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Formal experiments in silent film music: reading early abstract film texts as musical scores

posted on 2023-06-21, 06:02 authored by Tom Reid
Many abstract (non-narrative, non-representational) films from the silent era claim an analogy with music. My hypothesis is that their spatio-temporal characteristics are systematically modelled after musical processes and forms. I have sought to explore this phenomenon through practice, by composing music to a selection of films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann and Ralph Steiner. All but one of the chosen works are animations. All of them reject montage, in favour of spatial subdivisions and a polyphony of visual elements. During my research I developed a method for interrogating the films musically. I begin each piece by treating the visual patterns as a set of instructions or ‘score’, which I ‘perform’ by composing a fragmentary single line of music. This very close, imitative reading then becomes the structural bedrock and material basis for a multifaceted, polyphonic musical response. The finished pieces seek to illuminate detail and articulate structure, for example through shadowing, punctuation and temporal partitioning. However, there are also layers which exaggerate visual gestures, superimpose additional rhythmic complexity and move at their own pace. Engaging with the film texts in this way stimulated a rethinking and reinvention of my compositional language. Over the course of the PhD I gradually move away from a style dominated by repeating patterns, block chords and harmonic superimpositions. Instead, pulsating rhythmic and melodic elements are layered at different speeds, resulting in temporal ambiguities and collisions. Pitch centres remain important, strengthening musical unity and directionality. However, there is an increased concern with melodic variation and fragmentation. The Portfolio consists of five musical scores for silent film and two concert pieces. The Commentary begins with a discussion on silent film re-scoring; this first section also offers a historical account of the 1920s artists' avant-garde cinema and its aesthetic origins. In later chapters, each piece in the Portfolio is reflected on and analysed. In summary, then, the research questions being pursued in the Portfolio are as follows: 1) How far are the spatio-temporal characteristics of early abstract films systematically modelled after musical processes and forms? 2) Can I develop a method for interrogating the films musically, by reading them as 'scores'? 3) How might close, analytical engagement with the structural and behavioural aspects of the film texts stimulate a rethinking and reinvention of my compositional language?


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  • Music Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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