The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain

Award Holder

Dr Julie Brown

Higher Education Institute

Department of Music, Royal Holloway, University of London

The first decades of film exhibition in the UK were characterized by flux and experimentation. Musical and sonic practices were often improvisatory, but always contingent upon the resources available, their stage of technological development, and the exhibition venue itself (music hall? fairground? theatre? purpose-built venue?). Elements of performativity and contingency continued well into the sound era; live musical performance long remained a key part of film exhibition in many cinemas.

This project will hold two conferences and two workshops as a means of consolidating research and practical activity on sound’s and music's roles as practised in the exhibition of early and 'silent' cinema in Britain. The first conference in June 2009 (with parallel film screenings with live accompaniment at London’s Barbican cinema) will address such questions as: What sonic and musical practices existed alongside the exhibition of early film in Britain? What are the potential sources for understanding these practices? What are their problems? How may we excavate them? What challenges does Britain face in the preservation of the existing historical legacy of these sonic and musical practices, instruments, equipment, and spaces, and what should take priority? Were distinctive musical practices pursued in Britain, compared to other countries? The second conference will focus more strongly on questions of performance and reception. How did sonic and musical practices in Britain compare to those elsewhere, and did practices vary according to county or region, rural versus urban setting, and exhibition context (e.g. fairground/purpose-built theatre)? What reasons exist for such differences? How was the understanding of silent films shaped by differing sonic practices? How can we assess the impact of these differences in performance practice on reception of the films? In what ways has the role of the performer changed even in historically conscious accompaniments to silent film presented today? How does the creation of contemporary live accompaniment affect the status and reception of early cinema in Britain? To what extent does the visual impact of a live performer affect modern understanding of silent film?

Arts & Humanities Research Council: Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. Arts and humanities researchers constitute nearly a quarter of all research-active staff in the higher education sector. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. See Arts & Humanities Research Council website.