We don’t normally dip into reviewing films or plugging particular commercially available items – we leave those things to our manager, who has his own film blog. But we would like to draw attention to a wonderful window that allows us a glimpse of historical performance practice: the Vitaphone Project, dedicated to the restoration of Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone Shorts.
‘Vitaphone‘ was the brand name for a sound process that was used on short films produced between 1926 – 1930, films that were shown before and during intermissions at public screenings of the more prominent silent feature films of the time. The sound was recorded separately on 12- to 16-inch phonograph records (at 33-1/3 rpm, by the way) and was played while the film was being projected on the screen.
But who and what is featured in the short films is really what is of interest. Due to the limitations of the sound recording process, the ‘shorts’ lasted up to 11 minutes, and the performers were mostly what we have come to call ‘vaudeville’ acts: singers, dancers, tumblers, and comedy routines – stars of the concert stage and of radio broadcasts.
Performers did their sometimes very elaborate and taxing songs, dances and routines to music that was played live with no editing and no second chances. It takes an enormous amount of stamina to perform a complex song, instrumental solo or dance for 10 minutes or so, under hot stage lights and from memory. The only thing that compares today is live theatre and perhaps opera.
Watching these shorts (and we have watched hundreds of them), we are in absolute awe at the skill and dedication of performers from the 1920s. The amount of time devoted to preparation and rehearsal must have been enormous. Performers of today have many ways of insulating themselves from the harsh conditions of the stage, including lip-syncing a performance to pre-recorded music that is sequenced and played back through elaborate computer systems. Just watch the faked dance sequences from the film, Chicago, edited clips of movements that last around three seconds each, and then watch the real thing done by real actors from the 1920s. There is a world of difference.
What does this mean to us in the context of performing lute songs? Everything. Performing lute songs to a live audience is very demanding and taxing to both singer and lutenist. Singing an extremely transparent line of sublime poetry with the polyphonic support of an instrument that demands total and constant control is like performing a high wire act without a net. Any lapse in concentration or control affects the listener as though a police siren were suddenly blasted in the room.
We can take a hint from some of the earliest recorded live performances of musicians giving their all in front of a camera, with no second chances. Practice, practice, practice.
It’s impossible to choose from among so many favorites, but here are two that we’ve found ourselves watching over and over:
Van and Schenck – Stay Out of the South
The amazing Gus Van & Joe Schenck were vaudeville superstars. Here’s a short video of their rendition of Harold Dixon’s ‘Stay out of the South’ that shows why. (Warning; some insensitive historical lyrics.)
World Famous Mandolin Virtuoso Bernardo De Pace (1886-1966)
Talk about stage presence. Bernando breaks a string after 6:45, and deals with the problem admirably. It’s all virtuoso but the last few minutes include some really amazing playing.