Timothy Brock on Restoring Charlie Chaplin’s Sound

Criterion Collection

Last week, conductor and composer Timothy Brock led the New York Philharmonic in a live orchestral performance of the score to Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights—a score that Brock, working with Chaplin’s family, had spent several months diligently restoring. The next day, he stopped by Criterion for a visit. One of the world’s foremost authorities on silent-film music and an acclaimed composer of original music for silent cinema, Brock has garnered international renown for his efforts in musical restoration, especially for his work with the Chaplin estate over the past two decades. Brock, who is featured in a program on our release of The Gold Rush about Chaplin’s music, has restored the scores to twelve of Chaplin’s films—among them the great classics Modern Times, City Lights, and The Gold Rush—making them usable for live performances.

While he was here, we talked about his love for early twentieth-century cinema, the delicate process of restoring Chaplin’s music, and his latest source of inspiration.

How did silent film become your area of expertise?

Well, there are two stories to that. One of them has to do with my interest in silent film as a child, because when I was ten I saw my first silent film in a theater in West Seattle with an organ—a grand Wurlitzer, and I came home to my mom directly after that and said, “That’s what I’d like to do.”

What film did you see?

They were showing films all day long, and I remember three of them: Cops, by Buster Keaton; Nosferatu; and I believe the other was Metropolis. So I said to my mom, “I want to write music for film.” And she knew I wanted to be a composer, but she said, “Why would you want to write music for old films? There’s already music on films.” And I said, “No, these don’t have any words at all.” And then she realized I was talking about silent film—and she’s been worried about my career ever since.

But then I was trained as a concert hall composer and conductor, and the orchestra I was in would program one silent film per season because I just loved to do it. I got asked to write my first score for silent film in 1986, and subsequently I started writing scores for Kino and wrote about seven scores for them. And then I started working for the Chaplins in 1998, and that’s when things really started moving.
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