Silent films may have lacked dialogue, but they certainly did not lack sound. Music--often performed live--was fundamental to setting mood, heightening tension, and signalling romance or conveying comedy. Now an MIT lecturer and his colleagues have brought their talents and passions to a new set of DVDs that brings to life this music and the almost-forgotten films it accompanies.
"More Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Films, 1894-1931," is a box set showcasing 50 rare films and six trailers recorded during the first four decades of American filmmaking. The collection was issued by the National Film Preservation Foundation under a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Scores in the collection were recorded in Killian Hall, under supervision of Boston-based recording engineer, Ken Lacouture.
Senior lecturer Martin Marks, who served as music curator for the collection, will host a multimedia performance of some of the films to celebrate release of the three-DVD collection on Wednesday, Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. in Killian Hall.
"The films restored to life by this collection have much to teach us about America's cultural history and the motion picture medium's inexhaustible potential," said Marks. "I wanted the music to enhance the educational value, to delight audiences, and to enrich the sum of these treasures."
Dave Kehr of the New York Times called the music track a "triumph" and the entire film compilation "nine and a half hours of ecstasy."
Films screened will include "Rip Van Winkle" (1896) scored by lecturer Charles Shadle and played by Shadle on harpsichord and Marks on piano; "Skyscraper Symphony" (1929) scored by Professor Peter Child and recorded by The Lydian Quartet; "Cockeyed: Gems from the Memory of a Nutty Cameraman" (ca. 1925), with a score composed and recorded by Assistant Professor Brian Robison for electric guitar; "Breath of a Nation," a short animated satire of prohibition, scored by a five-man ensemble led by lecturer Mark Harvey; and "A Bronx Morning," an abstract collage of films featuring Marks on piano with Professor Jay Keyser on trombone, Professor Evan Ziporyn on clarinet and Harvey on trumpet.
The evening will conclude with live performances of "Tramp Tramp Tramp" (1926), a sing-along cartoon with audience participation led by a vocal quartet; "Zora Neale Hurson's Fieldwork Footage" (1928); and "Inklings" (1926) a Fleischer cartoon newly scored by Fred Steiner and conducted by lecturer Fred Harris, director of the MIT Wind Ensembles.
"I'm grateful to all those driven people," said Marks referring to his colleagues and students who "snatched time out of frantic schedules to become--if only for a shadowy few hours--movie musicians in Killian Hall," Marks said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 2004 (download PDF).