Interviewing Maestro Timothy Brock

Interviewing Maestro Timothy Brock


This month I had the pleasure of interviewing a truly extraordinary individual. Well, I guess you could say that’s about true of everyone I’ve interviewed for this series, but myself, I’ve always been mesmerized and stupefied by someone who can either write music or play it. I remember when I was an undergraduate in college and I had the good fortune of being given two roommates who were students in the College Conservatory of Music, how awed I was at what they had to do-the dedication they had for their art, yes, but also their ability to persevere in a course that seemed beyond difficult-music theory!! How did they understand that stuff? Ever since that time when I watched those two girls make incredible music out of what were pretty funny looking instruments, I’ve had a deep respect for musicians and especially composers. I remember one of their fellow classmates majored in that mystical musical theory, of all things, and, poor boy, he felt he had to work towards a business minor besides in case he didn’t make it-and most don’t! Once you read Tim’s story below, then, you will understand just how extraordinary he is. Tim made it and made it very early in life. It has been my very great pleasure to get to know him personally over the last couple of years and to count him among my treasured friends. After reading his interview, I’m sure you will appreciate him as much as I do-if only for Charlie’s sake!


Maestro Timothy Brock Timothy Brock (b.1963) has been an active composer and conductor who has specialized in concert works of the early 20th-century and silent film. In the course of his career, he has conducted over 200 programs including 30 world and North American premieres of new or lost works by a wide diversity of composers. Such programs included the first US-concert performance of Hanns Eisler’s Kleine Sinfonie, Niemandslied, Kuhle Wampe and Erwin Schulhoff’s Symphony no. 2, the North American premiere to the previously lost 1930 Russian-vaudeville masterpiece Declared Dead, by Dmitri Shostakovich, and the world premiere of David Raksin’s Nocturne written in 1946. He has written new or restored original orchestral scores to 26 silent films. His orchestral compositions include new scores for Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, premiered by the Berner Symphonie-orchester, Keaton’s The General, premiered by the Orchestre National de Lyon and Ernst Lubistch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, premiered by the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna.In 1999 Brock began working exclusively for the Charles Chaplin estate, who have commissioned nine score restorations of the major films scores by Chaplin, including Modern Times, City Lights, The Gold Rush, The Circus, A Woman of Paris, The Pilgrim, Shoulder Arms, A Dog’s Life, and the short feature Pay Day. In 2008 his recording of the complete Modern Times with the NDR Philharmonie will be released on CPO (Classic Produktion Osnabruck). For more information, check Maestro Brock’s website at http://www.timothybrock.com/.

How did you come to be interested in working in silent film accompaniment and with Charlie Chaplin’s scores in particular?

I had seen my first theatrical presentation of silent film in 1973 when I was 10, growing up in Seattle. It was an all day show which included Keaton’s COPS, Murnau’s NOSFERATU, Lang’s METROPOLIS and a couple of other shorts I don’t remember, all accompanied by the great Andy Crow at the Mighty Wurlitzer of the (now burned down) Granada Theatre in West Seattle. Knowing full well the implications of how corny this over-used statement sounds, I am compelled to say that the event truly changed my life. This is because I distinctly remember the devastation I felt that night when my mother plainly told me that it was utterly impossible to make a living at making music for silent film. So therefore it was my dutiful pre-teen responsibility, as a gauntlet was then thrown before me, to spend the rest of my life proving my mother wrong. So by the time I was 24 I had been commissioned to compose my first feature silent film orchestral score to PANDORA’S BOX, and had written or restored 15 or 16 subsequent scores before I started to work for the Chaplins in 1999.

Maestro Timothy Brock conducting live performance In 1998 I got a call from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, for whom I’d been conducting their silent film performances since 1995, to ask if I was interested in restoring for live performance MODERN TIMES. Blindly and swiftly agreeing to the huge project, the next thing I knew I was on a flight to Paris to look at the manuscript score pages, which was approximately 20 inches thick. The Chaplins bought out my contract with Los Angeles and I spent the next 14 months restoring MODERN TIMES, and conducted its premiere in June, 2000 with LACO, then one week later in Germany for the European premiere with the NDR Philharmonie. I have been working with the Chaplins ever since and have just completed my 9th score for them this year.

