Honestly, there's no such thing as silent film. Have you ever put film into a reel-to-reel projector? They make so much noise.
The things we know as silent films are only called that because audio had to be provided in real-time. The media technologists of the early 20th century just hadn't got synchronized sound figured out yet — not that they should've hurried.
The first establishment dedicated to the exhibition of motion pictures opened in the election year before the McKinley administration, on Canal Street, during a summer that was hot enough to kill people. It didn't take long before the plain novelty of animated photographs was no longer enough to satisfy a crowd's appetite for entertainment. Musicians — who always need work — started getting work.
Theaters contracted piano, organ or orchestra players to accompany the films. The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company developed a line of awesome-looking movie theatre organs. A new genre of composition emerged to satisfy the booming multimedia demand.
And then, in the late '20s, the sync sound dream of a jackbooted engineering tyrant came job-killingly true for instrumentalists worldwide.
The Fox Film Corporation gave us Movietone — optical analog sound decoded through the projection machine — and movie house owners rejoiced! "We can lay off the musicians, now!" they shouted. Live scored films began creeping toward extinction.
As it turns out, though, live scoring never fully died. This Sunday, September 9, Austin instrumental ensemble My Education bring an acclaimed and road-tested rescoring of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans to the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.
Sunrise is a love story with a sinister twist that won three times at the very first Academy Awards. My Education is a musical group of talented people that features strings, guitars, vibes, drums, keys and other sounds. The combination of the two has been rattling unsuspecting hearts in their cages since even before the act went national in June 2010.
Although the band admits that they chose to rescore Sunrise because "all the other good silent films were taken" (Austin artists have a history of this sort of thing), there's something appropriate about bringing a mindful and deliberate live orchestra composition to bear on this film in particular.
Sunrise was, the story goes, one of the first films distributed with Movietone sound. It was part of the first wave of invasive technologies that pushed live-score film underground in the entertainment ecosystem.
It's a history lesson, a live music show, a classic film and a singular experience of the theater, all packed into a concentrated 94-minute dose. A founding member of the sound-on-film club, taken off record and moved into the orchestra pit! A band that's been active in Austin longer than most of you have lived here! Feel free to miss this if you don't like enjoying yourself.