On Saturday 29th October 2011, I am giving the first performance of a new commission from an Lanntair Arts Centre, Stornoway, for
music to the silent movie classic Nosferatu (directed by F Murnau, 1921/22). The performance is part of this year’s Faclan Hebridean Book Festival, being held at an Lanntair, Stornoway, and which this year has the theme of second sight.
For me, this is a very interesting commission in that, as an improvising pianist, silent movie music is an activity of immense historical
importance to my chosen art form. In this blog, I want to muse on some of the processes I am using to assemble the materials for this performance, and to look at some of the basic ideas around different approaches to the role of accompanist to silent movies.
I have movie music in my blood with both my father’s sister, Constance Urpeth, working in south London, and my mother’s aunt, Millie Byrne, working in Ireland, being in their younger days professional pianists working in the golden era of silent movies – which spans from the first to third decades of the twentieth century. Both were, of course women, and there is some evidence, though not well documented, that movie houses offered women the chance to work as professional musicians in an era when non-singing roles were
rare for women instrumentalists.
The job did have something of an air of respectability to it given that studies in the pianoforte were very much a part of a proper
upbringing for a respectable girl. But work was not as common as the stereotype image of music for silent movies might suggest. A survey in America in the 1920s found that only about 25% of film theatres used piano accompaniment – the same % for in-house orchestra, but with 50% using theatre organs. Some movies, including Nosferatu, came with pre-recorded orchestral soundtracks specifically composed for the film. For most purposes, the era of actual complete silence in movies was a period of about a decade at
the very beginnings of commercial film presentation. By the 1930s the talkies had arrived, and the role of the live movie musician declined rapidly.
In 2011, having spent some time thinking over my approach to the role and function of the musician and his/her music, one stark fact remains the same. By 1910, three methodologies had been established as to how music was put to so-called silent movies: improvised; compiled; composed.
In the improvised approach, the musician utilises whatever music is at his or her’s fingertips during the performance to set the scene and mood of the piece. This approach required the minimum of formal resources, a piano or organ, one musician, and usually a copy of the film available to the performer a short time before the actual screening.
In the compiled approach, pioneered by the Edison Film Company from 1910 onwards, films came with a music ‘cue sheet’, referencing specific pieces of music from a library of composed pieces, such as Sam Fox’s Music For Moving Pictures of 1913 which contained a large number of short pieces by the composer J S Zamecnik, and with titles such as Mysterious – Burglar Music.
This approach could work for situations of a single musician as well as with an ensemble or orchestra, where a film theatre would have
a musical director who would assemble or compile a score from the cue sheet in a matter of a few days. According to the photoplay music wiki: ‘In 1923, the Cameo Thematic Music Co. was established by M.J. Mintz, and by the end of the decade, was responsible for about 90% of cue sheets. ‘
In the composed or original music approach the fully composed orchestral score would produced and made available with the film for
theatre orchestra. This approach required vast resources in a medium very short on time and was generally the preserve of the elite of film theatres.
As an improvising musician, essentially working in a jazz idiom, it is also clear that a major part of the history of my medium – now a stage and concert music – is in the movie theatre, and also that improvisation was not only a fundamental part of the major American popular music of the 1920s, but also a fundamental part of its defining art form. And there were many points of crossover, it being well documented that Jelly Roll Morton, for one example, worked in silent movie houses.
(Incidentally – I cannot help but wonder if there is more to the timing of this than meets the eye, namely that the origins and emergence of commercial directed film and the organisation of improvisation around African rhythm and European folk and Ecclesiastical melodic systems into a commercial music called jazz, are not totally unrelated.)
As I begin the process of preparing for the performance on Saturday 29th October, I find myself faced with the same choices and with the same blend of approaches. My medium is improvisation, so I will not be producing or performing a wholly composed score. But I do find myself compiling and composing short fragments of melody and mood music for key scenes, and I find myself thinking of the film through this kind of approach.
I can also confirm that my proximity to the action of the film will vary between ‘in-close’ musical commentary and mood setting, and big-picture musical metastatements, and above all else, I will be performing in a space already filled with sound – incidental and accidental audience sound, the sound of a public building, and I intend to use the full spectrum of sound sources available to me on the night without once departing the piano stool.
In the next blog I’ll be getting into some of the idea for music, and interpretations of the film. But a final note on a bizarre and brilliant approach to film music that has now almost completely disappeared from the aural universe of us humans, and that is the mechanical Fotoplayer organ. This devise was hugely popular in the 1920s and was a common sight in film theatres. The Fotoplayer mechanically
reproduced the cue sheet music in a mix of player-piano rolls, fairground organ effects and one man band percussion. Very few of these machines now exist, but to close the first part of this blog, here’s a video a Fotoplayer being well and truly played: