Musical Accompaniment

Source: Dorothy Richardson, extract from ‘Continuous Performance II: Musical Accompaniment’, Close Up vol. I no. 2, August 1927, pp. 58-62

Text: Our first musician was a pianist who sat in the gloom beyond the barrier and played without notes. His playing was a continuous improvisation varying in tone and tempo according to what was going forward on the screen. During the earlier part of the evening he would sometimes sing. He would sing to the sailing by of French chateaux, sotto voce, in harmony with the gently flowing undertone that moved so easily from major to minor and from key to key. His singing seemed what probably it was, a spontaneous meditative appreciation of things seen. For the Gazette he had martial airs, waltzes for aeroplanes. Jigs accompanied the comic interludes and devour low-toned nocturnes the newest creations of fashion. For drama he usually had a leitmotif, borrowed or invented, set within his pattern of sound moving suitably from pianissimo to fortissimo. He could time a passage to culminate and break punctually on a staccato chord at a crisis. This is a crude example of his talent for spontaneous adaptation. As long as he remained with us music and picture were one. If the film were good he enhanced it, heightened its effect of action moving forward for the first time. If it were anything from bad to worst his music helped the onlooker to escape into incidentals and thence into his private world of meditation or of thought.

The little palace prospered and the management grew ambitious. Monthly programmes were issued, refreshments were cried up and down the gangways and perfumed disinfectants squirted ostentatiously over the empty spaces. The pianist vanished and the musical accompaniment became a miniature orchestra, conspicuous in dress clothes and with lights and music stands and scores between the audience and the screen, playing set pieces, for each scene a piece. At each change of scene one tune would give place to another, in a different key, usually by means of a tangle of discords. The total result of these efforts towards improvement was a destruction of the relationship between onlookers and film. With the old unity gone the audience grew disorderly. Talking increased. Prosperity waned. Much advertisement of ‘west-end successes’ pulled things together for a while during which the management aimed still higher. An evening came when in place of the limping duet of violin and piano, several instruments held together by some kind of conducting produced sprightly and harmonious effects. At half-time the screen was curtained leaving the musician’s pit in a semi-darkness where presently wavered a green spot-light that came to rest upon the figure of a handsome young Jew dramatically fronting the audience with violin poised for action. Fireworks. Applause. After which the performance was allowed to proceed. Within a month the attendance was reduced to a scattered few and in due course the hall was ‘closed for decorations’, to reopen some months later ‘under entirely new management’, undecorated and with the old pianist restored to his place. The audience drifted back.

But during the interregnum, and whilst concerted musical efforts were doing their worst, an incident occurred that convinced me that any kind of musical noise is better than none. Our orchestra failed to appear and the pictures moved silently by, life less and colourless, to the sound of intermittent talking and the continuous faint hiss and creak of the apparatus. The result seemed to justify the curses of the most ardent enemies of the cinema and I understood at last what they mean who declare that dramatic action in photograph is obscene because it makes no personal demand upon the onlooker. It occurred to me to wonder how man of these enemies are persons indifferent to music and those to whom music of any kind is a positive nuisance.

If ever films are made to sound, if not only the actors but the properties, street traffic, cooking-stoves and cataracts are given voices as are already in some cinemas the bombs and thunderstorms falling upon the dumb players, musical accompaniment will be superfluous whether as a cover for the sounds from the operator’s gallery and the talking of the audience, or as a help to the concentration that is essential to collaboration between the onlooker and what he sees. For the present music is needed and generally liked even by those who are not aware that it helps them to create the film and gives the film both colour and sound. In our small palace we object to any sound coming from the screen. We dislike even the realistic pistol-shot that was heard once or twice during our period of great ambitions. With the help of the puff of smoke and our pianist’s staccato chord we can manufacture our own reality.

And since the necessary stillness and concentration depend in part upon the undisturbed continuity of surrounding conditions, the musical accompaniment should be both continuous and flexible. By whatever means, the aim is to unify. If film and music proceed at cross purposes the audience is distracted by a half-conscious effort to unite them. The doings of an orchestra that is an entertainment in itself go far in destroying the entertainment one came forth to seek. I saw in Switzerland a number of films whose captions were in columns and bi-lingual and whose appearance was the signal for a chorus of linguists making translations for the benefit of less gifted friends. But the strife of tongues on and off the screen was less disturbing than the innocent doings of the orchestra which opened proceedings before the lights were lowered with a sprightly march and went into the darkness with it and played it until the end of the reel, which had shown us a midnight murder on a moor, and then became visible, lights up, cheerily playing yet another martial air. They continued throughout the performance, vanishing and reappearing and playing, regardless of what might be going forward upon the screen, “band music” with a perfect mechanical precision.

But orchestral music, whether at its worst or at its best is unsuited to any but the largest halls where perhaps, though a concert grand can supply all needs, an orchestra, that has rehearsed, with the film, music written or arranged for that film until the two are one, is the ideal. Short of that the single player at his best is not to be beaten.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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