Buster Keaton is synonymous with seat-of-the-pants feats of physical comedy and a century after he performed them, many of his life-endangering stunts are still the stuff of legend.

So it’s only right, says pianist-composer Ashley Hribar, who will live score a double bill of Keaton classics as part of the Canberra International Music Festival, that he also works without a safety net.

“I’ve always felt that Keaton’s films were right on the edge of sensible,” Hribar tells Limelight. “I feel I need to be on the edge, too, and help bring the film to life in a completely original way every time.”

Hribar will be accompanying a Keaton double feature at Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive. In the 1924 classic Sherlock Jr, Keaton stars as a movie projectionist moonlighting as an amateur detective. In the frantic two-reel comedy Cops (1922), he plays a man who accidentally becomes the Los Angeles Police Department’s most wanted.

Hribar has created many live film scores in recent years, including for the expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) and the 1921 Hamlet starring Asta Neilsen as a female Prince. “I’ve done a few of the emotional and psychological dramas, but it’s the comedies I really enjoy playing,” Hribar says. “It’s my own personality, I guess. I’m always joking around.”

Ashley Hribar performing a live score for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Photo supplied

Unlike many silent film accompanists, Hribar prefers to improvise his scores, reacting moment to moment to the events unfolding on screen. “I really watch the film and try to match up what I’m playing with what’s happening on the screen as closely as I can,” Hribar says. “It means I can also highlight the less obvious things and get the audience right into the film.”

Hribar has accompanied screenings of Sherlock Jr for nearly a decade and every time, he says, he comes up with something new. “Each time I’ve added things like MIDI controllers, electronics, drum machines and sound effects. I like to multi-task. For the Canberra show, I’m going to be using a lot of percussion and sort of groove along with a bass kick drum. I can’t help finding new things to test and push myself.”

Hribar has live-scored films as a solo musician and as part of a small ensemble. Working alone, he says, gives him more freedom to react to the action projected in front of him. He even creates musical speech. “I pre-program a few things but mostly I leave everything open for improvising, especially for the dialogue you see as text on a card. There’s a technical word for it – prosody – where you’re playing the syllables of the words in a melodic sense.”

Movie fans who have never had a silent film experience will be in for a surprise, Hribar says. “There’s real sense of ‘liveness’ when you watch, which is something I think we lost when sound movies came along. Cinema is about easy gratification these days. You sit there and it happens for you. In a silent film with an accompanist, you’re being asked to concentrate more, but once you do, it’s really fulfilling and surprising.”

Ashley Hribar performs Buster Keaton Alive! on 5 May at the National Film and Sound Archive, Acton, Canberra, part of the 2024 Canberra International Music Festival.

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