New Sounds For Silents

It took me at least a few years to find a way to re-tune my thoughts about what you might call non-traditional scoring for silent films. Attending and performing at the “Silent Film Days” festival in Tromsø, Norway for many years, hearing bands and music artists from Scandinavia do live scores for silents, helped me find a way to accept this form, or accept the fact that it happens.

Musical accompaniment, music itself and — more importantly — musical tastes are the one thing that have morphed while the film itself has remained unchanged. What I developed the ability to do, gradually, was to take off my “this is wrong” hat, and put on a new one, a “does this work as a score” hat. Because, at a certain point, I realized two things.

For one, it’s going to happen, and will continue to.  And because putting on a silent film show has gotten easier over the last half dozen years or so because of digital, more and more rock bands, DJs, electronica musicians, and everything else will continue to think of adding silent film scoring to what they do.

I have seen bands or other groups score silent films where what they’re playing doesn’t quite match the film, that the music does not ebb and flow with the film’s dramatic tension and release. I have also seen groups at “Stumfilmdager” like the Finnish punk bank Cleaning Women, as well as Scandinavian techno and electronica artists, do an excellent job of scoring the film. The cues end and transition where the scenes do, and build or recede where the film’s energy or onscreen drama does.

Spike Jones and his City Slickers
Spike Jones and His City Slickers

What I’ve learned to accept is that musical scores that are not the Carl-Davis-Gaylord-Carter-William-Perry variety may not be my own personal musical taste, but they can really work when the scoring technique is executed the right way.

I’ve experienced films where I’ve shifted around in my seat the whole time and felt the film seemed twice as long as well as the exact opposite with both traditional and non-traditional scoring at shows.

Because if it gets people to come to a silent film show and, especially, to introduce people to silent film, it’s a good thing. In the end, what I’m rooting for is silent film. You may not be wild about a certain group’s musical style, but I can tell you I’ve talked with people after shows I’ve done whose first encounter with silent movies was at one of those shows with a rock band or some other non-traditional ensemble playing.

It’s not for everyone, but neither is traditional scoring. There are people who are interested in seeing silent film but don’t like “that boring classical music stuff”. If you don’t care for it, then you don’t have to go to the show. And, if you can, try to take a little satisfaction that at least it means there’s slightly more people interested in showing silent films with live music 90+ years after talkies came in. And that, maybe, that show of Pandora’s Box accompanied by beat-boxing and toy instruments will introduce people to silents.

Who knows? Some of the folks in the audience may go to another silent film show with “that boring classical stuff” at a library or a movie palace.

In the end, whether it’s your taste or not, it helps with Audience Preservation.


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Paul T Fitzpatrick

What did you think of the Club Foot Orchestra’s score for SHERLOCK, JR.?