FILM / MUSIC: Black and white sound effects: Sheila Johnston talks to Adrian Johnston about putting sounds to the silents

Click to follow
'YOU get an idea of what went on at the screenings of silent films from Cinema Paradiso. I'm sure there was a good deal of yelling going on in the audience. But when I talk to pianists from the old days, the main thing they remember is their necks being spattered with peas from annoying litle boys,' says the musician Adrian Johnston. Perhaps they ought have erected a sign: Don't Shoot the Pianist.

Johnston speaks from battle- scarred experience: since 1984 he has composed and performed soundtracks for some fifty or sixty silent movies. These days one imagines that the screenings occur in an atmosphere of hushed reverence. Not so, he says: one of his regular sponsors is the Midnight Sun Film Festival, founded by the Finnish film director and noted alcoholic Aki Kaurismaki - there, 'all you hear is the tipping up of benches, because everyone's been drinking all day.'

Modern cinemas aren't always designed with space for a musician: seated with his back to the screen, Johnston once had to affix a car mirror to his piano. Nor are the venues always conducive to good acoustics, like the time he accompanied Un Chien Andalou at an avant-garde event in an Edinburgh swimming pool. 'People were swimming in it at the time. And the film was projected along the length of the pool rather than the width so it never made it to the wall - it just disappeared into the water.' Possibly the biggest menace is the front-row snorer. Johnston's technique is to try and jolt these awake with a sudden big burst of music, but by the next pause he is likely to hear them honking away again.

One hopes that none of these hazards will threaten his next appearance at a screening of The Last of the Mohicans - not the Daniel Day-Lewis version, but an antique, 1920 stab at the story directed by Maurice Tourneur and presented at the Dukes Cinema this Sunday in a new, colour-tinted nitrate print.

Johnston's previous work includes music for Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Lodger and sundry Harold Lloyd short comedies: 'I was always the novelty support act to Carl Davis when the Thames Silents were shown on telly.' Connoisseurs of true esoterica should watch out for his favourite piece, a little gripper called Finland's Wooden Paper Industry. He likes writing for documentaries because, he says, he's unfettered by narrative requirements.

Some of his work is written for a group of six or seven musicians; other scores (like Mohicans) are one-man pieces for Johnston, a 'multi-instrumentalist', to perform on his own. He estimates that to commission and record a new soundtrack with a small band would cost between pounds 10,000 and pounds 12,000 (this must be exponentially more for a Davis-style orchestral extravanganza). The miracle is that there are sponsors, mainly archives and festivals, prepared to fund Johnston - and other musicians too, like Paul Robinson and the French composer Arnaud Petit, whose seriously weird score for Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc keened through the summer air at last year's Cambridge Film Festival.

Johnston stoutly defends the principle of commissioning new scores - even for hardy perennials like Nosferatu that have already inspired several soundtracks. 'It puts the film into the special event category - it tells people that this is not a funny old classic or an artefact of yesteryear.' He has worked for the theatre and is currently composing a piece for a BBC film called Strange Fish. He has no hesitation when asked why he likes writing for what will always be a marginal area of film culture, rather than for new movies. For one thing, he doesn't like to compose little snippets of music, or to run the risk of having his score turned right down in the dub, or to find it drowned by sound effects (or, come to that, cut out altogether). And his line of work has one advantage that is unquestionable: 'The best thing about silent films is that the directors tend to be dead.'

'The Last of the Mohicans', with a live electronic accompaniment by Adrian Johnston, plays at the Dukes Cinema, Moor Lane, Lancaster, Sunday at 8pm. Tickets cost pounds 6, pounds 4.50 concs (Box office: 0524 66645). We have 10 free pairs of tickets for the first Independent readers to present a copy of this page to the Dukes box office today after 10am.