Interview: Brett Miller on performing the score to “Metropolis”
Local high school students Brett and Evan Miller will provide live accompaniment to Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece METROPOLIS on Wednesday, April 25th at 7:00 at the County Theater in Doylestown. The brothers will perform Gottfried Huppertz’s original film score on keyboard and percussion.
One of the most celebrated movies in cinema history and a key influence on contemporary films like Blade Runner and Star Wars, METROPOLIS continues to remain relevant 90 years later with themes of social stratification, rebellion, and ill effects of technology. The County will present the 2010 digital restoration of the film; this includes 25 minutes of footage that was lost for 80 years, and rediscovered in a museum archive in Argentina. The restoration includes key scenes that had been cut — either because they were considered to be too brutal or too long — a practice common of theater operators in the early days of cinema. The integration of these newly restored scenes and subplots endow METROPOLIS with even greater tension and emotional resonance, as it dramatizes the conflict between wealthy über-capitalists and rebellious subterranean laborers which is orchestrated by a diabolical scientist capable of destroying them both.
We reached out to Brett with some questions about how he got into performing silent scores and about the specifics of performing the iconic score to Metropolis.
County Theater: How did you first get into silent film and silent film scores?
Brett Miller: In October of 2012, our family experienced the annual Halloween night screening of The Phantom of the Opera with live organ score at University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium. I had already begun pipe organ lessons at our church. Going to see a movie that used the king of instruments seemed incredibly cool … and it was! I wanted to be able to do this as well. I had a lot of help from close friend David Leopold who introduced me to folks like Ben Model and Bernie Anderson, both of whom have encouraged me to find my style and to have fun.
This is an art form that most people, like me six years ago, didn’t realize still exists. It is a mission of mine to bring new and returning audiences a movie experience that they will share with someone else. And these silent films are too good to fade away. Learning the scoring process and techniques to bring out emotion has helped me in my music performances and has made me a better musician. Movie music remains my favorite genre. I can now detect connections back to classic scores in the work of modern composers like John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, and Hans Zimmer.
CT: Why should audiences see silent films with live music?
BM: When I experienced my first silent film I was amazed that someone was actually playing and performing for me! As I watched the film, the sound and film blended seamlessly. The ending was dramatic with full organ. When the lights went on you realized there was a room full people that all just experienced something very special. People talk to one another and chat with the accompanist. It’s an unexpected added value at the cost of just a movie ticket.
CT: What drew you to Metropolis?
BM: About 4 years ago I saw the restored version. The film was fascinating and the music was a huge part of that experience. I had already created my own scores for silent Keaton shorts and was discovering the processes involved to be effective for the audience. When I heard the score for Metropolis it was far more complex and complete than any score I have heard for films. It instantly became a goal of mine to learn and play. I traveled to reference libraries to find information about the score. I listened to Gottfried Huppertz’ recordings, which he conducted in 1927. I also listened to the re-recorded scores for the 2010 restoration. The score is on the top of my playlist. The music itself can stand on its own, but it also is perfectly matched to the film. It is amazing to think that Fritz Lang and Gottfried Huppertz were able to synchronize the written score to a film which was filmed at 16fps and then played back at 26fps. Some of the motifs, such as the main theme and transformation, are as iconic as the scenes themselves and could work in blockbuster movies made today.
CT: What was the biggest challenge of learning the Huppertz score?
BM: Huppertz’ score is very much like an opera score. Main characters and certain situations are each given a theme. It gets complex because he uses many variations on these themes, maybe in a different key, tempo, or added vamp. The variations are very thoughtful and keep the audience engaged. It would be easier to cheat and just remember one variation, but that could cause the audience to experience too much repetitive music. The score also contains beautiful layers. The two of us will be working hard to preserve as much as we can. The score was written for a 60 piece orchestra. The 41 rank virtual theater organ will be the workhorse. Real percussion, such as glockenspiel, woodblock, and gong will add a dimension and just the right accent.
