Laraine Porter (De Montfort University)
Silent cinema music and the transition to sound
The period between 1927 and 1930 saw the arrival of synchronised sound and transformed cinema as an art form forever. By the mid-1920s, the mature silent cinema had reached an apogee in terms of marrying cinematography with live musical accompaniment with many thousands of musicians, composers and music publishers employed in the cinema music business. Despite early sound films universally referred to as ‘the talkies’ the imperative for development of sound cinema was not the recording of the human voice but the standardisation and reproduction of recorded, synchronised musical scores. Warner Bros’ Don Juan (1926) was the first feature film to be thus released, followed by part talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) and the full-talkie The Singing Fool (1928), but the music was essential to all three and signalled the death knell of live musical performance.
Despite the numbers of films, musicians and composers involved in the silent period, relatively little is known about the nature of cinema music with very few film scores remaining extant. Music was also usually composited and produced quickly from short library samples and made to ‘fit the film’.
This session will begin by looking at examples of film music from the silent period to get a sense of the kind of music composed and performed up until the late 1920s when music also needed to keep up with and reflect popular tastes for light classical or jazz-based film scores. It will then look at the modern practice of silent film accompaniment and the ways in which contemporary musicians like Neil Brand and Stephen Horne interpret and perform to silent films using a combination of historical evidence, guesswork and improvisation. The session will conclude by assessing the impact of the arrival of sound cinema on the culture, art and practice of film music and the challenges faced by the music and cinema industries during the transitional period.
Followed by light refreshments – all welcome
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