Tag: archive

Setting the Scene with Sound: (Re)Scoring Silent Film

We all know that the soundtrack changes the way we experience a movie. One of my favorite examples of this comes from a meme that appeared about ten years ago in which participants recut classic films into new trailers in different genres. West Side Story, a tragic musical (original trailer), became a horrific zombie movie (revised trailer), and The Shining (original trailer) was turned into a feel-good family film (revised trailer). When it comes to silent film, accompanists have infinite choices. Even in the early days of cinema, accompanists could improvise, select pieces from their own libraries, follow suggestions from cue sheets, or use the scores that came with some big-budget pictures, or any combination of these. Today, some accompanists try to recreate the sound of early cinema in their own performances, while others revel in using music that has been created since then.

Buster Keaton’s 1927 comedy The General is a popular choice for showings with live accompaniment, and it has also been released in multiple versions on DVD. Set during the Civil War, the film is essentially one long chase, culminating with the famous scene of a train plunging through a burning bridge into a river.

The film is based on a real incident in which Union spies made a daring attempt to steal a Confederate train engine called the “General” from Big Shanty, Georgia, just north of Marietta. The General’s engineer and a small corps of Confederate soldiers commandeered another engine, the “Texas,” and sped off in pursuit. After an action-packed event known as the Great Locomotive Chase, the Union soldiers were stopped and the General was returned to the South. In adapting the story for film, Keaton stated, “While this picture will be designed primarily for laughs, it is my aim to make it historically correct and equally acceptable in the North and the South. It will not be a burlesque, but a comedy spectacle of certain thrilling episodes in the struggle between the States.”[1] Keaton’s intention was apolitical, claiming at the time that “you make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” And so Keaton plays the hero, a Confederate engineer who stops the Union soldiers and returns the engine to the South.

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in The General

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in The General

Because the Civil War was still highly visible in everyday life and culture well into the 1910s and 20s, many accompanists at the time relied on nostalgia for wartime songs. James C. Bradford published a cue sheet for the film that included “Alabamy Bound,” “Dixie Queen,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Maryland, My Maryland,” “Dixie,” and “Old Folks at Home.” He also suggested burlesque versions of the “Light Cavalry” Overture and “My Own United States;” other recommendations include the 19th-century works “An American Battle Scene” by Theodore Moses Tobani, which was an 1898 musical portrait of the battle at Antietam and dedicated to the Union Army; and “Memories of the War” by L. P. Laurendeau.

Numerous pieces from Bradford’s list are problematic today, but perhaps none more so than “Dixie.” “Dixie,” of course, was created for blackface minstrelsy in the 1850s. It is important to understand what it represented to people in the 1920s who might have heard it in conjunction with The General, as their reaction was likely to be quite different from what many of us think today when we hear the song. “Dixie” itself began as satire, making fun of a former slave who longs to return to the plantation, and both Northern and Southern soldiers and performers claimed the right to use it, usually with different lyrics, during the War. It became the de facto anthem of the Confederacy and remained closely associated with the “Old South.” Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie used the song in their 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and it appears to have been regarded as an uncomplicated signifier of the South in general during the ’20s and ’30s. In 1934, The Etude (one of the most popular and influential music magazines of the time) dismissed all connections between the song and white nationalism. Clearly this changed between that time and today, in part because of white Southerners’ revival of the song as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the performance of “Dixie” in any situation is extremely complex, involving issues of race and class. And so while it has become a traditional exercise in nostalgia for both the time periods of the film’s action and its cinematic release to use “Dixie” in accompanying The General, each modern use must be carefully read to determine intent and meaning: whether its inclusion is meant to represent contemporary accompanying practices; if it is representing the Confederacy, and how; or whether it appears as part of a valorization attempt on the part of a performer to present the film as political rhetoric for the Confederacy.

