Adam Fairhall

Jazz Thinking’ in the Accompaniment of Silent Comedy Film: Reflections on Practice-as-Research

Drawing on theories of cultural ‘codes’ and notions of dialogism in jazz, this paper will address the problems of devising new musical accompaniment for silent comedy, before proposing some personal solutions discovered during the author’s work on a piano accompaniment for the Buster Keaton film One Week (1920).

Practitioners of silent film accompaniment range from historical reconstructionists whose music attempts a fidelity to the practices of silent-era accompanists, to avant-garde artists whose music re-contextualises the images in a kind of critical dialogue. However, silent comedy raises a particular set of problems for both types of accompanist. If period sources are drawn upon in an act of historical reconstruction, the problem of cultural codes and the way they change over time is ignored; a piece of major-keyed ragtime, for example, may have seemed urbane or sophisticated in the silent-era but may mean something very different now, and providing music that may now be read as ‘corny’ or archaic potentially distances the film from the viewer, and risks denying the comedy the immediacy and impact of which it is capable. Alternatively, new music may have the potential to ‘reanimate film reception’ (Siomopoulos and Zimmermann, cited in Davis 2008: 77), and yet if the avant-garde concern with musical autonomy in film accompaniment (seen, for example, in musician Ken Vandermark’s lack of concern with ‘plinking and plonking along to the action’ when accompanying silent film [Anderson, 1997: 3])  is applied to silent comedy, the parallel narrative created by the music may distract from the visual comedy to the degree that the gags ‘fall flat’.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to draw upon a postmodern jazz piano aesthetic which allows references to disparate historical eras, and in which the potential for a sense of dialogue – between the music and the image, between contemporary codes and those of yesteryear, and between the creative personalities of the musician and the filmmakers – is already present. Jazz is often celebrated as a particularly dialogic music, in which spontaneity, play and performance is privileged, and, as such, ‘jazz thinking’ has provided a personal path towards a silent comedy accompaniment that aspires to be sympathetic and functional yet contemporary, playful and critical.


Davis, B. (2008) ‘Old Films, New Sounds: Screening Silent Cinema with Electronic Music’. Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 17 (2) pp. 77-98.

Anderson, T. (1997) ‘Reforming “Jackass Music: The Problematic Aesthetics of Early American Film Music Accompaniment’. Cinema Journal, 37 (1) pp. 3-22.


Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Is a jazz pianist, improviser, composer and scholar of international standing. He has released five albums as leader or co-leader on the SLAM, Bruce’s Fingers and EfPi labels, to widespread critical acclaim (including an Album of the Year accolade by influential website Bird is the Worm for his 2012 album The Imaginary Delta). He receives frequent BBC Radio airplay, and a programme dedicated to his work was broadcast on Concertzender (Dutch public radio) in 2014. He has been interviewed for The Wire, Jazzwise and Radio 3. He holds a part-time post as Senior Lecturer in Popular Musics at Manchester Metropolitan University.