Sounding Silents – 2023 & 2024

What does Asta Nielsen’s gaucho dance or Valdemar Psilander’s fatal horseback leap in 'The Great Circus Catastrophe' (1912) sound like? How do you create a soundscape to accompany a Mars landing in a science fiction film from 1918? A collaboration with two music conservatories will deliver brand new sound for Danish silent films.

Lisbeth Richter Larsen, Editor | 11 March 2024

It can be challenging to watch old films with no sound, whether you’re in a cinema or on the sofa at home. However, these films were never actually intended to be watched without sound. 

The cinema experience of silent films

In the 1910s and 1920s, the ‘music’ was provided by the cinema to accompany the action, whether it was a comic farce or a grandiose drama. Film screenings were most often at least accompanied by a piano, but in the larger ‘film theatres’ with plush seats, restaurants and dog-sitting services available, the audience got the ultimate musical experience. At Copenhagen’s Palads cinema, which could accommodate 2,500 guests, in the early 1920s it was Jacob Gade (yes, the one with ‘Tango Jalousie’) who was hired as conductor of a full 30-piece orchestra. So, everything from score music to piano improvisations or playing an old, worn-out accordion was part of the film experience – all depending on where in the country you watched a film. On top of that, members of the audience in the silent film era often contributed to the soundscape themselves with shouting, shushes and applause while the film played across the screen. Historically speaking, silent film was a relatively noisy phenomenon. So, why not make that tradition a bit more up-to-date?

Sounding Silents – creating soundtracks for silent films

Since 2022, young music students have taken to composing new music and sound for Danish silent films. This is a collaboration between Danish Silent Film, the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, and the Danish National Academy of Music. Over the course of a semester, music students create their own personal take on soundtracks for a number of silent films. The results, Sounding Silents, can now be seen – and heard – here at Danish Silent Film.

Music students visiting the Film Institute's archive in Glostrup (2022).

The students start their term with a visit to the Danish Film Institute’s archive in Glostrup, where they are introduced to the first silent decades of film history and encounter the old film rolls on the archive shelves. The fact that live pictures which we stream digitally today originally consisted of tens of thousands of frames on kilometre-long strips helps set the stage for the creative process of creating music and sound. 

The creative process

The greatest challenge for the composers is that the possibilities are endless. Several young students have expressed this in interviews about the project. There’s no living director to collaborate with on a supporting concept for the overall expression. The composers have to start from scratch and make every decision themselves in terms of the mood, instrumentation, and style.

Some students improvise together with other musicians and then refine the best ideas. Others use instrumentation as a gateway to the creative process. That’s why various soundtracks come in a wide range of forms, with everything from the subsonic Hammond organ sound over Norwegian “Billy Goat Horn” and pedal steel guitar to pizzicato on the violin.

Experience a selection of silent films with new soundscapes – enjoy Sounding Silents!

Lisbeth Richter Larsen, Editor | 11 March 2024

Sounding Silents

Music students on Sounding Silents

About Sounding Silents

A teaching collaboration between the Danish Film Institute, the Rhythmic Music Conservatory and the Danish National Academy of Music on composing music and sound for Danish silent films.

The course runs for one semester and includes an introduction to silent film at the Danish Film Institute, as well as a teaching course at the conservatory.

The films will be shown at Cinemateket’s annual silent film festival, which takes place in January/February.

Watch and listen to all the films here.