Music in Silent
Introduction to Modern Music in the Silent Film
“You’d come into the
theatre, the lights would be on and the audience would sit down.
Then the lights would dim, a spotlight would go on in the back of
the theatre, and the conductor would walk down the aisle with a spotlight
on him as the audience applauded and the members of the orchestra filed
into the orchestra pit. Then
the conductor would raise the baton, the curtains would open and on
flashed the picture with the music.”
filmmaker Lou MacMahon of the beginning of a typical silent movie showing
in the mid-1920’s. MacMahon’s interest in silent film began when his mother
and aunt would take him to silent westerns and swashbucklers as a child.
This childhood interest grew into a lifetime hobby that culminated
in his directing of a brilliant silent mini-serial in the 1960’s called Captain
Celluloid Versus the Film Pirates, which included famed film
historians William K. Everson and Alan Barbour as actors. MacMahon’s
association with silent films continues into today as he sequences scores
for Grapevine Video, one of the largest and most celebrated public-domain
silent film distributors in the world.
But as MacMahon, Everson, and a few others collected and fondly
remembered the films of the silent era, the majority of the movie-going
public were regarding them as a joke.
Even now the general populace only knows the silent film as a
flickering, jerky, fuzzy slapstick image with a player piano tinkering
randomly in the background. But
just as the music brought films to life in their heyday, music is bringing
the silent film back to life today, wooing a strong minority of
enthusiasts to the genre that is consistently growing in number and shows
no sign of decline.
MacMahon quotes Henry
King, a prestigious silent-era director whose works included Tol’able
David (1921) and The White Sister (1923), as saying that the
score for a silent film makes up forty to fifty percent of the film’s
entertainment value. Every silent film accompanist we’ve spoken with confirms
that the music accompanying a film can either make or break the film,
insomuch that it can vastly improve the quality and enjoyability of a
mediocre film or completely shipwreck a good film.
Here is an example of how
this can happen. In 1925, the
Eastman School of Music in New York chose a silent film called Peter
Pan (1924) as their final examination piece for their student theater
organists, probably due to the fact that the original cue sheets were
roundly considered to be a rather weak and unfitting score.
It is by virtue of this fortunate decision that the film exists
today, as it was thought to be a lost film until a nearly
perfect-condition print was discovered in an organ bench during
renovations at the Eastman Theater in the 1950's.
In 1995, the Italian silent film festival Le Giornate del Cinema
Muto commissioned New
York-based pianist and composer Phillip Carli to score Peter Pan
for a small orchestra. Carli
rose to the task with what could possibly be the ultimate dissertation on
the film, one that quickly and wholly ushers the audience into the lush,
whimsical fairy world of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
One anonymous film collector gushingly praised the new version of
the film with these words: “I’ve seen Peter Pan four or five
times [before], and frankly, I was lukewarm to it.
But [this] performance . . . was not only the highlight of the
weekend, but of my life as a film collector.
This is what film is all about.”
So what characterizes a
good score? For Jack Hardy,
owner of the aforementioned Grapevine Video, this is an everyday concern,
as a large portion of his work is in assembling scores for the many
hard-to-find films his company distributes.
His answer sums it up in one word:
a good score underscores the film.
“[A good score will] blend in with the film. . . . You try to
underscore it so that it doesn’t overpower the film, but [rather] gives
it the correct feel.” Museum of Modern Art accompanist Ben Model elaborates, “You
don’t want music that is so busy or pretty that people are aware of what
you’re doing. When people
come up to me and say, ‘Oh I loved your score, and I loved it when you
did this or that’, that’s when I wonder, ‘Oh, should I have done
that?’ [The score] should
direct your attention back to the screen.” Sixty-year-old accompanist
Stuart Oderman, who apprenticed under silent actress Lillian Gish and has
authored a lovingly-written biography on her, adds, “As a silent film
[accompanist], you’re like the air conditioning.
When it’s working, you don’t notice.”
It was, and still is,
commonplace for a composer to use pre-existing music, namely from
classical and folk music sources, in scoring a silent film.
But over the years, composers have been forced to change the
choices of music used as source materials as the public has become
familiar with and attached associations to certain compositions.
Stuart Oderman mentions that the original 1914 cue sheets for Birth
of a Nation call for the use of “Turkey in the Straw” in the scene
where the black slaves dance for the amusement of the plantation owner’s
daughter and her companions. “You
play that today,” Oderman says, “and the African-Americans in the
audience think you’re making a derogatory statement, even though that is
what was originally called for.” Ben
Model adds another now-clichéd example of a different sort from the same
score. “For the ride of the
Klansmen, the music is Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’
If you play that today, the audience is going to think, ‘Kill the
wabbit, Kill the wabbit,’ and then they’re out of the moment.”
Another consideration is
the type of instrumentation used for the film.
For instance, several of the accompanists we spoke with agree that
piano tends to work well with slapstick comedies, whereas full orchestras
work well for monumental events like the silent Ben-Hur (1925).
If the two were switched around, the orchestra would overpower the
comedy and the piano could not carry the weight of the epic film.
Opinions begin to differ
when the question arises as to how contemporaneous a score should be with
the actual film. There are
some, such as accompanist Martin Marks, Senior Lecturer at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Musical Curator for the National
Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures From American Film Archives
four-volume DVD set, who feel that the music to a silent film should be,
to quote Marks, “chronologically appropriate . . . that is, music of the
time of the film’s own making or earlier.” The greatest advantage to this approach is that
it preserves the historical accuracy of the performance, being a “time
machine” of sorts for modern-day audiences.
