Voicing the silents

Jason Singh in rehearsal for his vocal accompaniment to Drifters (1929)

On November 6th the Cornerhouse in Manchester will be presenting an unusual form of silent film accompaniment. “Human beatboxer and sound artist” Jason Singh will be accompanying a screening of John Grierson’s silent documentary film Drifters (1929) using his voice alone – with a fair bit of processing, sampling and pre-recorded vocal sounds. The result, to judge from the video clip, sounds like it could be really effective. Drifters is certainly an imaginative choice – and with its poetic, modernistic treatment of an activity (herring fisheries) steeped in tradition, it could be an astute one.

How often have silent films been accompanied by the human voice? Not too often, I think. I’m just back from a weekend at Athy in Ireland, where the annual Shackleton Autumn School (a gathering of polar exploration enthusiasts in the town of the great Antarctic explorer’s birth) is held. I introduced a screening of the BFI’s restoration of The Great White Silence (1924), which documents Shackleton’s great rival Captain Scott’s failed attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole.

The restoration has gained great acclaim, not least in these pages, but I was none too complimentary about the music/soundscape by Simon Fisher Turner, which I thought used the film as decoration to an experiment in sound textures rather than being a proper accompaniment. Well, seeing the film again, I was wrong. The version of the score on DVD (lacking the strings that featured at the live premiere) is often spookily effective electronica, which brings out the film’s otherworldly qualities. The electronic sounds do lack variety after a while, but Turner spices things up with jolting introductions of contemporary gramophone recordings, and most powerfully a solo voice singing ‘Abide with Me’ over the still images and model shots recording the Scott party’s fatal return from the Pole. The unaccompanied voice had a powerful effect on the audience; a real coup de théâtre.

I have seen or heard silents accompanied by most things – piano, organ, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, orchestra, brass band, harp, electronica, percussion, rock band, violin, accordion, jazz band, recorders, player piano, turntables, silence – but only this once with the human voice alone. However, in the comments to a recent Bioscope post on those times in the silent era when silent film were shown without music, Maria Velez records the existence of a vocal quartet at the La Scala cinema in Glasgow during the first months of the First World War, which seems not only to have sung between films but during them as well.

Was this unique, or does anyone know of any other such examples from the period – or from the presentation of silents today? There were plenty of examples from the silent era of the use of voices behind or to the side of the screen, for singers (recorded or live) accompanying song films, of which there were a huge number in the pre-WWI period; and there were reciters of dramatic works, such as Eric Williams undertook in some British venues in the 1910s. And I’ve seen songs introduced as part of silent film screenings, such as the memorable performance of the ‘Internationale’ during Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück at Pordenone last year. Pianist Donald Sosin‘s silent film accompaniments have included songs sung by his wife Joanna Seaton. But voices or voice used as musical accompaniment in a non-song context? Anyone? Or any examples of unusual forms of musical accompaniment to silents beyond those that I’ve listed?

There’s a news piece on Jason Singh and Drifters at Wired, and further information on the Cornerhouse website.