CT: What is your process for learning the score and practicing it in sync with the film?
BM: The process can be different for a variety of reasons. If an original score for a major feature exists, I will make it a goal to understand how it was put together and potentially use the majority of it. For shorts and comedies there is a lot of room for improvisation. Theme creation is important for all movies. I have only played to films for which I have prepared. I am lucky in that respect. Accompanists back in the 20’s had to do it cold, many times without ever seeing the film beforehand. It must have been a tough way to make a buck. Today, DVDs and YouTube enable you to get a head start. Photoplay music — sheet music collections from theaters in the 20’s — have been scanned and shared between today’s accompanists. This music, along with improvisation, queue sheets, and practice, help in creating authentic accompaniment. Research may be required for important films. The score to Nosferatu was lost when the film was ordered destroyed. Using some guesswork about Hans Erdmann’s Nosferatu themes — which were scattered in other books — we pieced the motifs back like a puzzle. The orchestration and timing, though, was up to us. For Metropolis, the film and score are masterpieces, there is no guesswork, but there is a lot of studying and practicing.
CT: Are there any moments in the film that you developed a new appreciation for, having seen them so many times?
BM: Maria’s chase scene is more meaningful. The dramatic acting used to be a little funny at first. Now I realize this is a pivotal moment and the scene and music are incredibly powerful. Oh yeah, did I mention the dance scene….
CT: Metropolis is a pillar of the silent film repertoire. What is next on your list? Are there other silent masterpieces — or obscure titles — you have your eye on performing?
BM: Wings — the first Academy Award winner and film about WWI fighter pilots. It is high on my list and November of this year marks the 100th anniversary of the war’s end. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also very interesting. I would love to put together a score for that one as well. Buster Keaton’s Cameraman is on my list as a benefit to raise money for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. I also have some crazy ideas for accompanying “talkies” that have really great scores, but lousy mono recordings. There are some great films in that category.
CT: What has been your favorite work to perform so far?
BM: Nosferatu. The research itself was a fun challenge. Learning how to navigate research libraries and find clues of the “lost score.” Experimenting with the themes to find just the right tones and tempos was a great learning experience. It taught me about the film. I am very proud of the end results and believe it is appreciated by the audience. I am finding myself having a similar connection with Metropolis. We can’t wait to let it loose.
METROPOLIS (The Restored Version) will play at the County Theater on Wednesday, April 25th at 7:00. Tickets are available at CountyTheater.org.
About Brett and Evan Miller
Brett and Evan Miller live in Bedminster, Pennsylvania. Brett is 16 years old and completing the 10th grade. Evan Miller is 17 years old and completing the 11th grade. For the past five years they have attended and performed at various venues including silent films. Together they have received instrumental training on the organ, ukulele, percussion, cello, trumpet, guitar and both continue piano instruction with Beth Crompton.
Evan and Brett are thrilled, honored, and appreciative to be accompanying METROPOLIS at the County Theater. Their first silent film accompaniment experience was at the County, which was a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation with the assistance of Renew Theaters. That event sparked the creation of Musical Promise, an initiative to raise funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The boys were featured in the local news at age 10 and 11 about Musical Promise, and they continue to fundraise to find a cure for Type 1 Diabetes through musical and biking efforts. (Learn more at www.musicalpromise.org.)
Evan and Brett have received Honorable Mention at the White House Student Film Festival for a film featuring their community service work. Both brothers have also received the Prudential Spirit of Community Award for their service on separate occasions. Evan is involved in his high school winter and spring track, the ski and cycling club, and is responsible for the lighting and sound engineering for the auditorium at his school. Brett was a recipient of the Kohl’s Care Award, as well as the spirit award for his high school marching band. He is a member of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra organization, his high school marching band, jazz ensemble, and American Theatre Organ Society. He studies theatre organ with Jelani Eddington and has played as a featured organist at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Bedminster; the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, NJ; Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, NJ; and Brook Arts Center in Bound Brook, NJ.