Growing up with an old, broken piano in the provinces near Hamburg, Stephan V. Bothmer played what he called “ghost music”: he wrang whatever sounds he could from his dilapidated instrument.
Three decades on, you can find the 38-year-old behind the grand piano – or the house’s original 80-year-old pipe organ – playing to silent movies at the Babylon two times a month. Bothmer also runs his own business, and since 2004, he has performed musical scores to more than 500 silent films – and that includes the occasional complete improvisation.
Is there something special about playing at the Babylon?
It’s the only cinema from the silent film era which is still operating in Berlin. It has the unique silent movie screen; it’s the ideal place.
You play live and often without a scripted score…
It makes such a difference to have the music played live by a performer who interacts with the audience. I hear whether they are with the movie or not. It’s really different if you do a [pre-written] concert – you concentrate on the music and you must not be disturbed, no matter what the audience does. I have to know if they are following me or not: I have to be aware if they are into the movie or just watching it. And that’s fun to me.
Is it ever hard to get inspiration while playing?
It’s awful if you don’t have any ideas – but it’s only fun to fly because you know you can fall, and sometimes you have to fall to know what fun it is to have ideas. Most often, I get the ideas from the energy and attention of the audience. Once I did a silent movie marathon, and I accompanied silent movies for 30 hours. I thought the audience would watch one or two movies and then go away, but there were people who watched all 30 hours. It was so intense, I didn’t get tired. You only get that kind of energy if you improvise
What’s your favourite Stummfilm?
I love Nosferatu. We have performed it all over Germany and we have music for a soprano, a choir and the piano. We have a whole choir here at Babylon when we do it. We put the choir between the audience and the screen, which is around two meters high, so the audience can still see the film. The singers face the audience, and I think they’re pretty blown away.
What’s your favourite memory of a film concert at the Babylon?
Metropolis was the most fun – we had around 500 people there. I think that was the most mind-blowing thing I’ve ever done. We had fireworks and you saw this huge city blasting on the screen, and you had explosives in the cinema.
Do you prefer playing the organ or the piano?
The piano. The organ is powerful and is an interesting instrument because you have the effects and such, but on the piano you have so much more color. What is between happiness and anger, what are all the shades in between? You can get that much better on the piano. Let’s say a laugh breaks into insanity – you can get that on the piano. You can reach every imaginable sound just with your finger, without the technical distance.