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Silent Cinema Soundings: Making the Sonic Connections

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Cinema’s First Nasty Women Project Onésime et la toilette de Mademoiselle Badinois

Jean Durand, Director (1912) “The early music accompaniment to silent films frequently had little connection to onscreen action. All it had to do was create an agreeable atmosphere, much like music in a restaurant, and usually it was a solo piano.” (“The Evolution of Music in Film”, Fischoff)

A solo pianist, improvising during the screening of a film, (in the past or present day) would respond in real time to the actions on the film just as they were happening. However, as music for silent film evolved, recorded soundtracks were composed of melodies played in their entirety as the background to the film. In the older through-composed music scores, the melodies were not altered to correspond with every action as it unfolds.For example, composer Hanns Eisler used a score from his Septet No. 2, recorded by a studio orchestra, as the music for the tightrope scene in Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus.

For my part, imagining that I am a turn-of -the- century violinist playing live while watching a screening, I have a wonderful time improvising and elaborating on the melody while we are recording, expressing not only the sentimental moods, but the pratfalls of slapstick with all the special effects possible on a violin. I use many various tonal shadings of bowing as part of sound palette as well, from legato to ricochet. As an example, when Pétronille’s hat slowly catches fire and starts to go up in smoke, I departed from the melody briefly, playing an upward soft, hazy, chromatic glissando tremolo. Another time, I decided to play a quick harmonic followed by spiccato passage as she runs out of the parlor, imparting a lighthearted mood. This worked especially well within that scene during the brief “ fourth wall” moment when Pétronille winks at the viewing audience.

Working together as a Violin/Noir team, making the myriads of musical decisions and minute adjustments to fit the action and timing of each scene, is so rewarding!

I can’t wait to start our next film!

work cited: Fischoff, Stuart, Ph.D. “The Evolution of Music in Film and its Psychological Impact on Audiences.” websites referenced: Lochner, Jim. “Seeing Red.” Musicians. May 4, 2015. red/ SILENT-FILM.html

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