October Features Silent Film with Live Music

Once again, Cornell Cinema teams up with the Wharton Studio Museum for October’s Silent Movie Month in Ithaca, beginning with a showing this Sunday October 1 of The Toll of the Sea accompanied by the Cloud Chamber Orchestra.

The reality of “silent” film is that it was never projected in silence. In the 30 years leading up to synchronized sound on film, almost every film was accompanied by anything from a pianist to a symphony orchestra. Most prevalent may have been the great theatre organists.

As Jesse Pierce writes for Rochester’s Eastman Museum:

“The presentation of a silent film is generally not complete without a musical accompaniment, whether piano, organ, or orchestra of varying size.  As modes of presentation became more standardized from the aughts to the early teens, demand grew for music that would easily synchronize with the images on screen.  Publishers were quick to recruit composers to meet this demand.  From 1913 through the end of the silent era in 1929, many thousands of compositions were written on both sides of the Atlantic to suit different emotions, moods, and scenes.  Much less common, though not unusual was for films to have a complete composed score, rather than a score compiled of pre-existing pieces.”

Early directors of silents who commissioned special scores for their films include D.W. Griffiths (Way Down East, 1920) and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924).

The creation and live performance of brand-new accompaniment has gained popularity over the past decades, a film going experience that Cornell Cinema has offered since the early 1980s.

This semester we bring back three guest ensembles for special Live Music & Silent Film events, two in tandem with our series From Silent Film Star to American Icon: Celebrating Anna May Wong.

On October 1, join us for the great early Technicolor silent, The Toll of the Sea (1922, dir. Chester M. Franklin, featuring the first Asian-American film star, Anna May Wong.

A 35mm restoration print from UCLA will be accompanied by Cloud Chamber Orchestra, featuring local musicians Robby Aceto, Peter Dodge, and Chris White, who have been long served as the ‘house’ orchestra for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) and for the Wharton Studio Museum’s annual Silent Movies Under the Stars at Taughannock Park.

In 2014, when Cornell Cinema featured Cloud Chamber Orchestra accompanying Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) at Sage Chapel, the Ithacan wrote: 

“The sophisticated musicians bring the idea of ambient soundscapes to a whole new level. With Robby Aceto on guitar and electronics, Chris White on cello and electronics and Peter Dodge on trumpet, piano, percussion and voice, Cloud Chamber Orchestra presents its out-of-this-world creations, effortlessly capturing the audience.”

On Wednesday, October 11 we return to Sage Chapel with a great horror silent, 1920’s German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Weine) accompanied by a perennial favorite, the Austin, TX-based band The Invincible Czars, who brought us F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) last fall.

The Invincible Czars began accompanying silent films at the original Alamo Drafthouse in Austin in 2006 with Aelita, Queen of Mars (1922) and continue adding titles to their catalog year after year. The band operates as a collective with a few core members and a rotating cast of additional members on any given project or tour.

Silent film pianist Donald Sosin last appeared at Cornell Cinema in Spring 2022 with acclaimed klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals to perform their score to The City Without Jews (1924, dir. H.K. Breslauer); on Sunday, October 29 he returns with his usual performing partner, Cornell alum Joanna Seaton to perform their live score to Peter Pan (1924, dir. Herbert Brennan) with Betty Bronson as Peter and Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily.

For twenty years, Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton have been among the only major performers in the US creating vocals as well as instrumentals for classic silent films and have won high praise from experts in the field, as well as enthusiastic supporters of all ages everywhere they appear.

Cornell Cinema’s Silent Movie Month events are presented in partnership with the Wharton Studio Museum and generously sponsored by La Tourelle Hotel, Bistro, and Spa.

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members of the Cloud Chamber Orchestra
Members of the Cloud Chamber Orchestra (L-R: Chris White, Peter Dodge and Robby Aceto)