiration struck. “There was this one bit of the film that really started it for me. Between the two sets of wheels on the train you have a connecting rod.
“Keaton was sitting on this connecting rod going up and down, up and down. That was the first moment I thought, ‘Ah, I could do something with this.’ I came up with this quirky, Prokofiev-type idea.”
From that moment on Kieran worked feverishly on the score, finishing it in only 11 days.
The detail is incredible. “It’s a nanosecond by nanosecond matching of everything that’s happening on screen,” he said.
Many in York will know Kieran: he has taught countless people to play the piano, performed in venues across the city and is often seen busking outside the Minster at his battered upright, come rain or shine.
A remarkably gifted musician, he has the Bill Bailey-like ability to play any tune in any style on a whim.
It is a talent he has put to good use for The General. Among the pieces of music referenced in the score are Queen’s I Want To Ride My Bicycle, the theme from Superman, a ragtime version of the 1812 Overture and Suspicious Minds in the style of Debussy.
Kieran reckons there are 70 of these references. “There’s quotes ranging from Pachelbel’s Canon as the earliest one to stuff like the theme music from Bullseye which is probably the latest.”
If you’re wondering, a snippet of the Bullseye theme occurs as the Unionist soldiers are targeted by a cannonball.
“It goes from real pathos to to very silly in the big finale,” he said. “The film itself featured the most expensive shot in silent film history, which was the collapse of the River Rock Bridge, which in today’s money would have cost about half a million pounds.
“When that happens and the crane falls into the water, I do this really apocalyptic type of thing on the piano.”
While Kieran has incorporated many playful allusions in the score, his original music, including a recurring love theme, adds extra depth to The General.
In his five previous performances he’s had an overwhelmingly positive response from audiences, including a standing ovation. “The feedback was I’d contributed another layer of comedy, whilst being true to the film.”
Kieran admits that he was at a low ebb before composing the score for The General, which transformed his outlook.
“The whole process of writing and performing, I just knew that’s what I should have been doing my entire life,” he says. “I don’t like the word, it’s overused – but it was a real epiphany.”
Kieran is continuing to play across York as a solo artist and with his musician wife Kate in their ambient duo Siren.
But he is looking to work with filmmakers on more scores for movies which are perhaps a little bit more up to date than Buster Keaton’s classic.