I had an absolutely wonderful time at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s American Music Research Center last week. In case you missed it, you can watch the video capture of my talk on the Facebook event page (no Facebook account required). You can also read my talk and view the slides for it at Humanities Commons CORE.
both inform my book-length study of women in early film music, currently in progress, and
also result in an online, open access database of the magazine’s contents, indexed by author, title, subject, and keywords.(1) I will create the database as a WordPress site at Humanities Commons, which will host the site for free.
In 1914, the manager of a thriving silent cinema wrote that having a successful theater often depended on being able to provide “good music…. furnished in the way of an accomplished [female] pianist.”(2) The job of cinema accompanist was a respectable one for women, and was compared positively with secretarial work, teaching, and nursing. The presence of a female accompanist indicated that a cinema was intent on being an artistic and moral institution, especially as the film industry worked to establish itself as a legitimate business producing respectable and creative works. Although no census of cinema accompanists was ever taken, reports from trade and industry publications suggest that while white male musicians were in the majority in the earliest days of cinema accompaniment, women, both white and of color, soon outnumbered them. Women unquestionably comprised the majority of cinema accompanists after the spring of 1917, when the United States joined the war effort and all-male cinema orchestras were dissolved so that their members could join the military. As Ally Acker has written about women in the silent film industry, “women are as integral and transformative to the cinema as [well-known men], and yet their stories have consistently remained untold.”(3) The influence of these women, particularly during the Great War and its immediate aftermath, cannot be understated; as Acker continues, “more women worked in decision-making positions in film before 1920 than at any other time in history.”(4) Acker’s claim certainly includes female musicians. Working in cinema music, women took on roles as performers, composers, inventors, and innovators within the film industry, their responsibilities often overlapping and becoming inextricably entwined. It is clear from interviews of accompanists and audience members and recent research that these musicians’ performances for newsreels, animations, live-action shorts, and feature films served in multiple ways. Their accompaniments, which used already existing music, new compositions by themselves and others, and their own improvisations, shaped and helped define the musical sensitivities of the time. Accompanists created music and approaches to using music that would become part of the audience’s expectations for film music; established musical standards for film scores that would carry through into sound films; educated listeners as to different types of music and musical genres and to musical traditions relating to affect and meaning; and demonstrated how music could serve as a narrative and interpretative force in the cinema. They designed methods of matching music to the action on the screen; developed ways of supplying cinemas with synchronized sound for pictures; and invented machines that allowed a single woman to represent the sounds of an orchestra for accompanying a film.
bibliography on women musicians in the silent cinema is essentially nonexistent. There are a number of reasons for this. In an era when women were often named only as “Miss [Last
name] or “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” in print and those who wished to publish songs or
other kinds of music still often had to do so under pseudonyms or with their first initials in
place of their names in order to be considered seriously, only a limited number of female
composers and performers were made easily identifiable or recognized for their work. Most research that has been done on silent film music has focused on male performers and
composers active in New York and in Hollywood, in part because the trade magazines,
house publications, and other necessary documents for study were both focused on activities in those places and were held by institutions there. These resources generally lack coverage of the activities of women in the profession. The lack of information and research on women in silent cinema music is also due to the overwhelmingly canonized music history narrative in which successful women musicians were somehow “extraordinary.” In these cases, acknowledgment was granted only because a woman’s social standing or extracinematic musical career was considered unusual for a woman, such as in the case of violinist Helen Ware, who toured Europe and America as a soloist and campaigned for the use of classically-informed improvisation in the cinema. Finally, very little work has been done with primary sources that covered cinema music outside of New York and Hollywood, despite the fact other parts of America boasted some of the finest motion picture theaters and largest audiences in the country during the silent era.
