'Silent' film ... sounds like music to our ears
Before the emergence of the sound film, from 1895 to the 1930s, "silent" films shaped the visual grammar of cinema for the first time. CINEMATEK takes a specific and consistent approach to screening 'silent' films: our talented pianists improvise on the spot to accompany the film images.
A film with piano accompaniment is not only an experience for the connoisseur or a fan of piano music, our approach and programme are completely unique in the world. For Belgians as well as for international visitors, it is a revelation to experience an authentic projection of a "silent" film from our diverse collection with live piano improvisation.
Cinema, even in its early days, was rarely "silent": it was certainly wordless, but not soundless: the projection of a film was accompanied by sound effects, commentaries by jesters or even music with piano or orchestra. In fact, the idea of combining sound and image dates back to the early days of cinema. But several technical problems had to be solved (sound/image synchronisation, amplification and sound quality) before a soundtrack could be produced. Talkies itself developed at the end of the 1920s, with sound laid out on the film, a format that was to become a standard.
Some directors add sound to a once silent film, to bring it back to life (such as Chaplin's Gold Rush, which exists in both silent and sound versions). In 2013, this is a common practice for screening silent films. However, it is not the only option, as some film libraries feel that too much is being done to the original material.
As said before, in the early days of film, in the so-called 'dream palaces', the film projections were accompanied by sound effects, by a commentator or presenter (like the Japanese benshi) or by musical accompaniment with piano, and sometimes even a real orchestra.
So there were and are many possibilities to present silent films:
1. Absolute silence
At the time, this option already had many supporters. But... the choice for silence that we see in films today has nothing to do with how it was in cinemas back then. Music had a functional reason: firstly, by contributing to the spectacle (at the opening, the interludes or the accompaniment of the film) but also, and above all, by covering the disturbing sounds of the projector and the auditorium. Watching an old film without music is a big challenge for people today. You can try this out by watching some silent films on our Youtube channel.
Under #cinematekbecreative we therefore offer the same film in silence and with a number of different soundtracks. Those who feel like it may still send us their own version!
2. An interpretation of the historical score that accompanies the film
Cineastes sometimes left very clear instructions about the musical accompaniment of their films. Some film historians & musicologists are fervent believers of this option. It would offer viewers an authentic look back at the compositions of the time. Unfortunately, such expensive and time-consuming reconstructions remain extremely rare for the time being.
3. Creating a contemporary film soundtrack
A festival, a retrospective, an anniversary, a restoration... These are all occasions when the talent of a renowned composer can be called upon and a new score can be written.
Some cinephiles and fans of the historical approach fiercely criticise this anachronism. Musicologists or melomaniacs, on the other hand, reject the stereotypical nature of option two. But a new soundtrack can change our outlook, reanimate a film or even emphasise its timeless character!
For the DVD Belgian Avant-Garde we asked avant-garde composers to create such soundtracks. On our Youtube Channel you can find an example: La Perle with soundtrack by Mireille Capelle.
Hughes Maréchal composed new music for the documentary about Marquis De Wavrin and accompanying silent films.
4. Selection of a number of contemporary or classical pieces
One chooses a number of pieces of music according to the film screening. At the time of the silent film, when no score was written for the film, this was done more often. In this way, it is a bit like a historical reconstruction, but this option carries some risks: one can quickly come across as inadequate, excessive or artificial. Moreover, existing pieces often have their own context of origin and their own character traits that do not always serve the moving image.
CINEMATEK goes for improvisation
Pure improvisation is what happens when the musician has never seen the film before and he or she, together with the audience, is shown the images for the first time. This can be risky, but it is also very exciting for a pianist. Since the cinephile accompanists often know the films - or at least prepare themselves by reading the themes of the film or the leitmotifs beforehand - it is more a case of semi-improvisation than pure improvisation.
In short, it is quite an art! The pianist addresses a different audience each time and has to adapt to an ever-changing context. As with all film music, improvisation must be both efficient and discreet.
Discreet, because a film score should not be listened to, it should merely be heard.
Efficient, because it must be in harmony with the rhythm and the ideas of the film. The pianist builds a bridge, as it were, between the film and the audience.
CINEMATEK opts for improvisation.
We are one of the few venues in the world where, combined with live music accompaniment, you can get such a unique and constant supply of silent films. 7 pianists take turns almost every day to be able to offer such performances: Alain Baents, François Chamaraux, Hughes Maréchal, Hilde Nash, Stéphane Orlando, Noah Vanden Abeele and Jean-Luc Plouvier. They provide the eventful character of highly dynamic film screenings.
The images are brought back to life on the silver screen - sometimes 100 years after the event.
SILENT FILMS STILL INSPIRE CONTEMPORARY FILM
Sound film did not develop fully until the late 1920s, when major American studios signed up for the Sound on Film system, where the sound that accompanies an image is recorded on the photographic film and sometimes on the pellicle itself. This technique later became the norm.
In addition, the conversion processes of cinema theatres around the world also played a role in the development of sound film.
The talkies, films in which people spoke, conquered the film world from the very beginning.
Some filmmakers composed music and sound themselves afterwards to add to their work, as Chaplin did with The Gold Rush.
Throughout film history, filmmakers will regularly reinterpret the typical aesthetics of silent films. Think of Andrew Stanton's Wall-E from 2008, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist from 2011 or Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck from 2017.
We show the magic of "silent film" in our family programmes as well as in our offer for adults.