It doesn’t matter if it’s low background music or a specially written score I need music to get into a silent film. If there is no sound I feel disengaged, locked out like there’s a glass wall between the film and me and I can’t get in. With music in my ears the wall is gone I can get in. I’ve managed to get into films with dreadful scores but never with silence oddly enough. Henri Langlois didn’t like silent films to be shown with musical accompaniment as he wanted others to focus on the techniques but that’s not what I want from a silent, sounds too much like homework. The Cinémathèque Française today carrying on from Langlois aren’t keen on music either feeling it would be a pastiche which is very respectful but can’t be much fun.
If silent film is an awake dream, I think a soundtrack supports this state, as being surrounded by music is a modern developement & is therefore unreal.
A good soundtrack can enhance a scene but what to do if a silent film is really just that? Outside of the Cinémathèque Française at home there are choices. initially not finding any helpful information I made a compilation of classical music instrumentals. I can’t stand silents that have soundtracks of people singing or dialogue, fair enough if it is integral to the plot i.e. ‘Lonesome’ or was on the original soundtrack anyway e.g ‘The Man Who Laughs’. Not only do I find singing distracting from the action on-screen but I also get suspicious the soundtracker is trying to impose some meaning they think I should think. And that really gets on my wick. O.K. so putting on a sad score over a tragic scene is trying to make the audience think in a certain way, but it’s much more tolerable.
Going back to the classical compilation while I found it good for deadly serious scenes, it would kill a comedy scene stone dead. Unhappily I was back to square one until I found a solution. The music I listen to while watching a silent is krautrock in the form of Soul Jazz’s ‘Deutsche Elektronische Musik’. Out of a 2 CD set there’s about 70 min of instrumentals. A few of the tracks have a motorik beat which was ideal for listening to when viewing ‘Tih Minh’ with it’s car chases. The more atmospheric tracks can be surprisingly effective when they co-incide with the on-screen action, ‘Rhenita’ by La Dusseldorf being a favourite. By a process of repetition, I’ve become used to the germans doing their stuff in my ears and ‘Deutsche Elektronische Musik’ has become background music to film watching. It shuts the real world out & lets me back into the silent’s world.
I’ve been trying to branch out musically from this base. ‘Musik Von Harmonia’ by Harmonia is a good album but as a whole it doesn’t work for silents. The scary track didn’t even work on ‘The Cat & The Canary’(1927). Next stop: Tangerine Dream.