Sound of Silents

by Divya Murthy

March 12, 2018

Sound recording historian Philip C. Carli takes students on a journey through the film-going and musical experiences of the early 20th century

A photo of Philip C. Carli
Sound historian Philip C. Carli spoke at Syracuse University on Feb. 7, 2018 Saniya More

Fusing musical history with image and sound, Philip C. Carli, sound recording historian and film scholar, detailed the history of silent film music and sound recording technology of the early 20th century in a recent lecture at Syracuse University. The lecture was presented by the College of Arts & Sciences, Visual and Performing Arts, and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

“I’m at heart a cultural historian, not just a musicologist,” he said. “I approach almost everything I do or have had an interest in since childhood from a historical viewpoint.”

Carli has been watching silent films since he was five, began playing the piano at six and was playing in bands and orchestras and accompanying singers and instrumentalists by the time he was 13, he said. He also assembled and conducted a 50-piece orchestra when he was in college.

“Watching lots of films, old and new, all these things started coalescing with my interest in silent film,” he said. “A melancholic curiosity about the experience of a film pushed me to read, learn and hear more until I felt comfortable musically partnering silent films.”

Today, Carli is in residence at the Rochester-based Eastman Museum, where he lectures and plays the piano for silent film screenings. He has also toured extensively, playing at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art and the Lincoln Center.

Prior to his evening lecture at Syracuse, Carli led a workshop for students in the Department of Art and Music Histories in the College of Arts and Sciences, who had the opportunity to see him provide live musical accompaniment to a film.

According to Carli, theater orchestras, movie palaces and opera houses were important for the records of the early 20th century. These were the places that people first heard cinema music that went on to be recorded and played in their homes. The growing number of these recordings in people’s homes reflected the respect for and fascination with film music at the time, he said.

The acoustic recording of concert musicians involved putting the musicians before large horns and using sonic force to press records, Carli said. This was particularly hard for orchestra ensembles, the individual members of which would have to be almost stacked on top of each other for their instruments to be recorded, he said.

Carli’s presentation mixed old photos of museums and records with snapshots of theater houses and orchestra halls. Ensembles in the 1920s and 1930s also experimented with violins, organs, cellos and Stroh violas, which had horns and metal resonators to mechanically amplify sound (useful during the time of phonographic recording). Carli also played samples of early 20th century recordings, giving the attendees a sense of what sound recording of orchestras was like at the time, from scratchy records of orchestral symphonies to melodious film music like the track, “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time” from the 1928 silent film “Lilac Time.” 

The first recordings Carli played were made with musicians huddled around early phonographs. The last few were actual concert performances recorded with microphonic experiments linking telephone and radio lines in the late 1920s.

“These recordings demonstrate the very high level of musicianship and expressivity delivered by the best cinema musicians accompanying silent films,” he said. By coupling image and music, Carli said he hoped to show the flexibility and nuance that the musicians displayed over a century ago.

“With care, their influence will continue,” he said.

Divya Murthy is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.