http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog ... ompaniment
Pianists play it again at the silent movies
Musical accompaniment enhanced the mood of silent films, as this year's British Silent Film festival made loud and clear
Posted by Pamela Hutchinson Tuesday 12 April 2011 15.25 BST guardian.co.uk
Harpo Marx lasted just two weeks as a silent film pianist – and it's no wonder. The poor bloke only knew two songs (Waltz Me Around Again, Willie and Love Me and the World is Mine), which he would rotate, speeding up or slowing down his fingers in hopes of fitting the music to the action on the screen. Luckily, not all players had such limited repertoires, and the 14th British Silent Film festival (held over the weekend, at the Barbican, BFI Southbank and Cinema Museum in London) explored the forgotten quirks and grand achievements of silent film accompaniment.
Whether gathering testimony from filmgoers, or unearthing old scores in archives, the project to discover what cinemas in the silent era really sounded like is a vast one. Evidence is hard to find, patchy and often contradictory. The best way to understand the relationship between silent film and music is to go to a screening, and there were plenty in the festival to illuminate the curious film buff.
In the 1900s, a trip to the cinema might mean crowding on to a bench to watch a film projected on to a 6ft by 6ft sheet. Admission was cheap (children got in for halfpence if they sat behind the screen) and music would be courtesy of a solo pianist and the audience's enthusiasm for a singalong. Historian Rick Altman has found that smaller cinemas may have dispensed with the pianist altogether: a cost-cutting measure that may have been a mercy if the alternative was a hapless Harpo.
But some pianists were more than worth the price of admission though, drawing on the audience's wide knowledge of classical and popular music to improvise a score on the fly. Snatches of music with an appropriate mood, or with lyrics that commented waggishly on the scene would be segued together, smoothing over hairpin plot twists. And if the player was very good, or very lucky, they could provide a crashing chord at the exact moment that the jalopy plunged off the pier. Hitting the "cues" continues to be a cause of trepidation and triumph for the silent film accompanist, as many of the musicians at the festival attested.
Grander, purpose-built cinemas, which arrived after the 1909 Cinematograph Act to replace the unhygienic, even dangerous "penny gaffs" had comfortable seats, balconies and often an orchestra pit. The "orchestra" might be just a few musicians, but the music they played would supply tension, romance, thrills and sound effects – and just possibly drown out the noisier members of the audience. They would have plenty of stock music to draw on (a Charlie Chaplin March was recently discovered in Birmingham, but most music was generic: Desert Monotony or Wild Chase Gallop for westerns, standards such as Fluffy Ruffles for comedies), and sometimes "cue sheets" were provided, telling the band when to strike up which piece. Tunes were chosen for function, not form and the percussionist's "toy counter" was there to create effects for gunshots, church bells, etc. The band leader had the sorry job of keeping everyone in time, not with the beat, but the movie – rarely the same thing. If the gods smiled, they might even have a rehearsal. For big releases, a full orchestral score would be supplied, but often only for the film's first run. Painfully few of these scores and cue sheets are still around, but a good place to start is The Originals, a website maintained by silent film musician, historian and joint organiser of the festival, Neil Brand.
At this year's festival, most of the films shown were accompanied by an improvised piano score and the musicians had tricks up their sleeves. Günter Buchwald and Stephen Horne multi-tasked by playing piano with one hand and a violin or flute with the other. Musicologist Dr Philip Carli accompanied Decameron Nights (1924); in lieu of the film's lost score, he incorporated pieces from the music for the play that inspired it. Conversely, Neil Brand works retrospectively, taking inspiration from the sound era, and discussed the fact that his composition for Hitchcock's silent film Blackmail (1929) nods to Bernard Herrmann's score for North by Northwest (1959). Just like the first silent film pianists, he's drawing on his audience's musical memory. In this case, it's our idea of what a Hitchcock film should sound like – and Herrmann is a big part of that.
Two composed scores were played in full. Russian fairytale Morozko (1924) was screened with the music written by Frederick Laurence for its London run, with the composer's grandson playing double bass. The score, which had been rebuilt by music historian Julie Brown, was revelatory – not least because its shimmering strings, including a sharply plucked harp, were clearly intended to create an icily atmospheric backdrop rather than just hit a series of dramatic cues. The weekend's finale was far more raucous, however. Rockabilly skiffle troupe the Dodge Brothers appealed to the spirit of the Nickelodeon, claiming that their screening of William Wellman's Beggars of Life (1928) would recreate the atmosphere of watching the film "in a small town in Texas". It's a far cry from the BFI Southbank in London, but the group's heartfelt title song, rowdy singalongs and washboard percussion drove this story of cross-dressing, rail-riding hobos forward at a clattering pace.
While there's still much to learn about the early days of cinema exhibition, when directors had no absolute control over how their films sounded, we're moving forward. Authenticity in silent film accompaniment has many diverse and elusive meanings, but at least we can leave behind us the days of "silent" screenings and excruciating comedy sound effects being added to films played at the wrong speed.
• Pamela Hutchinson blogs about silent film screenings in London at silentlondon.wordpress.com
Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.