Today, if you watch The General at home on DVD or Blu-Ray, you can select from one of six scores included on recent commercial releases. Each of these modern accompaniments (by Carl Davis; Robert Israel (two scores: one for piano and strings and one for full orchestra); Lee Erwin; Joe Hisaishi; and the Mont Alto Moving Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer) seeks to replicate one of the many manners in which the film might have been accompanied in the cinema at the time of its release. Davis’s accompaniment is scored for full orchestra, while Hisaishi’s uses a smaller ensemble. Lee Erwin’s score is played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, the “king of cinema organs.” Mont Alto recreates a typical small theater orchestra of piano, violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, and percussion. Screenings with live musicians can rent a newly created score by Timothy Brock for accompaniment, or hire an improvising accompanist like Ben Model of MOMA and the Library of Congress to perform.

These newer accompaniments for The General vary in their approaches to scoring the film. Composer and performer Mark Orton has gone so far to recreate a historic Civil War sound as to find, restore, and use portable, folding reed organs known as field organs as part of his orchestration, which also includes popular 19th-century instruments like the zither and its cousin the marxophone, autoharp, and harmonicas of various sizes and ranges. Although modern audiences may not be able to name these instruments, they may well associate the instruments’ sounds with music of another era and/or the South.

A field organ example:

A marxophone example:

Carl Davis’s score uses a full, modern orchestra, and is primarily composed of pre-existing 19th-century orchestral works for the concert hall, but retains traditional performance practices such as including period tunes; he gives the film’s genre as parody a nod by also incorporating minor-key version of “Dixie.” Robert Israel’s score is likely similar to what audiences would have heard at large motion picture palaces in 1927. Composed for a medium-sized orchestra with piano, Israel’s score establishes several generic themes at the beginning of the film, including a love theme, a theme for the Union villains, bugle calls, and music for hurrying and chasing. Israel frequently incorporates “Dixie,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as major themes. Israel mimics Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to signify some frantic physical movements and quotes Rossini’s overture to Semiramide as part of the battle sequence at the end of the movie. Although the Dukas work wouldn’t take on its iconic association with Mickey Mouse until 1940, it was often included in collections of pre-existing music for film accompaniment for suspense or “creepy” situations; Rossini was also a popular choice for exciting music for races, battles, and other high-movement scenes. Here’s an excerpt from Israel’s score from the beginning of the engine chase.

For smaller picture houses, a small ensemble may have supplied the entire accompaniment, or it could have been accompanied by an organ, like Lee Erwin’s score, or piano, such as William Perry’s improvised piano score.

Erwin’s and Israel’s scores obviously make use of pre-existing pieces. One group that seeks to eliminate the metamusical meanings older pieces can carry is Chicago’s Quasar Wut-wut. Quasar Wut-wut scored The General in 2014 and departs entirely from the previous approaches.

There are numerous other soundtracks for the film, including mash-ups of James Bond themes and other pieces written for other films; numerous piano or organ-only accompaniments; and several for small ensembles, such as an earlier Israel score and a score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Each score offers a slightly different take on the action in the clips shown here. Israel’s provides a sense of anticipation and anxiety as the engine pulls away, followed by traditional markers for drama (continuous eighths in the left hand and a melodramatic, minor-key melody), while Erwin’s mimics the sound of a train horn and a minor-key theme that deepens into the sound of more serious trouble as Keaton’s character realizes he’s alone. Perry’s score offers the same non-stop playing and agitated rhythms, but is far more light-hearted and matches the action of the soldiers and Keaton’s character, providing musical mimesis for the scene. And Quasar Wut-wut gives us a score in which the heavy percussion and basic chords of the first part of the scene give way to an ironic commentary with a lighter set of instruments as the engine pulls away, suggesting the obliviousness of Keaton’s character and the humor of the moment.

With an enormous range of extant pieces to choose from, accompanists both in the past and now have great opportunities to frame and reframe silent films in various ways, suiting them to particular audiences, settings, or their own tastes.

[1] “Details of United Artists’ Productions: The General,” Motion Picture News (May 29, 1926), 2573.

