The sounds of early cinema in Britain

A conference has been announced by the AHRC-funded ‘Beyond Text’ Network, “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain” (the AHRC is the UK’s funding council for research into the arts and humanities; ‘Beyond Text’ is an AHRC programme looking at areas of research beyond the printed word):

The AHRC-Funded Beyond Text Network “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain” is delighted to announce the dates of the first event:

The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: Textual, Material and Technological Sources

Institute of Musical Research and the Barbican, London, UK
Sunday 7th to Tuesday 9th June 2009

The first decades of film exhibition in the UK were characterized by flux and experimentation. Musical and sonic practices were often improvisatory, but always contingent upon the resources available, their stage of technological development, and the exhibition venue itself, which might have been a music hall, fairground, theatre, or purpose-built venue. Elements of performativity and contingency continued well into the sound era; live musical performance long remained a key part of film exhibition in many cinemas.

This conference is the first of four events organised to enable, encourage, and consolidate inter-/cross-/trans-disciplinary research and practical activity in this field. We invite interested parties from all related disciplines to participate. We anticipate that such parties may include early cinema and film researchers, curators and archivists, musicologists, sociologists, historians and theorists of popular culture. As a network event, we are able to offer a substantial number of grants to subsidise travel and accommodation costs for event participants, and will offer two postgraduate student scholarships (UK) to enable attendance. We will send out a call for papers shortly.

As the conference title suggests, the focus of the event is “sources”:

  • What sonic and musical practices existed alongside the exhibition of early film in Britain?
  • What sources are available to assist our understanding of these practices?
  • What are their problems?
  • How may we excavate them?
  • What challenges does Britain face in the preservation of the existing historical legacy of these practices, instruments, equipment, and spaces, and what should take priority?
  • Were distinctive musical practices pursued in Britain, compared to other countries?

Preference will be given to papers with a British focus, though we may be able to accommodate papers that explore the same issues in other national contexts.


  • Key-note speakers
  • Screenings of silent films with live accompaniment

About the Network:

Through 2009 and 2010, the project will hold two conferences and two workshops as a means of consolidating research and practical activity on sound’s and music’s roles as practiced in the exhibition of early and ‘silent’ cinema in Britain. The second conference will focus more strongly on questions of performance and reception. The two workshops will focus on sound practices in the “silent” era, and on live accompaniment, however conceived (whether improvised and/or historically-informed and/or contemporary).

Principal investigator: Dr Julie Brown (RHUL, UK)
Co-investigator: Dr Annette Davison (Edinburgh, UK)

No conference web address as yet, but beyond the academic-speak (why was the profoundly ugly word ‘performativity’ ever allowed?) this sounds to be a worthwhile event which is certain to attract a good range of interested parties. I’ll publish the call for papers just as soon as it is made.