As a composer yourself, would you say that understanding Charlie’s method of composing is integral to being able to restore his work? How did you come to understand his method then and can you explain that method to us?

It’s helpful to have some background as to how a composer works, because, on occasion, you have to guess what he would have done in a particular passage that could be missing on paper, or is generally unclear. But, in fact, most of the time it’s a matter of doing the nitty-gritty of studying the materials that you have. However, knowing David Raksin (the then 23-year-old musical associate for MODERN TIMES), for example, proved helpful in the clarification of Chaplin’s working methods in the 1930’s.

Charlie Chaplin at the piano David told me that Charlie, after finishing the editing of the film, set out to the studio each morning at 9:00 a.m. to compose music to a different section of the film, and he would write on paper what Charlie was playing at the piano. After composing the scene, or in some instances merely a few shots, Charlie and David would define the orchestration of that passage (i.e. decide which instruments would play what notes) and by the end of the day it would be David’s job to hand over a complete score to the copyist/arranger to start making player’s parts. After enough music had been composed, orchestrated and parts made, the orchestra was contracted and ready to begin recording the score. However, on many occasions, Charlie, hearing what he had composed, rejected an entire passage after a single play through by the orchestra, thereby telling David that they must begin the whole process over again for that passage. This makes for incredible pressure on all concerned, including Charlie who is paying the orchestra to be on hand each day over a three week period. This was unheard of in Hollywood terms then, and is even less so now, as most film scores are recorded over a maximum period of one to two days. But I believe he composed and recorded his scores just as he did shooting scenes as a director: everybody works, and alternately waits, until the end result is what he deems as perfect. And MODERN TIMES certainly is a miraculous result, symptomatic of this process.

What, then, is the process you go through when endeavoring to restore one of Charlie’s scores?

As I said, the bulk of the work is studying closely the materials you have. I was fortunate to have the original manuscripts of all the scores and parts (from the Chaplin Archive in Montreux, CH) in my possession at the time of the restorations, which makes all the difference. Funnily enough, when restoring a Chaplin score, it is the parts themselves that are the most valuable. Charlie Chaplin the musicianAs Charlie was constantly changing the score as they recorded it, the fully orchestrated score pages, and the ones from which the copyist made the parts, are actually, in effect, an early draft. When Charlie made changes, the only written evidence of these instant modifications were hand-written by the players themselves on their individual parts at the time of the recording.

The process for me was take each cue (usually a one to two minute passage) and start transcribing from the Piccolo part all the way down to the Contrabass part, and re-writing each of the 20-26 lines of instruments on the score page, taking in all changes and modifications to each voice as written by the players. Often these changes would be written above the staff-line of the crossed-out original passage, or on a separate sheet of music paper. When sheet music paper wasn’t handy enough (apparently!) they sometimes wrote on the backs of scrap paper, such as laundry receipts or pay slips. More often than not, the chicken-scratches I found on alternate sheets of “paper” were unmarked as to which cue it belonged, and I was therefore thrust into the role of archeologist as I tried to match the passage to the right cue.

What are some of the particular challenges you face when undertaking such a task?

There are also the occasional moments when some passages are missing entirely on paper. In the case of MODERN TIMES, there were approximately eight collective minutes missing altogether. For these moments I was required to transcribe aurally (from the optical track) the notes played by the orchestra, which is the most scary part of the restoration process as you are at the mercy of a 1936 recording, which, as good as it was for the time, only transmits 30-40 percent of what was probably on paper. This is where the knowledge of Chaplin’s work and preferences comes into play as a restorer.

