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A lost art rediscovered through music

Composer, pianist returns to the age of the silver screen



What: Live music/silent film

When: Thursday, April 30, 8 p.m.

Where: MY Millennium Place

Cost: $15 adults, $13 MY Place/WAC members, $10 kids 10 & under

Long considered a bygone era, the silent film is making a temporary comeback in Whistler this week, with a performance by renowned Canadian composer and pianist, Robert Bruce.

The Ontario-based Bruce has dabbled in just about every aspect of the music industry over the span of his career; he's written music for children, film, television and other audiences.

But this multifaceted musician has surprisingly little formal training. Aside from three years of technical classical piano lessons, Bruce is self-taught.

"I was able to learn music on my own, a lot. So as far is training is concerned, I kind of pick things up and kind of develop my own avenues along the way," Bruce said. "It's sort of a slower process, but I think it's more satisfactory when you've got a lot of creative goals."

To his way of thinking, the creative process shouldn't be restricted by methods. He has actually written two books that outline his philosophy on music: In Between the Lines , Books One and Two.

His own earliest efforts at writing music were very spontaneous - almost unconscious - as he had no motivation to play them for an audience.

"Some of my earliest compositions, which I still am using or marketing in some ways, they were almost like a diary, just a very private kind of canvas," he said.

But this natural approach to composition didn't immediately strike a chord within the industry.

"Some of the things that I favour very strongly have never really been in vogue," he said, pointing out that during the '80s, his attempts at serious classical music were dismissed by most major institutions.

Today, all that has changed, as many pieces from his catalog of works have been included in student piano repertoires for major Canadian music conservatories.

"It was ironic how that came around," he said with a chuckle.

Though Bruce wasn't raised in a musical environment, he was always very drawn to music, even at a very young age when he was unusually entranced by the light, classical music in the background of his favourite childhood cartoons.

"It wasn't just the music, though, it was the way the music and the visuals worked together, it had a huge influence on me," he recalled, "though it didn't really come full-circle until recently."

Today, Bruce has found a new way to explore this unity of sound and image by combining his love for silent film with his musical talents, marrying his original compositions with the works of silent film legends like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon.

"I've had sort of an ongoing interest in old films, especially the old film comedians from the 1930s to the '40s. I always had a very strong interest in that kind of thing, and again, it wasn't so much the music or whatever in those films, it was just the spirit of some of those artists that really influenced me," he said.

About five years ago, someone from the local theatre asked Bruce if he could try his hand at developing a score to accompany a Keaton film for an upcoming series.

"I had thought about doing it before and quite frankly, I had really doubted that it would catch on in any way," he said.

But once he actually played around with the project, he not only received a positive reaction from the audience, but discovered that it was an intensely personal creative experience.

"It was like all the music and all the influences I've had over the years kind of came full-circle at that point."

Bruce was inspired to expand and develop scores for other silent films, and now, he tours around North America, bringing a range of silent film/live music programs to music and film lovers, many of whom have never experienced silent film before.

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