I’m delighted and honored to be awarded the 2023 Virgil Thomson Fellowship by the Society for American Music for “Analyzing Rosa Rio’s Accompaniments for Silent Film,” which is a part of my larger book project titled Race and Gender in Silent Film Music. Thank you, SAM! Here’s what I wrote in my proposal for the Fellowship.
Scholarship on the music that accompanied silent film (c. 1895-1927) has focused on the work of White men. In my current book project, Race and Gender in Silent Film Music, I challenge the homogeneity and scope of this research by excavating the careers of musicians of color and women musicians who performed and composed music for film during this period. My research shows that music for silent film was an enterprise involving large numbers of women and musicians of color and encompassed musicians who had a variety of professional training experiences. In Race and Gender in Silent Film Music, I expand on this scholarship to consider the White, male supremacy of the silent film music industry, its effect on film music, and sites of resistance to it. My goal is to broaden the conventional understanding of silent film music and to create a more nuanced examination of who created this music, how and why they created it, how it was performed, and how it was received by audiences of the time. To do this, I document the labor and creations of marginalized cinema musicians through sources including trade journals, advertising, published music, census records, city directories, wage records, recordings, and instruments.
While we can document the music used to accompany certain films, listen to period and modern recordings of select pieces used in silent film accompaniment (albeit almost exclusively pieces by White men), and hear present-day accompanists perform in the manner of those from the silent era, very few cinema musicians from the silent period recorded their scores for individual films. One exception is organist Rosa Rio, who became celebrated for her scores. In the 1970-80s, Rio and the company Video Yesteryear recorded her scores for silent films and released them on VHS and Betamax tapes. Rio composed by improvising during a film’s first screening, jotting down musical ideas, and then building on those ideas with each subsequent screening, resulting in highly polished and consistent scores. Rio’s recordings are essential to the history of silent film music and provide insight into how she understood film scoring to function, what musical tropes and elements she thought successful, and how she represented characters, settings, and atmospheres. Video Yesteryear went out of business in 1998, and since then it has been increasingly difficult to get Rio’s tapes—I’ve managed to buy a few through eBay and other vendors. However, the Library of Congress has nearly 100 videos of Rio accompanying cartoons, shorts, and feature films. If awarded a Virgil Thomson Fellowship, I will go to the Library to study a selection of otherwise-unavailable recordings made by Rio in order to build a more complete profile of her accompanimental practices, explore the contexts in which she recorded the scores, and better understand her approach to different genres. Her work, alongside that of Alura Mack and Ulysses G. Chambers, is the focus of a chapter in Race and Gender in Silent Film Music on the successful careers of accompanists from marginalized groups.