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Silent Treatment

Martin Marks’s music gives voice to a collection of silent films
March 2, 2005

For almost a year, Martin Marks spent long hours sifting through old sheet music, writing new piano pieces, and recruiting dozens of composers and musicians to write and perform pieces for a DVD collection of silent films. He has weathered seemingly interminable weekends and stolen weekdays in Killian Hall, recording and rerecording scores, often until midnight. “Some of those weekends were exhausting,” says Marks, a senior lec­turer in the Institute’s music and theater arts program. But despite the hours, Marks says it was well worth his time to create the music for More Treasures from American Film Archives, a DVD collection of 50 films made between 1894 and 1931 that was released in the fall.

Marks has spent more than 20 years studying silent films and the music played along with them. So he was a natural choice as music curator for both More Treasures and its predecessor, Treasures from American Film Archives, which was released in 2000. Besides, he was already familiar with the archives that contributed to the collections. The first DVD draws from 18 archives and includes films from as late as 1985, while the second set focuses on the silent period and features films from five archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the U.S. Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “Marty Marks himself is a treasure,” says Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco, which produced the collections. “[He has] a deep knowledge of the history of popular music and film, an ability to perform music for silent films, and a way of writing about all of this with wit and scholarly precision.”

A pianist, Marks prepared and performed most of the scores himself. Some of them are original compositions, but many drew on tunes that were played during the silent-film period. “I do like to play the kind of music that was played in the silent period as much as possible, because I think it connects the audiences closer to the experience of the films that was originally intended,” Marks says. He also did a certain amount of improvising during the recording sessions. He says that in Killian Hall in Building 14, with the films rolling, he would see things on the screen and start to think of ways he could make the music fit better.

Marks, who just returned from a fall sabbatical, is currently writing a book on film music. Also, pending funding, he and his colleagues at the National Film Preservation Foundation are eager to create another collection of archived films. Their hope is to bring more of these hidden treasures out of the archives and into the homes of the general public.

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