‘Hooked’ pianist with the silent touch

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 WHEREVER you go these days in Canberra’s music scene, you seem to run into Elaine Brennan Loebenstein.

A fiery Irishwoman with a useful sense of humour, she’s a classically trained pianist with a penchant for performing music to film footage.

“CityNews” has been taking notice, as we did last year when she appeared in the National Gallery’s Fairfax Theatre performing music to paintings by Sidney Nolan.

Pianist Elaine Brennan Loebenstein... “I’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops to be employed at the NFSA.” Photo Adam Hollingworth
Pianist Elaine Brennan Loebenstein… “I’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops to be employed at the NFSA.” Photo Adam Hollingworth
Last year we also saw her performing at the launch of the Centenary of Canberra and at the Bloom Music Festival. This year, she’s performed for the National Museum’s “Glorious Days,” at the Spiegel Garden with NZ diplomat/soprano Joanna Heslop, in the foyers of the Sydney Opera House accompanying film from the National Film and Sound Archive and at Wesley Music Centre with violinist Lauren Davis.

Arriving here in late 2011 as the new wife of Michael Loebenstein, the media-savvy CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive, she’s leapt into our arts community boots and all, but as she explains: “I’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops to be employed at the NFSA.”

No apologies though – “just come and see me play and see if I’m up to it,” she challenges.

Of her time in Canberra, Loebenstein says: “It’s been a baptism of fire in many ways.

“I came at a very interesting juncture in terms of the musical life of Canberra… but what can you do?… I decided I needed to carve my own niche.”

So how do you get to be an expert in improvisation to film?

She reminds me that up until around 1900, classical improvisation formed a part of every musician’s skillset, Chopin and Mozart come to mind.

For Loebenstein, it wasn’t a huge leap. Coming from rural Ireland, she had started learning works largely by ear. But at age 17 she went to music school in Dublin, where “the teacher gave me a hard time – I’m glad she did”.

Her turnaround came through a chance meeting in Bologna with English music artist Neil Brand, a trailblazer who’d worked with silent films for 30 years.

At first keen to dissuade her, Brand suggested the Irish Film Institute. Two months after putting her name down, a performer dropped out of a silent film festival and she was in.

“I was hooked,” she reports, and now she can do it subconsciously. Loebenstein’s preferred method is to see the film once at least, “but you don’t always have that privilege”.

So, is she a specialist? “I am, but my improvisational skills are constantly evolving,” she says. She didn’t start out as a film student, so now she’s interested in studying classic film – a deep understanding of the medium is essential.

She was chuffed when a Danish critic wrote that she had “elevated the banal into something beautiful”.

Nonetheless, she asserts: “Film is the primary art form – you’re always subservient.”

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor


  1. For what it’s worth, far from being ‘at first keen to dissuade her’, I was very keen to see Elaine succeed – we need more women silent film accompanists. I certainly didn’t stint on how tough it would be getting established but I am thrilled to bits by her success. Onward and Upward, Elaine!

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