Review: Tieber, Claus and Anna K. Windlisch, eds. The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice.

[Author’s Note: This review was commissioned by an editor at Current Musicology about four years ago for CM’s 50th anniversary, then apparently got lost in an editorial shuffle, and was finally rejected for not being critical enough and for including chapter overviews. You can decide whether it’s useful for you.]

Tieber, Claus and Anna K. Windlisch, eds. The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xx + 265 pp. ISBN 978-1-137-41071-9.

Over the course of the last thirty years, the scholarship on the music and sound of the silent film era—generally agreed on as the period from the inception of the moving image to about 1926—and the early sound period has grown exponentially. In the United States, this scholarship, generally focused on the film industry in America, has been created mostly by a small group of male film and musicology scholars who have, in turn, inculcated their own male protégés in the field, where they continue to locate the center of the silent film music world in North America. It is therefore an enormous pleasure to read Claus Tieber and Anna K. Windlisch’s outstanding collection The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice, which includes essays on the sound of silent film all over the world by both men and women in the discipline.

Although the editors erroneously bemoan the lack of scholarship on film sound and music studies, they make an excellent case for expanding the range, scope, and variety of approaches to studying silent film sound and music by offering thirteen strong chapters, each on a previously unexplored facet of the topic. This volume has its origins in a conference at Kiel University in 2013, and this genesis is evident in the relative short length of most of the chapters. Nonetheless, the essays presented here are fascinating and valuable in their own right and will serve as springboards for further research on the materials they describe, analyze, and catalogue.

The collection is divided into two sections: the historical practice of silent film sound, and new approaches to silent film music history and theory. The first section begins with Julie Brown’s masterpiece of archival research on the organization and use of music libraries for silent film accompanists and orchestras in Britain. Brown’s research on the surviving library of the Royal Theatre Picture House in Bradford, North Yorkshire, England, reveals the ideals held for such libraries and the variety of music accessible to performers for the theatre and the reality of what was available and used in everyday accompanying. She analyzes the methods of organizing this kind of library and the genre system, and helps limn the difference between practices in Britain and those in the United States. Brown’s essay is followed by an equally beautifully researched and presented chapter by Christopher Natzén on accompanimental practices in Sweden from 1905 to 1915. Natzén also digs deep into the archives, in this case those of the Swedish State Archive for Sound and Image. Comparing film programs accompanied by lie performers and those for which mechanical sound reproduction was provided, he finds that the means of sound and music production heavily influenced the kinds of films that were shown in Swedish cinemas. He presents findings on films show with and without live musicians, the role of women musicians in accompanying silent films, and how the rise of mechanical musical devices guided the formation and practices of the Swedish Musicians’ Union, among other important information. Chapter 3 keeps the focus on Europe: Marco Targa has been researching the role of live orchestras in Italian silent film picture houses for some time now, and it is wonderful to see his work appear here in English. Targa discusses the development of a specific repertoire for the small theatre orchestras at the heart of his work and provides a detailed set of appendices that offers a list of major Italian films from the silent era and the status of the music that would have been performed with them, as well as a musical commentary, or quasi-cue sheet, for three films.

The next two chapters take us to German-speaking cultures: Urszula Biel explores performer and cinema culture in Upper Silesia, and editors Tieber and Windlisch look at music in the silent cinemas of Vienna. Biel’s archival research leads her from the make up of and levels of playing in cinema orchestras to the working conditions of the musicians themselves, a crucial aspect of silent film music history that has not received the attention it deserves, despite Biel’s work here and contributions on conditions in England by Annette Davison. Biel then expands her survey to discuss genre and the use of vocal music in cinemas, which is also a neglected area here brought into the light. She concludes with a brief account of stage practices, opening a window onto the variety acts that were presented in cinemas before the film was shown. Tieber and Windlisch’s study of Viennese theatres and their music for silents is no less important and wide-ranging. They craft a highly detailed panorama of the state of cinema music in the musical city in the 1920s, taking into consideration public taste and local pushback against touristic desires for endless Mozart. They cover the development of film as a “legitimate art” in Vienna and the lavish musical talents applied to film accompaniment before the Great War, when it was not uncommon for every movie house to employ a string quartet, an organist, and one or more solo vocalists. Readers learn about the social status of these musicians, their labor organizations, and backgrounds in the context of the on-going evolution of music for silent films in the city. We learn that Erich Hiller’s score for the Asta Nielson film Der Schwarze Traum, composed in 1911, is the earliest composed for a specific German-language film, and that this event, along with music cinematic music-making, went unremarked-upon, and that the media simply ignored the musical aspect of films, which is why all of this research is all the more valuable.

Chapter 6, by James Buhler and Catrin Watts, traces the American attitudes towards European cinematic music practices by way of The Moving Picture World, one of the most prominent trade journals in film during the silent era. By focusing on the MPW’s Paris dispatches and the European movie theatre tour of MPW editor W. Stephen Bush, Buhler and Watts find a rich vein of criticism and comparisons between cultures. Bush, whose tour took place in 1913, found film exhibitions and the quality of musical accompaniment high in London and in Berlin, but less so in Italy, where despite singing the praises of productions shot in the natural light, he found fault with what he deemed the low-class tastes of the audiences. In France, Bush found the entire industry underperforming, and the music was so poor as to not even receive mention. In this all-too-brief essay on one American critic’s views of European film culture, Buhler and Watts offer solid analysis and great details and leave countless options for further research open.