New Music for a New Art Form: Photoplay Music

When we think of the music of the early 20th century, we might think of neoclassicism, Schoenberg, the English music renaissance, jazz, and maybe parlor song or vaudeville. But the advent of the moving picture brought about the development of an enormous amount of new music composed specifically to accompany film. While it’s true that some of the music used by film accompanists was borrowed from the vaudeville hall and stage melodramas, that some film accompanists improvised their scores, and that some film studios commissioned scores from composers for individual films, the majority of cinema musicians in the 1910s and 1920s relied heavily on a new genre, called photoplay music, for creating musical accompaniments to motion pictures of all lengths. Photoplay music consisted of short, evocative character pieces that could be easily strung together to create what is called a compiled score. Photoplay music was sold as individual sheet music titles and in albums or collections of eight to ten pieces, sometimes thematically linked, like Jacobs’ Piano Folio of Tone-Poems and Reveries and Jacobs’ Piano Folio of Oriental, Spanish, and Indian Music.

The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive (SFSMA) is, as its name suggests, a repository of music that was used to accompany films before the widespread use of synchronized records or sound-on-film technology. SFSMA, founded in 2014 to help performers and scholars find silent film music in one location, identifies and digitizes printed music and related materials and uploads them to the Archive, where they can be downloaded for free. Everything is posted under a Creative Commons ODC-By (Open Data Commons Attribution) License. SFSMA’s holdings include hundreds of pieces of photoplay music composed for the new art of the cinema. Although few of the composers of this repertoire are widely recognized today, they created music that helped establish a number of common tropes that still appear in film music. Composers including Helen Ware, Theodora Dutton (Blanche Ray Alden), Erno Rapée, William Axt, J. S. Zamecnik, and many others made a living composing short characteristic pieces for the cinema. All pieces appeared in a piano version, and most also had parts, as cinema ensembles could range from three players—often piano, violin or cello, and clarinet—to forty performers with full string and wind sections.

Composers were under great pressure to continually churn out generic pieces: cinema musicians didn’t want to use the same pieces week after week for different films. At the same time, it was important that photoplay pieces for the same general action or topic had similar characteristics so that accompanists could be consistent in their musical interpretations of films. Works for “hurry” or “gallop” were quick in tempo, mimicked the sound of hoof beats or heartbeats, and employed short note values, all of which suggested the associated speed of motion given in the title. SFSMA’s holdings include more than twenty individual “hurry” pieces, all suggesting speed and urgency. Similarly, “mysteriosos” or “misteriosos” were composed for scenes of stealth, burglary, the grotesque, the eerie, and the supernatural; there are more than thirty of these in the SFSMA database. All of the mysteriosos have things in common, including tempo and texture, but each one has a different primary melody and form, allowing for variety in accompanying.

Misterioso No. 1 (for horror, stealth, conspiracy, treachery)

Misterioso No. 1 (for horror, stealth, conspiracy, treachery) by Erno Rapee and William Axt (New York: Richmond-Robbins Inc., 1923), mm. 1-7.

Misterioso No. 1 (For Depicting Gruesome Scenes, Stealth, etc.)

Misterioso No. 1 (For Depicting Gruesome Scenes, Stealth, etc.) by Otto Langey (New York: G. Schirmer, 1915), mm. 1-7.

The works of Maurice Baron (who also published under the name Morris Aborn) provide a good introduction to the repertoire composed for moving pictures. Baron composed some pieces for specific films, such as his Shakespearean Sketches—Shakespeare adaptations were very popular in silent film, providing artistic gravitas to the medium—but most of his works were designed to be used as part of compiled scores. “Batifolage,” composed in 1926, was designated for “frolics, caprice,” and “Love’s Declaration” is intended to be used to accompany romances. Baron’s “Terror!” and “Suspicions” were intended for mysteries, horror, and domestic dramas. Baron also sought to capture the time in which he lived: “Radio Message (galop)” is meant to depict the urgency and speed of a Morse Code transmission, and “A Busy Thoroughfare” imitates the buggies, cars, trams, and people in an urban area.

“Radio Message” performed by Ethan Uslan (source).

The PianOrgan series, published by Belwin, collected Baron’s pieces into albums, making it easier for accompanists to select generic works by the composer. As Morris Aborn, Baron published western music for cowboy pictures; vice-related characters and events, such as drunk characters, opium dens, and speakeasies; music for battles; music for tragedies; and music for agitated scenes.

Excerpt from Maurice Baron’s “Prelude to a Western American Drama,” performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (source).

Excerpt from Maurice Baron’s “Valse Pathetique,” performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (source).

Movie-watchers today might not know or think much about photoplay music, but over the last forty years, the showing of silent films with live accompaniment has experienced a renaissance. Ensembles such as the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra use photoplay music to create scores in the same manner accompanists would have in the 1910s or 1920s. Rod Sauer, director of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, researches what music might have been used at showings of the films they accompany, but often selects different pieces that the group feels better convey the action and intent of the film. In creating a compiled score for the film Beggars of Life, for example, Sauer found that some of the music suggested for use with the film had racist connotations, such as using an upbeat cakewalk piece to accompany a scene in which a black character experiences tragedy, so he chose other photoplay pieces for the score. Educators are also using photoplay music: instructors teaching film music, film history, and popular music history have used pieces from SFSMA to demonstrate how a compiled score might be created, and students are scoring short films—both old and new—using music from the Archive.

You can find photoplay music in SFSMA in a variety of ways. If you’re interested in particular composers, you can search by their names. You can also search by “mood,” a silent-era designation that categorized music by scenario. Need a sad piece? A search on “tragic” brings up twelve pieces with “tragic” in the title or mood subtitle. Want to see a collection of similar pieces? Search “album” to find all of the collections in the archive. You can also search by clicking on “sheet music” in the Categories section, and then refining your search by mood, instrumentation, or other factor. To hear recordings of photoplay pieces in a variety of moods, click on “Video and Audio” under Categories to pull up a list of recordings made by silent film accompanist Ethan Uslan. There are hundreds of pieces in the Archive to discover and use for accompaniment or analysis, all of it once an influential force on the development of the cinematic score.

Sounds Heard: Steve Roden—…i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces

Steve Roden’s …i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces (music in vernacular photographs 1880-1955) is a multimedia package that attracts attention with a whisper and glance, rather than a bell and a whistle. Two CDs containing a total of 51 tracks of early American music (plus a handful of sound effects from the same period) are slipped into the front and back cover pockets of a cleanly designed hardback book. The interior heavyweight pages are bursting with scans of 150 historic photographs—a mix of unidentified music makers and listeners of many stripes. Though the fresh ink offers a solid dose of new-book smell, it’s admittedly tempting to blow the non-existent dust off the still-spotless cover, so evocative are the faded, scratched, and water-stained images. And even though all the music has been transferred to CD, the hiss and crackle of the original recordings remain and you don’t have to squint too hard at your stereo to see the Victrola.

Both the images and audio were drawn from Roden’s personal collection. If you’ve ever spent time hunched over a box of yellowing photographs or flipping through dusty piles of 78rpm recordings at a flea market hunting for—What? That image or object that speaks to you even if you can’t precisely define why?—Roden is a kindred spirit, and traces is an invitation to get lost with him in this world of mysterious artifacts. In fact, halfway through my first listen, I wondered if I was more attracted to the materials themselves or to the care and commitment it seemed evident Roden brought to their assembly. In the end, I decided it was an equal measure of both. Taken all together, after all, it’s a mix tape of sorts—a revelation of a slice of a hidden past and also a gift from a passionate collector bravely showcasing what has spoken to his own heart.

In an illuminating introductory essay, Roden speaks about the motivations of the collector, where questions of value and what belongs are incredibly personal and fluid, and where motivations, at least as far as music on the verge of obsolescence is concerned, might be traced to a desire to “give new life to voices lying dormant within the tiny confines of dust filled grooves….As the music becomes audible, I am immersed in distant voices singing through both space and time, and in the words of Alfred G. Karnes, I have found myself within ‘a portal, there to dwell with the immortal.'”

Though none of the included tracks exceeds three minutes and change, it’s quite a volume of material to consume, and rushing seems antithetical to the spirit of the project. The photographed subjects often stare out from their portraits, seeming to demand an invented history if their own can no longer be recalled. And the musicians, with a mix of styles and skills, offer an aural postcard from a voice dug out of the past: a bittersweet dance between the violin and singer Eva Parker in “I Seen My Pretty Papa Standing on a Hill” here, and a few tracks later an amazing jaw harp performance of “The Old Grey Horse” by Obed Pickard. The tunes leave us pinin’ in Hawaii, and caution us against kickin’ the dog around. None of it is junk mail.