Another challenging factor is having a fairly good knowledge of the antiquated style of playing and then reproducing that on paper. These ornamentations are not written, but are standard playing practices of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Orchestras today do not play Brahms, or even Stravinsky, as they did 70 years ago. The same is true for most film scores written in the 30’s. These manners of playing are crucial to the overall effect of the 1936 music, and for most orchestras today, it is a style very foreign to them and, therefore, Charlie Chaplin conducting a recording session of A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG must be written out. It is great fun as a conductor to tell an orchestra that they must execute the score as their grandfathers and grandmothers may have done, including heavy and electric vibrato in the strings with careful observation of the written glissandi (sliding) between notes, brass requiring nine different specialty mutes, Saxophones needing to synchronize their vibrato with each other and asking the tuba if he could play a sousaphone instead. These treatments are merely a starting point to creating an accurate account of the score.

On average, depending on which score, I am able to restore 20-30 seconds of music per day. As tedious and time-consuming as the restoration process can be, it is vital in order to achieve a result that comes as close as possible to what Chaplin heard himself.

 

Can you talk about the special case of A Woman of Paris score and your experience with it? Do you think this score will ever be performed in the States or will it be recorded?

The new score to A WOMAN OF PARIS was the most artistically challenging score to produce. The 1977 score Charlie had released, with his long-time musical associate Eric James, is a conundrum. Recorded within the last year of his life, it is generally believed that James was behind the selection of material and tried his best, given the circumstances, to create a “Chaplinesque” score with Charlie’s approval. It is not altogether successful in supporting the film and it lacked the unique quality we have come to know in Chaplin scores. I think it was considered not appropriate to exhibit with live orchestra.

In 2004 Josephine Chaplin and Kate Guyonvarch had transferred to CD about 20 hours of private recordings of Chaplin composing on the piano, primarily around the time of LIMELIGHT. My guess is that these were recordings made for Ray Rasch, his musical associate at the time, Charlie Chaplin in LIMELIGHT for transcriptions to be made later. Many of the compositions were, in fact, transcribed and used in the film. But much of the music was not used, and until then was never heard before.

Over several months I transcribed the unknown music to paper, identifying about 13 complete compositions, and about 21 incomplete ones. From these works I made the effort to create a “new” Chaplin score, with music from his only other drama, and it is that score now that is used when performing the film live. I have only conducted the score here in Europe, but I hope a US performance is realized soon. It’s an amazing film and far too beautiful to keep to ourselves!

If you could talk to Charlie, composer to composer, what would you ask him (what would you talk about)?

That’s a very difficult question. Most likely I would be asking him for a job. Then if he hired me, and I did my job correctly, I would be fired again just as quickly. This I would wear as a sort of badge of honor, considering the company of great musicians he has hired and fired over the years: Arthur Johnston, Alfred Newman, David Raksin, Max Terr, Meredith Willson. All of these guys worked Chaplin very hard and paid the price, but I don’t think any of them regretted any of it. I mean, look at the result!

What’s next? I got to see you working on The Gold Rush score firsthand, which you premiered this summer in Bologna-a great experience for me. Such a tremendous project must be both exhausting and rewarding. Is there another Chaplin score you’d like to work on? Or will you be moving on to other projects?

Now that THE GOLD RUSH is complete and in publication, all of the feature film scores of Chaplin are now complete, Carl Davis having done THE KID and IDLE CLASS in the mid 1990’s. All that remains are the shorts like SUNNYSIDE and A DAY’S PLEASURE. However, I have been commissioned by Paul Merton to create a version of THE GOLD RUSH for an orchestra of 15 players. I will give that premiere in Bristol on January 18th 2008. Other than that I am just keeping busy conducting the 10 Chaplin scores that are already out there, as well as the other films in my repertoire.

Having worked on the Chaplin scores has been an amazing experience and one I should not forget easily. So long as people enjoy going to the films, I think I will always take pride in the fact that I had a small part in their experience. The goal is, and always has been, to come as close to what Chaplin realized for his audience, and if I’ve done that I’m happy.

Timothy Brock conducting live performance of CITY LIGHTS

 

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