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.

10 responses

  1. Not voice-only, but largely choral, is Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light”, intended as a stand-alone concert piece during which Dreyer’s Joan of Arc is screened….available as one of the audio options on the Criterion Edition’s DVD, it’s stunning if you use it as a soundtrack instead. If you don’t have the DVD in question, a search of youtube may pay dividends, as someone may have been a bit cavalier with copyright rules……

  2. One famous example from the recent past was Yat-Kha’s tuvan throat singers accompanying ‘Storm Over Asia’. The brief excerpts that I’ve heard are very effective, although reading one review extolling its use of use of the riff from ‘Smoke on the Water’ makes one think that it was probably fairly divisive.

    I actually attended a screening of the same film in Zurich, accompanied by an avant-garde accordion / singing duo. The house was packed – they were obviously local celebrities – and some of it was stunning. But frequently it seemed that they forgot the film and were simply indulging in an extended jam session (the fact that they were looking at each other as much as the film was a bit of a giveaway). As a musician I admired their skills but as an accompanist I was pretty irritated by the end of the evening. Needless to say, they got a standing ovation!

  3. Home movies are not exactly “movies”, but they were silent for quite a long time. There is a documentary on Hitler’s home movies, which was synchronised by a lip-synch reader for the sake of this TV-documentary. It’s free to view here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2763127556620650689. It was directed by David Howard in 2006.
    It’s not the best documentary, but the way of handling the lack of soundtrack is a curiosity, I suppose.

  4. As luck would have it, on Sunday I bought at a second-hand book stall a local history pamphlet concerning the twilight of Bristol’s Music Halls, and their half-life as early cinemas….a quick read and this caught my attention…”For three months, at the beginning of 1912, he [Horace Livermore, of The People’s Palace} experimented with ‘speaking moving pictures’ in which a team of actors spoke dialogue synchronised (it was hoped) with the film”
    Allowing for the possibility that the writer, either of the pamphlet or of the original report – I will be seeking that out very soon – has misinterpreted an early sound-on-disc format, has anyone else come across references to this idea, or is this Bristolian take on Benshi unique ???

  5. Quite a discovery, but not quite unique, I think. As noted in the post, English schoolteacher Eric Williams created a bit of a cultural stir in the 1910s with his live recitations alongside films of dramatic speeches from Shakespeare. Robert Hamilton Ball writes about him in Shakespeare and Silent Film, as does Low Warren in The Film Game. Rick Altman, in Silent Film Sound, writes about American ‘behind-the-screen actors’ doing much the same thing – see pp. 166-173, citing examples such as Charles E. Blaney, Henry Lee, LeRoy Carleton, and acting troupes, notably those of the Humanovo company, established by Adolph Zukor.

  6. Thanks. I thought it was unlikely to have been a total one-off, but I had never come across it mentioned before. I’ll report back, if you like, with further details when I’ve tracked them down.

  7. Please do. Horace Livermore sounds like an intriguing character in himself. It’ll be worth putting together a post on behind-the-screen actors, if we can gather together enough fresh information.

  8. Livermore I don’t have to look up; his family business, Livermore Brothers, built The People’s Palace music hall in 1892; initially managed by Charles Gascoigne, Horace took over when Charles went off to manage a pub in 1903 – despite having had a go at film pioneering, making local films, including films of some of the Hall’s acts, and presenting them at The Palce as a turn between the usual Music Hall fayre. Tony Fletcher told me Gascoigne turned up as a turn at Crystal Palacein 1901/2. Livermore, bowing to the pressure of the opening of the Bristol and Bedminster Hippodromes in 1912, gradually turned The Palace into a cinema – the above experiment being part of the transition. It was eventually a Gaumont, a series of nightclubs, and a Sports Bar, and currently stands empty and a bit folorn in Baldwin Street – but still with the Livermore Brothers cartouche in stone above the main door.

  9. In Australia, between 1906 and 1911, the highly popular film ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’ was accompanied by an on-stage interlocutor. He pointed out the characters in the film (sometimes with a billiard cue) and filled in details of the action. His role expanded as the film travelled further from Victoria, where the story was less well known. That’s not uncommon, I know, but later, voice actors were employed to provide additional effects from behind the sheet. Reviewers commented on the wild cries, commands and imprecations that accompanied the film. Borderline, too, perhaps.

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