SILENT MOVIES,
LIVE MUSIC
Without dialogue to move the plot line along, silent films relied heavily on live music to provide the audience with cues to the onscreen action.  While the accompaniment often featured pianos or organs, and the accompanist frequently improvised much of the music, eventually orchestras were featured in larger towns and cities, and scores were distributed by the studios for many of the major films.   Smaller towns typically had a piano for the movie theater.  As part of her research for another project, the Bijou Orchestrette’s Eberle Umbach discovered that in Council, Idaho (the town “next door”) the daughter of the local newspaper editor had accompanied films on the piano at the People’s Theater.  Although old scores do exist for many silent movies, the Bijou Orchestrette is just one of a number of contemporary groups and composers who’ve been excited to try their hand at composing silent film music.

Although there are only two musicians, the “orchestrette” contains lots of instruments (11 for Back to God’s Country, 18 for The Grub Stake, counting percussion).   These include our staples- the marimba, flute, melodica, guitar, and plectrum banjo- but also some unusual items like the slide whistle, toy piano, zither and kazoo.   The scores combine elements of ragtime and early jazz with more contemporary styles.
Eberle outside Moscow, Idaho's Kenworthy Theater, November 2006
WHY DO WE PERFORM WITH DVDS INSTEAD OF FILM?
We perform the scores live with the dvd versions.  We use the dvds because the scores were composed based on the projection speed of the restored films.  Back to God's Country projects at 18 frames per second, while The Grub Stake projects at 21.5 frames per second.  For quite some time, however, films have adopted 24 frames per second as a standard, & so most projection equipment also uses this speed;  silent films were often projected at slower speeds (hence, the “speeded up” look of many silent films when we see them nowadays).   Using a projector that runs at 24 frames per second will throw the timing off, and require us to make all sorts of adjustements on the fly.

Also, in the case of 
The Grub Stake, there is no restored version on film; the restoration was done digitally. 
Sound samples from The Grub Stake score