There are others, such as Ben Model and Pacific Film Archive
accompanist Jon Mirsalis, who are a bit more liberal in their approach,
preferring to concern themselves with how the audience receives the
picture regardless of the time frame of the piece that is being played.
“I think silent films were meant to be shown with a wide variety
of musical accompaniments,” says Mirsalis.
“Anyone has a right to put in any type of musical score,
[however] I think they ought to at least keep it grounded in something
that might have been done at the time.” “I myself don’t choose to
play that way [i.e. in the historically accurate manner],” adds Model,
“because you’re aware of the sound and because it locks the film in a
By far the strongest point
of contention within the silent film community concerns the recent
phenomenon of setting silent films to scores consisting of electronic,
rock and avant-garde music styles. Many
silent film enthusiasts, especially those of the older generations,
consider this to be nothing less than sacrilege.
But nevertheless, these soundtracks are increasing in popularity,
especially in Europe where they are becoming quite commonplace.
There are generally two
reasons given for adding modern sounds to silent films.
One is that some people desire to see how the addition of
contemporary sounds will enhance the picture.
As Italian composer Roberto Musci says about his modern
soundtracks, “I think the contrasts between old images and electronic
and experimental sounds can re-birth the original fashion of the story.”
The other reason is that it is hoped that the addition of a more
contemporary soundtrack will expose the silent film to a newer, younger
But because modern-music
soundtracks are such a far cry from the music used in the silent era, they
fall the hardest when they do not work.
Jack Hardy remembers a 1912 feature film shown recently on cable
television that had a haphazard and self-consciously trendy electronic
soundtrack behind it. Not
only does Hardy proclaim this soundtrack “The worst music I have ever
heard on a silent film,” he goes on to claim that he heard from every
collector he works with about the atrocity of this soundtrack.
“They’re trying to appeal to a younger generation, but I wonder
if it appeals to any generation to do that, because it distracts
from the film too much.”
But this is not to say
that a modern-sounding score is doomed to fail in attracting a younger
audience to the film. The
most famous example to the contrary occurred in 1984 when the German film Metropolis
(1926) was released in theatres with an electronic and rock score composed
by Giorgio Moroder that featured appearances by pop musicians such as Adam
Ant, Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury.
Although the individual results varied from achingly romantic to
unintentionally laughable, the overall result was to bring the already
ahead-of-its-time film into the modern day, almost as if it were filmed
only a few years prior. This theatrical reissue not only successfully brought the
film to the attention of modern-day young people, but it also was a key
player in elevating the film’s reputation from that of a silent-era
oddity to that of a legendary cult film that even those who normally don't
watch silent movies return to frequently.
Now the idea of creating
new scores for old films does not apply exclusively to silent films.
There have been a number of recent instances where new scores have
been composed for early sound films, successfully improving their
enjoyability. A more famous
recent example is the 1999 video reissue of Dracula (1931), which
adds a chamber ensemble score composed by Phillip Glass and performed by
the Kronos Quartet. The eerie
fluidity and rapid see-sawing of the string instruments drives home the
unrelenting awareness in the film of a sinister presence that is ever
threatening to strike but never completely does.
Yet another example that debuted in Brooklyn last year is an
ensemble score for the famous Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel
(1930), performed by the New York-based BQE Project.
This score successfully closes the gaps in the otherwise somewhat
dry beginning, following the arc of the high school professor’s demise
by Dietrich’s hand. The new
score even accompanies the live-to-film orchestra behind Dietrich’s
sultry performance of “Falling in Love Again”, which results in the
illusion that, to quote BQE Project frontman Tom Nazziola, “Dietrich is
performing hand-in-hand with [the] live orchestra.”
Even though the days of
1920’s movie-going are now but a memory held by a small and sadly
dwindling group of seniors, a small and growing group of artists are
working to recreate the overpowering experience of going to the movies
when live accompaniment was the rule and not the exception.
It may be The Razzmajazz Dixieland Jazz Band’s carefree jazz
score to Clara Bow’s It, or the authentic period sounds of the
Mont Alto Orchestra, or the avant-garde electronic scores of Art Zoyd, but
whatever the means, the end goal is the same: that the music will drive
the silent film into the hearts of the audience, so that they may remember
the emotions they felt watching the film for years to come.
"Fact and Fiction Tinted In Gray: The Giorgio Moroder Version
of Metropolis." Unpublished
article, Dec. 2001.
"Key Players: MoMA's seasoned accompanists make silent
pictures sing." Time
Out New York, Jan. 20-27, 2001, P. 81.
BQE Project presskit, Nov.
"Peter Pan Live!" Press
Restored/remastered version, with new score composed by Phillip Glass and
perfromed by The Kronos Quartet. Universal,
Jack Hardy phone
interview, Oct. 2, 2001.
"Lee Irwin, Organist and Composer, Dies at 92."
New York Times, Sept. 26, 2000.
Lou MacMahon phone
interview, Oct. 3, 2001.
Marks, Martin and Scott
Simon. "Treasures From American Film Archives." Booklet
included in 4-DVD box set of the same name.
American Film Preservation Foundation/Image Entertainment, 2000. p.
Jon Mirsalis phone
interview, Oct. 3, 2001.
"Ben Model: Silent Film Accompanist/Composer."
Short bio posted online, nd.
Ben Model phone interview,
Nov. 6, 2001.
Roberto Musci email
interview, Oct. 23, 2001.
Roberto Musci email
interview, Oct. 25, 2001.
Stuart Oderman phone
interview, November 2001.
Peter Pan (1924)
Restored version with orchestral score composed by Phillip Carli.
Kino Video, 1999.
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