The final chapter of the first section ends with another chapter that could easily be expanded into a book that every cinema and film music scholar would want. Olympia Bhatt examines the origins and trends in Indian cinema in the 1920s, and leads the reader through a highly readable and fascinating history of Indian cinema, music, and cultural practices involving the film industry. She addresses gender and caste segregation, and how these and other prejudices inherent in the culture of the time affected the ways in which films were exhibited and accompanied, offering a brief but intense masterclass on different types of Indian music at the same time. From the tabla to the Gramophone, Bhatt provides an essential introductory text on film and music in India during this period.

The second half of the book begins with an analysis of a newly discovered score by Erno Rapee for John Ford’s The Iron Horse. Here, author Peter A. Graff offers a close reading of the compiled score and investigates the ways in which Native American characters and whites are musically depicted. In the film, the villain is a white man who murders while in disguise as a Native American; Graff finds that while Rapee used some of the common “good Indian” vs. “bad Indian” musical tropes, he creates a score that ultimately depicts the villain as a corrupting force on the Pawnee and Cheyenne tribes he mimics. This nuanced reading of a score that might have been otherwise dismissed as characteristically racist should establish a model for careful analyses and re-considerations of complex societal issues in film music from the silent era.

Chapter 9, by Maria Fuchs, compares the 1927 Allgemeines Handbuch der Film-Musik with Rapee’s Motion Picture Moods, and finds that the former devotes more pages to theory than the latter. In using the Handbuch as a measure of musical hermeneutics, Fuchs suggests that it offers a scholarly yardstick by which pieces can be measured; while this kind of comparison does offer a sense of the Handbuch’s compilers’ preferred tastes and styles, there is little information on how the book was used or how widely it was used in theatres. This chapter is, unfortunately, awkwardly translated from the German and contains several typographical errors, as well as some organizational confusion, which make it somewhat less useful than it might otherwise be. The following essay, by Francesco Finocchiaro on Eisenstein and music in Battleship Potemkin, also suffers from organizational problems and, in this case, a serious lack of editing. The author avails himself of every possible bit of jargon offered by his subject, and is unafraid of confusing his reader by writing single fragments of sentences and complete sentences that are entire paragraphs—and pages—long. The thesis of the chapter appears to be that by using musical metaphors for theoretical concepts, one can understand Eisenstein’s thinking and creative processes in a new way. Coupling this with the idea of musical landscape—that a visual scene can be built with structures that mirror the musical structures of the accompanying music—Finocchiaro cites the scene of the mists moving over the port of Odessa in the film. However, after all of the theorizing that brought him to this point for analysis, the author offers only Eisenstein’s own free-verse description of the scene. There are a few musical examples, which would have helped, perhaps, if they were analyzed and not simply described. Because of typographical errors in the chapter, I wonder if some of the language here is the result of a poor translation, but no translator is credited, so I can only assume that the language used is deliberately obfuscatory. This chapter is one you can skip, unless you’d like to use to to teach students how not to write.

In Chapter 11, Marion Saxer returns us to the world of the real with an investigation into the composition of new scores for abstract art films from the 1920s. In looking at a number of films created in the 1920s in Germany that feature geometrical objects in motion, animations of shades of single colors, or capture light projections, Saxer finds that several originally had companion scores, now mostly lost. Thus new music was commissioned from Bernd Thewes to accompany them. Saxer offers an in-depth account of Thewes’s compositional practices, aided by musical examples from select scores, and carefully explains how the music and film fit together. She extends this analysis to suggest that collaboration such as this one represents digital culture as a whole in that otherwise impossible constructions between the old and new, the live and recorded. In using live musicians for performances of the new scores while showing the films, Saxer says, we see a state of hypermediacy and a meta-reflexive state, phenomena worth further exploration and consideration in all approaches to music and silent film.

The final two chapters of the book engage with this idea of hypermediacy and meta-reflection. In Chapter 12, Marco Bellano calls for more investigation into the effect of multiple scores for individual films. Citing the lack of alternative scores for silent films on video—which typically offer one or two score options at most—he writes that most viewers today see silent films with just one accompaniment attached, whereas in practice, audiences may have experienced multiple musical and sonic environments for the same film. With digital technologies continuing to improve, and the proliferation of silent films online with various accompaniments, however, we are gradually reaching a point at which comparisons between any number of proposed or actual scores for a single film can be undertaken. Bellano proposes a methodology for making such comparisons, using Metropolis as a case study, and notes that another offshoot of this research could be the effect of the same music used for different films and the application of what is essentially hauntology to film music studies. In the last chapter, Jürg Stenzl takes up Bellano’s challenge and examines two scores for the 1923 film La Souriante Madame Beudet. In this well-researched and entertaining finale to the book, Sturzl introduces the reader to Germaine Dulac, the film’s director, and important but neglected French director whose works included elements of feminism, surrealism, and avant-garde techniques and ideas. Mme Beudet, a psychological and technical masterpiece of its time and place, has two scores associated with it: a score compiled of primarily French works by Debussy, Milhaud, Satie, and others, created by American Arthur Kleiner, and a second, more recent score by Manfred Knaak, composed in 2005. (A third score, apparently composed for piano in the 1960s by Carl Scrager, is apparently lost). Stenzl goes on to compare primary themes and materials from the scores, carefully contextualizing the radically different kinds of music used and what their meanings might symbolize to audiences watching the film. In short, he argues that in addition to studying reception as a phenomenon of a work’s life, we must also look at the history of a film’s various musical interpretations in order to more fully understand its place in history and culture. And that thought—that we must go beyond current (often male composer-focused and US-centric) modes of thinking and analyzing silent film music, sources, reception, and afterlives, and seek out new voices and help underrepresented scholars and works find an audience—very neatly sums up what this book is all about.

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