Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Sound of Silent Film in Spain: Heterogeneity and Homeopatía Escénica

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Sound of Silent Film in Spain: Heterogeneity and Homeopatía Escénica

Article excerpt

In recent years there has been considerable growth in research into music and film in Spain. However, one of the least studied aspects is the treatment of sound in general and music in particular during the socalled silent era. The period from the onset of cinema to the advent of the talkies at the end of the 1920s has only been subject to systematic research for a few years, leaving much still to be done. In Chapter 1 of Julio Pérez Perrucha's Historia del cine español, titled 'Narración de un aciago destino (1896-1930)', the author gives an account of the circumstances and limitations of research into the silent era in Spain. Apart from the lack of sources, Pérez Perrucha alludes to a historiographical problem. New methodological approaches, even leading to an epistemological rupture, were applied to historical studies of national filmmaking during the late twentieth century, taking into account issues including reception, aspects of local history, and new perspectives in the textual analysis of film. This change was possible as a result of the existence of an enormous amount of prior historiographical work, facilitating new interpretations and approaches. However, in terms of historiography, Spain is lagging behind other countries, with large voids that have been, or are gradually being, filled. It was not until 1995, for example, that a global history of Spanish film was published with the objective, as Román Gubern states in the prologue, of being organic and methodologically coherent. Work on the encyclopaedic Diccionario del cine iberoamericano (backed by the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, SGAE) is still in progress and will undoubtedly help to fill these gaps. Researchers of Spanish film have thus had to embark upon the tasks of registering, cataloguing and describing existing sources while simultaneously analysing and interpreting these new methodological trends.

Research into the forms of silent film accompaniment entails delving into a confused area with many restrictions due to the lack of sources. It is difficult to reconstruct the sound of film screenings because the elements used have disappeared, due to the poor opinion that was held of this form of entertainment. It must be remembered that until at least the 1920s, silent film accompaniment was the exhibitors' responsibility and was not part of the film itself, as occurred when the soundtrack became incorporated in the film itself. Scores, notes made by music accompanists, objects used to make noise, records or cylinders that were synchronised with the images, have all disappeared over time.

This problem is not exclusive to Spain. Rick Altman points out that due to a lack of knowledge about this period, a number of clichés have been created and widely repeated. Nevertheless, recent studies have demonstrated their inaccuracy or falseness (Altman 2004: 9-11). General histories have treated the use of sound during the years between the earliest film screenings and the birth of the talkies as a homogeneous phenomenon bearing similar characteristics throughout its evolution. They usually begin by referring to the presence of piano accompaniment during the Lumière brothers' screenings at the Grand Café Capucines in Paris and go straight on to consider the types of silent film accompaniment used during the 1920s, barely stopping to consider the late nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth.

However, Altman emphasises the heterogeneity of the silent era in contrast to the homogeneity with which it has been presented. There was no universal model of silent film accompaniment; distinctions must be made between different practices in different countries, and even in different regions of one country. Ultimately, while this was considered a few decades ago to be a unitary period with regard to silent film accompaniment, today this hypothesis is difficult to justify. The distinction Noël Burch has made between 'primitive' and 'institutional' modes of representation (1987: 17), and Tom Gunning's characterisation of 'the cinema of attractions' (1983), have helped us to comprehend a richer and more complex phenomenon. …

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