important in that it included reports from correspondents across the entire United States and regularly published significant amounts of material both written about and by female
performers in the industry. Melody in particular was heavily advertised to and written for
women in the profession or considering entering into it, recognizing and treating them as the equals of male accompanists but also understanding that they were still often marginalized. The articles and letters from the few Melody issues I have been able to work with confirm that these publications contain exactly the kinds of information I seek on women’s performance practices, employment as accompanists, and professional concerns and challenges. They strongly suggest that female cinema musicians were from a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and had a variety of musical backgrounds and educational experiences, indicating that such women were not the rare few, but were in fact part of a large population of well-trained and creative female musicians. They also reveal that female cinema musicians were just as active as their male counterparts in composing original scores for films, creating compiled scores (using pre-existing music), and directing cinema ensembles. My investigation and analysis of Melody and its coverage of women in film music will constitute an essential counterpart to the current studies on silent film music that focus exclusively on men, including Richard Abel and Rick Altman’s edited volume The Sounds of Early Cinema and Altman’s Silent Film Sound; Martin Miller Marks’s Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924; and the essays that appear in Claus Tieber and Anna Windisch’s The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice. Identifying women as commercial musicians and charting their work has the potential to rewrite the traditional history of American female performers and composers as working in a rarefied environment and one in which few achieved success.
periodicals such as American Organist and numerous Midwest publications on music, and in several small archives belonging to individual women and cinemas containing materials that help fill in the lacuna of knowledge about female silent film musicians, there remains much more to be discovered. Melody is an important source in which, as my preliminary research indicates, I will be able to find out about individual cinema accompanists (through reviews, reports on performances from Boston, Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Houston, Seattle, and other major American cities, and the regular “Let’s Get Acquainted” column, which introduced readers to cinema musicians from across the United States); the music accompanists used in accompanying different genres of silent film; and trends and news in performing in the cinema, including salary information, performance practices, instrumentation in cinema ensembles, and reviews of new music composed specifically for film accompaniment. Even the advertisements in these silent-era publications are helpful for research, as they suggest the use and gendering of instruments in cinema ensembles; document the development of mail-order educational systems for music teachers and students, many of them aimed especially at female musicians and cinema accompanists in particular; and offer evidence of women composing, publishing, and selling their music for cinema accompaniment. By examining this important publication devoted to music in the silent cinema, I hope to uncover an important part of American cultural history. This research is an essential part of my larger project on women in silent film music, and will provide other scholars with in-depth information about this period and its publications, as well as the aforementioned index of issues.
If granted the Dena Epstein Award, I will spend two weeks at the Library of Congress.
During this time I will catalogue and take extensive notes on each issue, particularly articles about individual cinema accompanists; the music they used in accompanying different genres of film; and trends and news in performing in the cinema, including salary information, performance practices, cinema ensemble instrumentation, and reviews of music composed specifically for film accompaniment. The advertisements in these publications are as pertinent as the articles and pieces of sheet music, as they suggest the use and gendering of instruments in cinema ensembles; document the development of mail-order educational systems for music teachers and students, many of them aimed especially at female musicians and cinema accompanists in particular; and offer evidence of women composing, publishing, and selling their music for cinema accompaniment. I will take photographs of useful and informative visual materials, such as advertisements and the sheet music that was included in each issue (which is now mostly in the public domain), for my personal reference.
Following the research trip, I will analyze the materials for information on women’s performance practices, employment as accompanists, and professional concerns and challenges using methodologies from feminist and queer musicologies and feminist history as well as traditional methods of musical analysis, archival research, social history, and historical criticism. Based on the materials I have seen so far from Melody, I am outlining an article on the reception of female cinema musicians’ performances, compositions, improvisations, arrangements of film music, which I will have ready to submit for publication by late 2019. I believe that my research will enable me to write a second article as well, on the gendering of music that was published and reviewed in the periodicals; I hope have that study ready for submission for publication in early 2020. The information from this research will be included in my monograph on women in early cinema music. I plan to complete the monograph by late 2020.
(www.sfsma.org), an open access database and repository of silent film music, has provided me with the skills to build a similarly open access database indexing the contents of Melody. I believe that in addition to the research I am doing with this journal, making this information available for free will also enable to scholars and performers to undertake further and different kinds of research and approaches not just to Melody but to music journals and magazines, music publishing, and music-making during the early twentieth century.
(1) There is some controversy in musicology about the use of the term “silent film” and its lexicographical cousins. Many scholars object to the labeling of film during this period as “silent film,” because such film was almost never silent: it was most frequently accompanied by live music, but was at times also provided with external sound via the means of sound-on-disc, unscored sound effects (blurring the supposed line between
music and sound), and other sonic technologies that preceded the invention and widespread use of sound-on-film technology. I refer to this body of film simply as “early film” or “early cinema.”