With the volume of current media threatening to blot out the sun and yet still more created every day, there is a particular romance to these messages. While traces caught my ear, subsequent emails from Dust-to-Digital announcing new projects continue to turn my head and threaten to liquidate my bank account. If phrases like “the only known copy in existence” and “high-quality, cultural artifacts, which combine rare, essential recordings with historic images and detailed texts describing the artists and their works” get you excited, you’ll want to learn more about Lance Ledbetter’s impressive Atlanta-based label.

Sounds Heard—Eleanor Hovda: The Eleanor Hovda Collection

Eleanor Hovda has been a musical hero of mine for years. In the 1990s I was completely gobsmacked by the music on her CD Ariadne Music—so much so that the moment I found out about another disc, Coastal Traces, I ran out and bought it immediately. I spent many, many hours sitting on the living room carpet with headphones, soaking in those sound worlds and trying to figure out how on earth music like that could possibly be written down. The sounds Hovda was able to elicit from standard orchestral instruments—flute, violin, etc.—were completely new, fascinating, and otherworldly to my ears, and they still are today. But then the CD releases stopped, and I heard not a single peep about her until reports of her death in 2009. Although I do wish that it hadn’t taken Hovda’s passing to find out more about her as a person, she was clearly a quiet and very private sort who saved her insatiable musical curiosity for close friends and family, a few students, and most importantly the musicians and artists with whom she collaborated.

Thanks to the initiative of Hovda’s longtime partner, Jeannine Wagar, in partnership with Innova Recordings, an archive of Hovda’s music has just been released in a four-CD set. The first two discs of The Eleanor Hovda Collection are re-issues of the CDs Ariadne Music and Coastal Traces, both of which were originally released by OO Discs. Ariadne Music consists of chamber works deftly performed by the Prism Players, while the music of Coastal Traces is derived from modern dance scores created for choreographer Nancy Meehan. The musical material from Coastal Traces is performed on double reeds by Libby Van Cleve, bass and guitar by Jack Vees, and on grand piano “innards” by Hovda herself.

CDs three and four, respectively titled Sound Around The Sound and Excavations contain some works that appear on recordings of other artists, such as the billowing Dancing in Place from Elizabeth Panzer’s solo CD by the same name, as well as previously unreleased performances. Boundaries on CD three, for four flutes and four basses, opens with metallic, wobbling sounds evoking singing bowls from outer space—so unidentifiable that I had to look at the liner notes to check the instrumentation.

The fourth CD contains a number of solo pieces—including Ikima for shakuhachi, performed by Hovda herself—as well as the playfully titled 40 Million Gallons of Music, an extended improvisation for a wide assortment of instruments played inside a giant water tank with a reverberation time of over 60 seconds.

As varied in scope as this collection of compositions is, Hovda’s primary intent—to explore the outskirts of the sonic possibilities inherent in instrumental sound and how they relate to the physical world—is clearly expressed in every piece. One of her main interests was, as she put it herself, invoking “the sound around the sound.” That is, the partials, harmonics, etc. which emerge above (or below) and beyond an actual notated pitch. Accordingly, her pieces are often sonic visualizations of natural phenomena and of physical movement energized by the timing of human breath.

And wait, it gets better! A special treat is in store for those who purchase the hard copy box set. Three of the four CDs are also loaded up with .pdf scores of most of the pieces (scores from the Coastal Traces music were dubbed too cryptic to be included), not to mention extensive liner notes by Hovda, with commentary by a number of the musicians. The handwritten and typed—as in with a typewriter—scores are at once wonderfully revealing and abstruse. They are quite enough to make, as Robert Carl’s Fanfare magazine review states, “…musical theorists sputter in frustration at the challenge of the evanescent perfection of art.”

The Eleanor Hovda Collection is a beautiful and substantive portrait of a brilliantly original musical mind deserving of a prominent place in music history. I encourage you to pick up this recording and spend time in Hovda’s unique sound world. Rest assured that you’ve never heard anything like it.