How It All Started: A Message from Paul Merkley

This large and growing project on music performed in Canada in the silent-film era began when I was browsing in the collections of Library and Archives Canada, looking for examples of music performed with the showing of silent films in Canada, to go into a text book I was writing.  When a staff member, who happened to be an alumnus, heard of my search, he contacted me to say that the Archives had in its possession a number of boxes of uncatalogued, uninventoried music of unknown provenance, but known to have been used for the accompaniment of silent films in central Canada. He asked if the Music Library of the University of Ottawa would wish to take the boxes off their hands. The librarian, Debra Begg MA, and I agreed immediately.

The first surprise was that the preponderance of the music was orchestral. The boxes also included seven cue sheets: lists of cues, with brief musical incipits, marked with specific durations (e.g. one minute, fifteen seconds) keyed to specific spots in the film. Some of the studios at the time, Loews, for example, maintained a music department, and exercised control over the exact music to be performed (and the precise timing of it) in the films it released, by circulating cue sheets with the films.  Shana Anderson started with these cue sheets, and wrote her MA thesis, largely on the theories and practices of music department head Ernest Luz, whose colour-coding scheme  of cues was manifest in our collection, along with other indications on the music implying the use of cue sheets.

A research seminar followed soon afterwards, for which Roxanne Lafleur created a group account and customized RefWorks, into which the students entered information on each musical item, including markings and stamps.  The ownership stamps proved particularly fruitful. Students identified the leaders of silent film orchestras, and in some cases they found and interviewed descendants.  These interviews provided detailed insight into practices, such as the role of the “relief pianist” and the overlap between these small orchestras and other ensembles, such as military bands. The seminar culiminated in a showing and live musical performance of The Cat and the Canary, the music following the cue sheet for that film and taken from the music of the collection.

As the tools of digital humanities evolved, it became desireable to translate the data base into new software, Shared Shelf, prepatory to publication on an Omeka site. Roxanne Lafleur brought her expertise to bear on this task, and Elsa Marshall, working as a research assistant and doing her own research, edited and emended individual entries as needed. , and used the database as a springboard for her MA thesis on the practice of music for silent film in two Ottawa theatres. She was the first to contribute content to this Omeka site for the practices of Ottawa.

The grandson of one of the orchestra leaders donated his father’s music to the collection. Carolyne Sumner began research on that material, and thus the project took on a new diachronic scope. Concerning the spreading of the geographic scope, see the “about” section of The Hamilton Collection section.

As the originator (or instigator) of the work in the manner explained above, I can only marvel at the growth of the project and the achievements of individual members of the team. Clearly much gathers more.

Paul Merkley, Professor Emeritus, School of Music, University of Ottawa, 12 December 2017