Metropolis Interview When music combines with drama

Metropolis | Photo: Goethe-Institut Myanmar / Joshua Pyae Sone Oo

Shortly before the screening of Metropolis and the film concert on 6th June,- we sat down with the pianists Katja Brandl and Pierre Oser to talk about music, the upcoming concert and their experiences in Myanmar.

Dear Ms. Brandl, dear Mr. Oser, on Saturday you will provide musical accompaniment for the screening of Metropolis. How did you come to be particularly interested in music for films?

Pierre Oser: Basically, I am interested in the combination of music with something happening on a stage: in theatre, in dance, in acting or, as in this case, in film; there where music combines with a dramatic process and thus also acquires a very special role, as it does in musical theatre. In the case of Metropolis it is particularly about silent film music, which is basically something distinct, because the interest lies, above all, in the concert.
The special thing about this concert is that it is a silent film concert, and silent film music is entirely different from the music in a sound film. A sound film is not an improved silent film, or vice versa, it is simply something completely different. Silent film musical accompaniment comes from the tradition of musical theatre, in which a live performance was accompanied by a live orchestra. Here it is now basically a step further, and the performance that takes place on stage or in film is fixed in this silent film. We are basically forming a trio: the film is the soloist and we as the two pianos accompany him. This is a different situation than in a sound film. There are a very few exceptions. The film "Koyaanisqatsi", for example, is a film concert for orchestra and film, as it says in the subtitle to the score. But such a case is really a very rare exception.

Katja Brandl: Pierre Oser asked me if I wanted to participate in this screening of "Metropolis". I think he asked me because we have known each other for a very long time. We studied together and at that time had already accompanied "Battleship Potemkin" together. I was asked in February/March if I wanted to participate in this project, so we had a meeting, after which I enthusiastically said "yes". And for the last two months we have worked really well together. Pierre has shown and taught me a lot, because he has already accompanied Metropolis 115 times. For me it will be the first time. We then considered together who should play which part and how it should be divided. That was really very exciting. Also, I feel incredibly comfortable with him.
In this case, the film is the boss, he (Pierre) follows the film and I follows Pierre. I am really looking forward to it. In reference to film music, for me that simply came with the projects. With each project I consider, "Do I want to do it, when, with whom and with which music?”
The music of Metropolis is just wonderful, so that I was very pleased from the first moment to be part of it. I like every single note very much. For me it was also very exciting to go through the score - 250 pages. We met at my home to go over it. It took days until we had arranged the whole thing and were satisfied with it.

What was the attraction to come here to Yangon? Do you imagine that a concert here in Myanmar will be different than one, for example, in Germany?

Katja Brandl: Well, of course we can only answer that after the concert on Saturday night. My first question to Pierre was: "Who will be listening?" Pierre replied: "Ambassadors, Siemens employees, etc". And then I wondered, of course, whether Burmese will come. What and how will the public receive the music, how will they listen? When you play, you can feel how the audience listens and whether they are carried along with the film or not. We are really looking forward to the concert. And before that I had really no idea about Myanmar. Now that I'm here, I think it's great. The time that we have been able to experience here has so far been just incredibly beautiful.

Mr. Oser now that you have accompanied Metropolis many times, have you developed a special relationship with the film? Do you still find the film interesting after all this time, or has it become rather boring?

Pierre Oser: That's exactly what is special about playing live music for the film. It's like in music theatre; even if you conduct or perform an opera, say 100 times in the course of your life, it never loses its appeal for you. And the thing is, this interaction between us as pianists and the film is of course a bit different every time. And sometimes by chance something is created, which is the reason we practice this profession: namely a magic that we could never invent.

Katja Brandl: And that you can’t predict, or could ever buy.

Pierre Oser: And on top of that there is this wonderful feeling that a hundred people, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, now in this case on Saturday more than fifteen hundred people, follow this story that we express musically. This musical expression - for a musician that's basically the greatest gift that you can give him. So there is certainly no room for boredom there.

Katja Brandl: It can never be boring, because it’s different every time.