(2) R. H. Pray, Motion Picture Magazine 7, no. 6 (July 1914): 102–103.
(3) Ally Acker, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1991), xvii.
(4) Ibid., xviii.
Links and more information to follow as details emerge.
Monday, March 18: Colloquium talk at the University of Colorado-Boulder, “Phantoms of the Archives: Music for the Early Cinematic Supernatural and Other Tales”
Tuesday-Saturday, March 19-23: Society for American Music annual meeting, New Orleans
Friday, March 22: Co-chairing (with Paul Allen Sommerfeld) the Seminar Music and Sound in Horror Media (8:30-10:30 a.m., Queen Anne B). My paper is on music for early film horror and hauntings.
Saturday, 23 March: guest at Student Forum, chaired by the awesome Kori Hill and Andrew Tubbs (10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., Iberville D) I’ll be talking about doing scholarship and being an academic when you’re not employed in a college/university teaching position.
Wednesday-Saturday, April 17-20: Shakespeare Association of America meeting, Washington DC. I’m in the seminar “Shakespeare in Film History” (Saturday, 4-6 pm). My paper is on early Shakespearean film and the music used to accompany it.
This January marks the 11th anniversary of the publication of my first book, The Conservatoire Américain: a History.
I first came into contact with the Conservatoire in 1993 when I attended its famous summer program as a cellist. After retiring from performance and changing my focus to musicology, returning to the school as a scholar to investigate and excavate its history and influence seemed a perfect project. I began doing research on the Conservatoire in 1998 in the United States, gathering materials and locating stateside archives and individuals involved with the school. In 1999, I was invited by Conservatoire administrators to go to Fontainebleau and conduct research using the materials located there. Bit by bit, the history of the school emerged from local archives, the school’s haphazardly organized music library, boxes stored in attics, papers that had been subjected to flooded sewers, oral histories, and other sources. I returned to Fontainebleau in 2000 for additional research, and continued to conduct interviews and work with various materials related to the school over the course of the next year or so. Then I began writing and presenting papers and articles in advance of the book’s completion.
The Conservatoire’s administrators anticipated that I would write something that could be used for public relations and promotion; as a scholar, what I wrote was the truth about the school’s sometimes rocky history and its often-problematic policies, practices, and people. The Conservatoire, I think, expected a glossy and uniformly positive narrative about its past. And while I did find a lot for the Conservatoire to be proud of, I also interviewed numerous musicians who told an altogether different story about the school and, in particular, its most famous director, Nadia Boulanger. The documents I found in those attics and basements and boxes and files covered in dust confirmed that the school’s history was not a straightforward or simple one. Those who idolized Boulanger were unhappy about and often unbelieving of the negative information about their saint that had come to light, and while I was cheered on by many alumni, others–mostly privileged white men, the student demographic most supported by Boulanger–stalked and harassed me, tried to shout me down, and tried to end my career as a musicologist before it had even really begun.
I don’t back down easily, and especially not in this case, where I had an enormous amount of evidence about the Conservatoire’s workings, successes, and failures. My book was published and received good reviews, and I received numerous communications from former students, faculty, and staff praising it for its honesty.
In 2021, the Conservatoire will celebrate its 100th anniversary. When I approached the publisher of the book last year about creating a new and updated edition for that occasion, I was told that unless I expected the school and alumni to buy 500 or more copies, doing so was not practical. Given the controversy surrounding the publication of the first edition, I’ve concluded that a formal revised and updated version isn’t feasible. So while I will continue to write about the Conservatoire Américain, its people, and its legacy, my work will likely appear in journals and be simultaneously made available through CORE on Humanities Commons. Therefore, I’ve decided to make the 2007 book available in full as a free download through Humanities Commons. You can access the PDF here; the file contains the page proofs copy of the book, so there are some uncorrected errors in it that were fixed before print publication. I hope it will be useful for scholars working on any- and everything related to the Conservatoire, its faculty, students, philosophies, influence, and legacy.
I was interviewed by Caitlin Duffy of Humanities Commons! Read about my digital projects, what I love about Humanities Commons, and why I think everyone should use it.
I also have an upcoming interview with Fran Wilson at The Cross-Eyed Pianist, so stay tuned in for updates. And you can read or listen to my past interviews on my Media page.
