Sounds in the cloud

You will recall the news from last year of a collection of generic silent film scores discovered at Birmingham Library, which exicted quite a bit of interest in the news media. That news interest would appear to have excited the Library in turn, which has pulled out all the stops to promote the collection. There have been performances of the scores and songs from the scores, the scores played to a modern film on Kristallnacht, and talk of a research project. Now the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has announced a Silent Movies Animation Challenge, inciting animators to use one of the scores to accompany a silent animation film of their making.

The nine tracks have been made available on SoundCloud, which is sort of the audio equivalent of YouTube – the place to go for hearing, sharing and annotating sound recordings. You can also embed such sound files in your own website or blog, as above, so you can get a taste of the music composed for generic silent film acompaniment rather than having been composed for a specific film. Here are the sounds of the fairly run-of-the-mill cinema-going experience of the silent era.

This leads me to draw your attention to SoundCloud as a resource for silent film study in itself. Type in “silent film” or “silent film” into its search box and you will find a considerable number of scores by amateur and would-be professional composers for real or imaginary silent films, mostly performed on electric keyboards of various persuasions, as you would expect. If you go to the Advanced Search option and type in ‘silent’ into the Genre field you will get hundreds of results, though only a proprtion of these seem to relate to silent films.

The quality varies hugely, as you would also expect, but browsing through the mostly short sequences makes for a rather fascinating insight into how silent film conjure up musical sequences in our minds – and how listening to music can conjure up ideas of the films that might be accompanied by it.

Try this short piece by Joseph A. Fox, for example, and see what movie it creates for you:

Some of the scores are for actual silents. Here, for example, is composer Steve Bennett’s score for Nosferatu, broken up into seventeen themes:

There are also silent film scores which have featured in performance, such as Paul Van Vuplen’s score for The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in The Land of The Bolsheviks, as performed by the Metropole Orchestra:

You will also find some silent film accompanists of established reputation on SoundCloud. Ben Model, perhaps the most new media savvy of all of them, is there, though surprisingly with just the one track (and that a radio interview). Donald Sosin is also represented by just the one piece (apparently completely silent). American duo Silent Orchestra have some taster clips of their work. Is there anyone on the site that we should know about, and why aren’t more sharing a least a few sample tunes through a site that is growing in popularity and influence?

Anne Elliot, the Birmingham Library archivist who found the collection of silent film scores explains its significance

The deadline for the CBSO competition is 2 April, and finalists’ work will be screened at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, accompanied by the CBSO on Friday 20 April 2012 as part of their Friday Night Classics: Classic Chaplin night. More details here, and a nod of acknowledgment to Silent London for the CBSO competition news.

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