We might call movies made before the advent of the talkies in 1927 silent films—but for the audience, they were certainly not silent. Live orchestras and solo instrumentalists accompanied early movies, adding evocative music drawn from pre-existent and newly composed sources.
Kendra Preston Leonard, author of Music for the Kingdom of Shadows: Cinema Accompaniment in the Age of Spiritualism
(Humanities Commons, 2010) examines the music and musicians that accompanied silent movies that she calls “spirit films” and along the way finds unexpected connections between film accompanists, mediums, and Spiritualism.
A “spirit film”—unlike a horror movie—is a film that features the appearance of spirit or ghost who tries to warn the living of, or protect them from, a dangerous circumstance, often caused by business the spirit left unfinished at their death.
White middle-class women were regularly employed as film accompanists and mediums, their gender and race contributing to the respectability of both Spiritualism and the cinema. Leonard documents that the music for these early films was influenced by sounds used by mediums during séances and those sonic signifiers continue to appear in film scores even today.
Despite publishing four books and numerous essays in collected editions with conventional presses, Leonard chose to publish Music for the Kingdom of Shadows
as an open-access book through Humanities Commons using a robust peer review process in order to increase the availability of her work.
Kendra Preston Leonard
is an independent musicologist and music theorist. She is the founder and executive Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive. The author of five books, she has also received numerous fellowships including from the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music. Her work centers on music and screen history, and women and music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.