Based on extensive original research and filled with gorgeous illustrations, Silent Film Sound reconsiders all aspects of sound practices during the silent film period in America. Beginning with sound accompaniment and continuing through to the more familiar sound practices of the 1920s, renowned film historian Rick Altman discusses the variety of sound strategies cinema exhibitors used to differentiate their products. During the nickelodeon period prior to 1910, this variety reached its zenith with carnival-like music, automatic pianos, small orchestras, lecturers, synchronized sound systems, and voices behind the screen. In the 1910s, musical accompaniment began to support a film's narrative and emotional content, with large theaters and blockbuster productions driving the development of new instruments, new music-publication projects, and a new style of film music. A monumental achievement, Silent Film Sound challenges common assumptions about this period and reveals the complex and swiftly changing nature of silent American cinema.
It is axiomatic that silent films were never really silent. But anyone who thinks that the totality of their sound was a tinkling piano will be proved wrong by Altman (cinema & comparative literature, Univ. of Iowa). His weighty and ambitious purpose is to "develop a new history of American cinema reconfigured through sound." Altman prefaces his text with an overview of the increasing presence of mechanically produced sounds in the human environment of the latter half of the 19th century. He then explains that before the development of film, pictures were projected on a screen via lantern slides and other mechanisms and were often accompanied by live speakers and music. As early as the 1880s, various efforts were made to synchronize sound and image, including rudimentary methods like placing actors behind the screen and failed systems like the tongue-twisting Phonocinematophone. Altman offers an extensive discussion of the music played with films, whether randomly selected or specially composed; the orchestras and even the types of instruments used in theaters; and a very useful history of the development of the nickelodeon. Altman may not have fully accomplished his goal, but this thoroughly researched and copiously illustrated book is recommended for large libraries and all cinema collections.-Roy Liebman, California State Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.