Sound effects in early cinema

In today’s Toronto Star, I interviewed Toronto-based turntablist duo iNSIDEaMIND on their upcoming project, Sherlock Jr. in Concert, which they’ll perform on Monday, February 21 at Bell Lightbox. Two turntables, effects processors and samplers will replace the pianos, organs or orchestras normally used to accompany Buster Keaton’s surrealist Sherlock Jr.

During the interview, the “phonograph alchemists,” Cheldon Patterson and Erik Laar, spoke highly of both Keaton’s talents as a filmmaker as well as the rich, sparse palette offered by the silent visuals when creating an ambience-driven soundscape using beats and samples.

What’s interesting about iNSIDEaMIND’s project is that although it’s blending old and new technologies, the use of samples  — a term used loosely in the following examples — isn’t altogether new territory to silent cinema. Even before the arrival of  fully orchestrated scores, latter-day samples — basic sound effects, if you will — have been in use since the dawn of flickering images.

Lecturers who traveled with films often provided non-musical sounds during screenings. Robert Gutteridge’s book Magic Moments refers to a 1933 Toronto Star interview looking back at one of the Lumiere Cinematographe’s first Toronto appearances in 1896: “Whenever the blacksmith on the screen struck the picture anvil, down came the backstage hammer on a real anvil.”

An essay by Charles Keill and Marta Braun in The Sounds of Early Cinema collection points that American traveling showman “Lymon Howe’s show, replete with sound effects, made stops in Toronto in 1909, followed by numerous others in subsequent years.”

Then of course are the mighty theatre organs and unit orchestras made popular by Robert Hope-Jones and Wurlitzer which arrived in Toronto in the early 1910s. Although they could re-create the sounds of an entire orchestra, they could also made several sound effects: honking cars, chirping birds, whistles for cops and umpires —  baseball movies were really popular in the silent era. On April 28, 1924, the sounds of a Warren organ filled the auditorium of the Loew’s Yonge St. theatre when Sherlock Jr. made its Toronto premiere.

Not sure how many whistles will go off on Monday for iNSIDEaMIND’s performance, but whether you’re an aficionado or new to silents, you’re bound to hear something original and worthy of Keaton’s film.

Thanks to Gordon McLeod of the TTOC for his insight on the Loew’s theatre organ.

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