Alumnus breaks silence on improv film career

Special to Western News

Classically trained pianist Bruce Vogt, BMus’73, brings different classics to life – namely silent films on the silver screen.

Bringing Haydn and Beethoven to life, in famed concert halls around the world, is nothing new for Bruce Vogt, BMus’73. You’d expect it, actually, from the classically trained pianist. But Vogt’s alter ego brings different classics to life – namely silent films on the silver screen.

This unique musical side began at Western thanks to a random request from an English professor wondering if the then second-year student would like to earn a few extra dollars.

“It was a summer course on silent film. Somebody heard I improvised and I knew one of the English faculty members who had heard me play jazz. They contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to play for this series of silent films they were going to be showing,” said Vogt, who has been a professor at the University of Victoria for 36 years.

That summer, he accompanied such classic silent films as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as well as The General starring Buster Keaton and Gold Rush starring Charlie Chaplin.

While he had never attempted anything like this before, he was, and continues to be, an avid fan of silent films, which he calls “one of the true golden ages of film.” He and his brother checked them out of the library as teens and watched them over and over.

“Silent movies aren’t meant to be silent. They had music when they were made and usually had scores if they were of a more ambitious nature. I remember just improvising and then after they would pass the hat. Whatever the poor students could come up with, that’s how I got paid. I imagine I got about $20 or $30.”

Seeing this opportunity to earn a few extra bucks, Vogt convinced the London Public Library to host a pair of movie nights during his last couple years on campus.

After graduating, Vogt continued his education in London, England, before returning to Canada. He “kept from starving” by continuing with his silent movie talents at libraries in Toronto. In spite of an offer to continue playing in Otttawa, he felt the tug of his classical roots and began his academic career in Victoria in 1980.

“I don’t think it would have changed my career, but I could kick myself now; it would have been a great opportunity,” Vogt said. “When you’re young you confuse things sometimes with what you should do and what you want to do. One of the only consolations of getting older is easier to say ‘The hell with that – I want to do it.’”

His improv days went silent until 2000 when Vogt was asked by a friend at a conservatory in Paris, France, to accompany a couple of Chaplin films as part of a year-end celebration for the students. “When they asked me how much I would charge, I remember asking for a good bottle of French wine, and all I remember is they gave me a lousy bottle of French wine,” Vogt laughed.

The students loved it. Vogt was reenergized and soon performed similar shows in Germany, England and Japan. At the end of next month, Vogt travels to Germany for a classical performance – followed by a silent film show.

“For the films, I’m pretty lazy. I don’t plan a score,” said Vogt, adding the performance is a much lighter feel than playing highly disciplined concerts. “The way I prepare is I make sure I know the film so well that I know exactly when to come in. I’m doing it for the first time every time I play, but I know the films very well. I’d stare at them (films) with great intent and have learned to play without taking my eyes off the movie.

“It’s a really beautiful thing for me to play concerts. Doing a classical concert there is an enormous amount of satisfaction feeling like one is kind-of a conduit from these very powerful works to the listener. It’s a much stricter discipline – you can’t make it up as you go.”

Vogt continues to do a few shows in and around Victoria and would love to, one day, put together a week-long festival of movies and introduce a new generation to so many great silent films.

While classical performances have Vogt in the spotlight, he hopes his improv fades into the background. That’s the whole idea, he said.

“At first. I’m sure they notice me. But my goal – and I’ve often been told I succeed in this – is I don’t like the idea of the music being a kind of postmodern take on the film,” Vogt said. “If I’ve succeeded, yes, people forget about me and the music is just part of the movie.”