Ahead of his performance of Rob Roy at this year’s Inverness Film Festival, Isla Henderson spoke to composer and multinstrumentalist David Allison about the best way to experience silent films.
Rob Roy tells the tale of the infamous Rob Roy MacGregor, an involuntary outlaw, (some would say a Scottish Robin Hood) and the injustice he faced which forced him along this path. The film was a notorious hit of its time, with David Hawthorne cast in the starring role of MacGregor. It overflows with thrilling battle scenes, while the politics of the day are woven throughout. Shot around Stirling Castle, the Trossachs and the estate of the 10th Duke of Argyll, this film has it all.
The 1922 silent picture comes to Inverness this week as part of its Scottish tour, accompanied by a new score performed live by composer and multi-instrumentalist David Allison. I spoke to David about his process, inspirations and opinions on silent film today.
Why silent film? When I first posed this question to David, he immediately responded with the fact it allows subjective interpretation. As a composer, there is freedom to work with, and at times, against the footage to create a captivating overall experience for the audience. It is unique in the respect that the audience aren’t just spectators of a film, but actively engaged in the live performance of the music. David describes silent film with music as ‘alive’, as it is the crossover between theatre and cinema where each performance is special, an event that differs even night by night.
David first started to work on bringing the score together in 2018, after a commission from HippFest. I asked how he began and developed the original concept into the finished composition. ‘I tend to put the film on, and see how I react to it. I then gradually begin to build up tunes, themes and feelings.’ After the initial ideas are produced, they are refined further to suit the mood of specific scenes, or emotions of characters. David describes his early improvisation as ‘drivel’ before they mature into a piece he can then take forward. He is continually referring back to the film and tweaking his music accordingly, giving it a twist of his own whilst maintaining its character.
When silent film began in the 19th century, it was revolutionary. Fast forward to today and we live in a time where mass media is all around us in a variety of forms. I asked David his opinion on the relevance of silent film in today's world. ‘It’s a form of time travel’ was his quick response. It takes us away from our everyday lives, placing us in another person’s shoes at another time. The addition of David’s new score to the classic ‘Rob Roy’ story allows it to be of both the past and the present. He detailed that seeing the impact of history on the past shows us how that same history influences us, even now. Our society today is a product of those who came before us and so it is important to look at what happened in by-gone ages. David emphasised that for young people, especially, to see the world from another time is important. He stated ‘there’s an awful lot of ‘now’ about the place’, and so to see a time before our lives is good for us. In the live performance of Rob Roy there is 400 years of history involved, each century impacting the next.
Rob Roy screens at Inverness Film Festival on Tue 12 Nov, with live score by David Allison.
This blog was written by:
Supported by Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network, and funded by Creative Scotland and Lottery funding from the BFI.