Thursday, December 8, 2016

Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema

There is a fascinating new book out from publisher Palgrave Macmillan. It is Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema, edited by K.J. Donnelly and Ann-Kristin Wallengren.

From the publisher, "In recent years, there has been something of an explosion in the performance of live music to silent films. There is a wide range of films with live and new scores that run from the historically accurate orchestral scores to contemporary sounds by groups such as Pet Shop Boys or by experimental composers and gothic heavy metal bands. It is no exaggeration to claim that music constitutes a bridge between the old silent film and the modern audience; music is also a channel for non-scholarly audiences to gain an appreciation of silent films. Music has become a means both for musicians and audiences to understand this bygone film art anew. This book is the first of its kind in that it aims to bring together writings and interviews to delineate the culture of providing music for silent films. It not only has the character of a scholarly work but is also something of a manual in that it discusses how to make music for silent films."

The book is a collection of essays on the documenting, composing, and performing of music for silent films. Two introductory chapters set the tone (pun intended), "Music and the Resurfacing of Silent Film: A General Introduction" and "How Far Can Too Far Go? Radical Approaches to Silent Film Music" They are followed by chapters like "Silent Film, Live Music and Contemporary Composition" and "Soviet Fidelity and the Pet Shop Boys," to "Scoring Ruttmann’s Berlin: Musical Meaning in Historical and Critical Contexts," "Bringing a Little Munich Disco to Babelsberg: Giorgio Moroder’s Score for Metropolis," and "To be in Dialogue with the Film: With Neil Brand and Lillian Henley at the Master Classes at Pordenone Silent Film Festival." You get the score (pun intended). Among the contributor's are Matti Bye and Gillian B. Anderson, two names well familiar to me.

What caught my ear was the chapter by Michael Hammond, "Cowboys, Beggars and the ‘Deep Ellum Blues’: Playing Authentic to Silent Films." Hammond is a member of the Dodge Brothers, a UK-based musical group who have accompanied / performed to the 1928 Louise Brooks film, Beggars of Life on a number of occasions, including once at the pop music festival at Glastonbury, as well as at the Royal Albert Hall, and elsewhere. I have written about the band on a few occasions in the past, and interviewed Hammond back in 2010. When I visited with Kevin Brownlow in London earlier this year, he spoke highly of the group.

In "Cowboys, Beggars and the ‘Deep Ellum Blues’: Playing Authentic to Silent Films," Hammond recounts the times they played not only to Beggars of Life, but also the 1921 William S. Hart film, White Oak.

Hammond states that their approach to musical accompaniment was to "consult" history, rather than to try and reconstruct it; additionally, Hammond states that the Dodge Brothers strive to be "authentic," rather than accurate. Certainly, this approach is a valid one, and in many instances, the only path possible where the original score is missing; an authentic score, based on any surviuving clues, is an option for the musician who wishes to (re)create what it a movie goer might have experienced in the silent era.

The Dodge Brothers intention is to approximate what a moviegoer might experience in a small town theater in Texas or elsewhere, where the locale's local aural flavor would inform the musical accompaniment. This is in opposition to the musical accompaniment one might experience in the big city, like New York City, where the accompaniment was orchestral and more-so highbrow.

The Dodge Brothers lowbrow musical approach is informed by a cornucopia of old-timey music, or what today might be termed "roots music." That is, an exuberant hybrid of country blues, field recordings, country and western, jug band, bluegrass, songsters, and more. There are songs about being lonesome, and songs about trains. The rhythms are rural, and those of the rail in the instance of Beggars of Life. Hammond references Greil Marcus's notion of "the old weird America" as a musical keystone.

For me, the revelation in Hammond's essay is found in his reference to Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR). There, Hammond notes, details of the recording sessions for the original Beggars of Life soundtrack can be found. I will write more about those records and what they reveal in the next blog.

In my opinion, Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema is one of the most interesting books of the year. I encourage everyone to check it out.

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