Pierre Oser: That will always be wonderful. It also always depends on the context in which you play a piece.
Metropolis is a very complex film, which in many places makes statements, descriptions or assertions. Even at its premiere in 1927, Metropolis was very controversial and consequently reactions to the film varied widely. The many performances I've given were in this respect also very adventurous and varied.
It usually happens, that reactions both expected and unexpected occur during the film. People react as they do in the cinema, and that is as it should be. It is cinema, what we do. So if something funny happens, the audience laughs, or if something emotionally moving takes place, we can also hear how people feel and respond to it. These reactions are different from country to country. That's really interesting, for us as well as for the audience, to deal with these reactions. This is done directly with the music that we play there, you respond directly. That insures that it is never uninteresting.
I think that here in Myanmar this film is of great interest for various reasons. One reason is that it has probably not often been shown here, perhaps never. And the second is that many of the propositions that are asserted in Metropolis, many of the stories that are told, have for us today an outright frightening relevance. It addresses problems with machines and jobs, problems of rich and poor, problems of power, the exercise of power and the practice of faith, and so much more.
I am convinced that this film will be received here with great interest and will be seen not only as a historical document, which it is. It is also an expression of its time: the desires that people had, how they saw their world - or at least how some artists and intellectuals did - and they were also looking for solutions. They wanted a mediator between head and hands, between plan and execution, and then one was found so strangely in Germany. And yes, I am convinced that this film will find relevant connecting factors not only as a historical, but also as a current story.

How do you go about preparing for such a huge concert? You will be playing constantly for two and a half hours and such a piano concert must be both physically and mentally exhausting. What does your "training camp" look like exactly, or is there even such a thing at all?

Pierre Oser: Well, for me personally, it has a lot to do with experience - I estimate I have now played over 200 film concerts. But above all, the interaction in which you try to keep the music and the film in sync increases the level of difficulty and raises the challenge to another level. So experience plays a role, and the rest is patient training and dealing with it.

Katja Brandl: Well, in terms of conditioning, it is feasible. We've already tried it. Played for two and a half hours without a break, and there was no total collapse. Of course, I've played a lot of other concerts, but never played for such a long time without a break. Therefore, it is different, but a great challenge. In the one long rehearsal that we have done so far, the time went by incredibly fast. It felt more like a minute. This is really great and afterwards you have the feeling that you have really accomplished something. You also notice whether it went well or where it was a bit off. And let's put it this way, the preparation is such that - it will certainly be this way - on the day of the performance there will not be six hours of rehearsal. Before the performance you bring yourself to the point where you need to be as a performer. But there is no special training just for this project. Except that we have now practiced for months, that we know the piece well, that we can deal with mistakes - because no one in this world can play the whole thing live without a mistake. The occasional "wrong note" doesn’t matter anyway; you hardly hear them, that’s not the point. The main thing is that audience, musicians and film share the energy. Actually it is much like the essence of the film: a mixture of mind, heart and hands. If this is flowing well, life is good and there are good moments. I believe that that's the most important thing, in other situations in life as well; one needs this exchange between mind, heart and hands. This is certainly the alpha and omega for pianists and I also tell this to my students. That is precisely what's important and that's one of the most important statements in the film.

And do you worry in advance that you might need to laugh when someone in the audience starts to laugh, and then no longer be able to focus on playing?

Katja Brandl: No. You just smile then. It will also certainly be the case that we, Pierre and I, look at each other sometimes and smile. It happens. But you have to stay focused and in the end you do maintain your focus. But what could happen is that the person who turns the pages fails. If that this happens, the notes fall down or the power goes out, then your focus is naturally lost.

You have both been here for several days. How do you like it in Myanmar?

Katja Brandl: I like it incredibly well. What we have seen so far is very harmonious and the people of Myanmar give me the impression of being satisfied: not too quiet, not too hectic. I find that everyone here has a very positive energy. It felt very comfortable everywhere. I thought that was very special.

Pierre Oser: I also find the people very friendly, very open. I also have the impression that I encounter a very healthy and tangible self-confidence. This pleases me and I also like it here very much.

And what impressions from here will you want to share with people at home?

Pierre Oser: That’s hard to say exactly. There is quite a lot. I like it that here so much seems still in motion, or starting to move. Here it is not all so "busy", in the sense that malls are springing up everywhere and the streets are full of advertising posters. Basically you can buy the same products everywhere. And when I'm in a mall, I’m not sure exactly, am I now in Manila or Bangkok or Singapore or Jakarta. It’s completely interchangeable, but here that is not yet so much the case. I also see that it is coming, but it's still not so widespread as in other areas, and I personally find this very pleasant. And also my impressions in the pagoda, people live with their culture and I find that beautiful.
Thank you very much!