Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

The first and sadly short era of film music involved live performances. While movie houses across the United States had pianists or organists on hand to accompany screen fare, the bigger theatres in larger cities often had full orchestras on staff.

Many filmmakers of the era such as Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith either composed or co-created the music for their films, but the better part of music production was hired out to composers who were capable of creating a wide variety of themes rather expediently. Composers worked not for a specific project but steadily, writing long and short pieces to fit almost any mood or conflict that a film could depict. The pieces were then filed in a massive music library, which would be accessed by performers hired to accompany the film screenings.

One of the most remarkable figures of the era was J. S. Zamecnik (1872-1953), a Cleveland-born student of Antonin Dvorak, who composed over 1000 small pieces for live orchestras or pianists to play at screenings. This nearly forgotten composer invented many standard silent film ideas, which are humorous today, such as “Theme for people running to a bus”, “Chinatown Theme,” or “Indian Theme.” Unfortunately, after enjoying over a decade of constant employment in film, Zamecnik found his particular talents suddenly obsolete, as producers and directors looked elsewhere for the skills needed to bring a new revolution to life.

A good many of the stock pieces created for silent films were meant more as cues for improvising musicians than fully worked out scores and many musicians took great liberties with the materials. Much of this music has been lost today and when silent films are screened nowadays, the music used is largely a reconstruction of music in the style of that time.

An interesting post-modern development in recent years has been to present revivals of old silent films with newly commissioned music. One of the more elaborate silent film revivals, Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1981 mounting of Abel Gance‘s restored 1927 epic Napoleon, utilized a full orchestral score newly created by his father, Carmine Coppola. Perhaps more provocative was the series Loud Music, Silent Film presented at the Knitting Factory in the late 1990s that paired early film classics with brash avant-garde scores by the likes of Gary Lucas and Dave Tronzo that often seemed completely unrelated to what was on screen. [Ed. Note: Perhaps the ultimate post-modern silent film experiment, however, is Decasia, a newly created film by Bill Morrison based on old film footage that has deteriorated. Originally innocuous scenes of camel rides in the desert, a boxer, or a procession of children are here transformed into eerie surrealities that are made even eerier and more surreal by the insistent score of Bang On A Canner Michael Gordon.]

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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