I’ve been working on adapting Saki (H. H. Munro)’s short story “Tobermory” as a (darkly) comic libretto. In one scene, a character sings the rather lugubrious song “Melisande, In the Wood,” in which composer Alma Goetz set text by Ethel Clifford.
The piece was published in 1902 and was apparently very popular. Victor put out a recording of it in 1924 featuring singer Edmund Goulding and pianist Clara Novello Davies. I can’t find that particular recording, but you can hear Essie Ackland singing it on an HMV recording from 1929 on YouTube; there are a few other recordings of it there as well.
However, the song and words are still under UK copyright, so for my adaptation of “Tobermory” I needed to write something to replace it. The composer asked for something very similar in form and style. I wrote three new texts: the first was very much in keeping with the original:
“Melisande, in the Cave”
Look down, look down beneath the stone, Melisande,
and search for your cast-off ring.
With your eyes for tears and your mouth for song
and your fear-clipped little wings.
Bend down, bend down beneath the stone, Melisande,
do you see the ring you rejected?
Only you can know your own truths, Melisande,
and why you alone are disaffected.
Disaffected, suspected, Melisande,
Breathe deep, breathe deep of the stone, Melisande,
of the still air and the wet breathe deep.
One day you will lie amid stone, Melisande,
and your husband and child will weep.
For the second, I tried to capture a bit of Saki’s language from other stories written around the same time as “Tobermory.”
“Melisande of the Green”
Melisande, Melisande, I can see your tears:
you are a feral girl, full of wildness and fears.
Melisande, Melisande, you speak so few words:
you are a forest cat, preying on little birds.
Woman of the woods, sister of the stream,
you confound us, Melisande.
Walking in the castle, long hair afloat,
have we all just been conned?
Are you a goblin or werewolf, mythic?
You confuse us, Melisande
Melisande, Melisande, lady of the green,
you have hidden depths, natural powers, all unseen.
Melisande, Melisande, the marsh and field
bend to your touch as your magic is revealed.
As I wrote this second text, I began to think of Melisande as a kind of proto-Poison Ivy.
She’s got the long hair and comes from a botanically rich environment and causes conflict between men. Maybe she’s also related to Swamp Thing, being “of the green.”
My third text was entirely satirical, imagining Melisande among the Victorian or Edwardian society ladies of Saki’s story, out of her depth trying to furnish Golaud’s dreary castle:
“Melisande, in the Drawing Room”
Do sit, do sit down, dear Melisande
and take some tea with sugar.
With your trembling pinkies and blinking eyes,
you look quite snookered!
Do tell, do tell us all, Melisande,
did you make a terrible bargain?
You are new to society, Melisande, quite new,
Perhaps you were confused by the jargon?
It is easy to be taken in, Melisande,
Do drink, do drink some sherry, Melisande.
We all do when it’s bleak.
It has happened before, dear Melisande,
someone’s always selling fake antiques.
The composer liked the very close mimicking of the first song, so that’s what we’ll use in the opera. The second and third texts are available if anyone wants to set them or use them for anything–contact me for details! I’d actually love to write a suite of texts for songs that intertwine comic heroes and villains with well-known operatic or other musical tropes.
Read my most recently published poem at Wordgathering. There’s also an audio version if you want to hear me reading it.
Updated with permanent url 2018/12/10.
The third of my four essays on music for silent film is now up at NewMusicBox! In this essay, I discuss how music influences the perception of film. As an example, I use a scene from Buster Keaton’s 1927 film The General, which has been scored by multiple performers and groups and thus offers a great selection of different approaches. This essay is condensed and extracted from a larger article I’m working on in which I examine the visual and aural aspects of Civil War nostalgia both during the 1920s and today in relation to the film’s scoring and marketing.
My second in a series of four articles on music for silent film at NewMusicBox is up! Read about cue sheets, their uses, and how they were adapted at “Taking a Cue: Accompanying Early Film“.
My poem “Invasive Species” is out now in Infinite Rust‘s Fall 2018 issue at http://infiniterust.com/current-issue/ (issu version) or http://infiniterust.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Infinite-Rust-Fall-2018-1.pdf (PDF version). It’s on page 30 in both.