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  • The Sounds of the Silents in Britain ed. by Julie Brown, Annette Davison
  • Rick Altman (bio)
Julie Brown and Annette Davison (eds) The Sounds of the Silents in Britain Oxford : Oxford University Press , 2013 : 352 pp., ISBN: 978-0-19-979754-7

How far we have come in a few short years! Not so very long ago, the recollections of a few retired theatre musicians were taken as gospel regarding silent film sound practices. Students and scholars alike were convinced that film sound traditions during the so-called silent period were similar not only on both sides of the Atlantic, but also throughout Great Britain. While special scores were sometimes cited and analysed, limited attention was paid to the daily routine in film projection venues around the country. Now all of that is changing, and much for the better.

The Sounds of the Silents in Britain (SSB), edited by Julie Brown and Annette Davison, lays to rest many of our strongly ingrained assumptions about silent film sound in Britain. Based on primary research of the first order, the fifteen essays that make up SSB offer a totally new understanding of the sound performances that accompanied film projections during cinema’s first three decades. Below is a series of bullet points covering the main benefits of this attractive volume.

Refusal to Accept Received Wisdom

Throughout the twentieth century, treatises on film music invariably began with a tip of the hat to silent film music, usually bolstered by references to a few privileged forerunners, including John Huntley, Kurt London, Rachael Low, and Roger Manvell. With few exceptions, writers took it for granted that existing notions of silent film music practices were adequate to the task at hand. They confidently used expressions like ‘accompaniment’ and ‘suitable music’ as if the current meaning of these words were exactly the same as when these terms were used by early practitioners. The fifteen authors whose contributions make up SSB take a totally different path. They insist on blazing their own trail through the forest of silent film sound.

Reading ‘through’ the Language of Contemporaries

Once upon a time, the process of reading early cinema journals seemed entirely [End Page 93] uncomplicated. We had no trouble understanding familiar terms like ‘music’, ‘dance’, ‘orchestra’, and ‘accompaniment’. Known to everyone, these easily recognisable expressions apparently make it easy to read period documents. Yet, as anyone who has ever done research in this field has discovered, the very obviousness of the meaning of these expressions turns out to constitute the greatest trap possible. The more the words look familiar, the more we are likely to conclude that their meanings are familiar as well. Fortunately, the authors of SSB have by and large avoided this pitfall. Again and again, what we get from them is not a reminder of what the ancients opined, but well-documented attempts to produce a modern approach to silent film sound.

Distinction between Critics’ Notions of ‘Best Practices’ and the Reality of Actual Practices

One of the trickiest problems confronting today’s historians lies in the disparity between earlier critics’ exhortations to accompany films in a particular manner and the practices actually adopted by contemporary musicians. As Brown and Davison point out in their useful ‘Overture’ to the volume, ‘some trade paper reporting might also more usefully be viewed as idealization than as a direct representation of what was heard in cinemas’ (7). Throughout SSB, care is taken to heed Brown and Davison’s warning, as in Judith Buchanan’s well-titled ‘“Now where were we?”: Ideal and Actual Early Cinema Lecturing Practices in Britain, Germany and the United States’. What contemporaries represent as ‘best practices’ are repeatedly weighed against reports of actual practice.

Recognition of Regional, Generic, and Chronological Variation

Not so very long ago, the tendency was to seek general statements regarding a wide range of practices. We would regularly read that ‘silent films’ were accompanied in a particular way, with little consideration of the differences between British, Continental, and American approaches, with little concern for the disparity between city and country standards, and with virtually no recognition of changes over time. Among the many important characteristics of SSB is an overwhelming...


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