Sounds of the Silents workshop


The Sounds of the Silents is a one-day workshop focusing on live sonic practices for silent film exhibition to be held at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland on Tuesday 13 October 2009. The event is part of the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project, one of a number of academic investigations funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council as part of its Beyond Text programme.

This aim of the workshop is to enable participants to explore the use of live sonic practices with silent film. During the course of the day speakers will discuss approaches to, and the pragmatics of, these practices in a variety of contexts. The presentations and guest speakers are:

  • Sound effects in the silent era: historical evidence (exact title tbc)
    Dr Stephen Bottomore, film historian
  • The Film Explainer
    ‘Professor’ Mervyn Heard, cinema historian and lantern showman, explores the evolution, role and various dark arts of the describer in the early days of cinema.
  • The Art of Foley Sound
    Caoimhe Doyle, foley artist, and Jean McGrath, foley recordist
  • Plus contemporary responses from: Dr Martin Parker, Yann Seznec (aka The Amazing Rolo) and more

The workshop is aimed at postgraduate students of film, sound, and music (or related disciplines) and interested scholars. Owing to limited availability, attendance must be booked in advance, and early booking is advised to avoid disappointment. The organisers are also putting on a showcase of silent films with live accompaniment for the early evening in association with the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh (further details to follow), with tickets £3/£2 conc.

Registration is £10 – to include lunch and coffee/tea (waived for Royal Musical Association members). Cheques should be made payable to the University of Edinburgh, and sent (with booking form, PDF) to:

The Sound of the Silents
c/o Dr Annette Davison
Music, Alison House
12 Nicolson Square
Edinburgh EH8 9DF

Please contact Dr Annette Davison (a.c.davison[at] if you have any questions. Further details (directions etc.) will be forwarded on receipt of payment/booking form.

Finally, two student bursaries (courtesy of the Royal Musical Association) are available. These cover the registration fee, and provide a contribution towards accommodation for up to two nights and travel. To apply, please state your name, university affiliation, address, email address, estimated cost of travel and whether you will need accommodation, and include a 300-word statement outlining how attending this sound effects workshop will enhance your research. Email to Dr. Annette Davison (a.c.davison[at] by 5pm, Friday 11 September 2009.

Sounds and silents

A call for papers has now been issued for The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: Textual, Material and Technological Sources, a conference being held 7-9 June 2009 at the Barbican, London. The conference is being organised as part of the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project, which is one of a network of project organised under the Arts & Humanities Research Council‘s Beyond Text programme.


AHRC-Funded Beyond Text Network “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain”

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

Sunday 7th-Tuesday 9th June 2009

Institute of Musical Research and the Barbican, London, UK

We invite papers from interested parties from all related disciplines to participate in this, the first of four events to establish and develop a research network concerned with the variety of sonic and musical practices of “silent” film exhibition in Britain, interpreted in the broadest possible sense. Explorations of “sources” – of whatever kind – are particularly welcome, as are presentations by archivists, curators, and performers.

Potential topics might include:

  • Sonic and musical practices used alongside the exhibition of early film in Britain
  • The potential sources for understanding these practices
  • Their problems. How we might excavate them
  • The challenges that Britain faces in preserving the existing historical legacy of these sonic and musical practices, instruments, equipment, and spaces
  • Relationship between these practices and those of cinema’s antecedent forms in Britain
  • Distinctive musical practices pursued in Britain, compared to other countries
  • Perspectives from other disciplines, other countries
  • Use of eye-witness memory

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.

Individual Papers: Abstracts of 250 words for individual papers of up to 25-30 minutes should be e-mailed, as a Word attachment, to Mrs Valerie James at music [at] We will also consider shorter presentations of around 15 minutes on specific issues relating to sources. Please include your name and title, institutional affiliation (if any), email address, and postal address.

Round tables: Round table organizers should provide an abstract of 700 words introducing the discussion topic for a 90 minute/2 hour presentation. All panel members must be listed (names and affiliations). The round table organizer is the chairperson and acts as moderator. Proposals should be e-mailed to Mrs Valerie James at music [at] as a Word attachment, along with your name and title, institutional affiliation (if any), email address, and postal address.

The deadline for all proposals is 9th January 2009.

Postgraduate scholarships: Postgraduate students working in this, and/or related areas may apply for one of two scholarships (to include basic travel and accommodation, and conference fee and refreshments). Applicants should send the following information to Mrs Valerie James music [at] name, institution where studying, and an outline of their (related) research project.

Should be fun. Start excavating.

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.

World’s first sound recording


Phonoautogram, from

Well, this item fails our criteria on two counts – it’s not about cinema, and it’s not silent. But it’s relevant, so here goes.

It was announced today that researchers have uncovered the world’s first sound recording, dating from 9 April 1860, an astonishing seventeen years before Thomas Edison received the patent for his Phonograph. The recording was created by something called a Phonoautograph, and the recording itself is a Phonoautogram. The Phonoautograph was designed to create a visual record of sounds. Invented by the Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, the device comprised a barrel-shaped horn connected to a stylus, which etched impressions of sound waves onto sheets of paper which has been blackened with soot. There was no means of playing back the recording. It was a visual record of sound designed for analysis.

The recording is a ten-second burst of the song Au Clair de la Lune, sung by an unidentified female. You can hear it (all ten seconds of it), and discover the background to its discovery and the ingenious use of optical imaging technology by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California that reconstituted the sound in a New York Times article.

Or just click here for the MP3 file.

So it’s the world’s earliest known sound recording, but is it a true sound recording if it could not be played at the time? Surely the invention is only complete with the full realisation of the technology; that is, when Edison combined both sound recoding and playback, the earliest playable example of which (part of a Handel oratario) dates from 1878. And this is where the relevance bit comes in, because we face exactly the same dilemma with motion pictures. Eadweard Muybridge first photographed motion in sequence in 1878, and we can reconstitute such images to display motion. They look like movies, but at the time they never moved. Etienne-Jules Marey photographed humans and animals in sequence from 1882 onwards, soon to be followed by other chronophotographers, but his purpose was the same as Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville – analysis. Yet we can convert these film strips (Marey used celluloid) into fleeting semblances of motion. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince took perfectly serviceable motion pictures (on paper) in 1888, but much as he wanted to he was not able to project them.

So we award the laurels to Edison and to Lumière for having brought together the full package. Or so I’ve always argued. Now I don’t know. It seems to me that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (great name) achieved the essential business first – to capture sound. Being able to play it back was secondary – desirable, of course, but ultimately an inevitable follow-up that would just take a little bit longer to achieve (in his case, 148 years). So, on that basis, Edison and Lumière came last. They realised, but it was others who pioneered. Stand up Eadweard, the laurels are yours.

Debate, anyone?

Muybridge 1878

Muybridge’s photographs of a horse in motion, from Scientific American 19 October 1878