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An Introduction to Modern Music in the Silent Film

by David Gasten

“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.”

So remembers eighty-four-year-old retired 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 bygone time.”

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 audience. 

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.



Bar-Sagi, Aitam.  "Fact and Fiction Tinted In Gray: The Giorgio Moroder Version of Metropolis."  Unpublished article, Dec. 2001.

Bennett, Bruce.  "Key Players: MoMA's seasoned accompanists make silent pictures sing."  Time Out New York, Jan. 20-27, 2001, P. 81.

BQE Project presskit, Nov. 2001.

Carli, Alice.  "Peter Pan Live!"  Press release, 1999.

Dracula (1931) Restored/remastered version, with new score composed by Phillip Glass and perfromed by The Kronos Quartet.  Universal, 1999. 

Jack Hardy phone interview, Oct. 2, 2001.

Kozinn, Allan.  "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. vii.

Jon Mirsalis phone interview, Oct. 3, 2001.

Model, Ben.  "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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