Film music as such hardly existed in 1914 and special music composed for a particular film was rare. A sure method for matching a score to a projected moving image had yet to evolve. Furthermore, silent film was silent: each film screening with live music became a singular performance.
The music for In the Land of the Headhunters, composed by John J. Braham and preserved in the Curtis materials at the Getty Research Institute, includes a manuscript full score mostly in Braham’s hand and a set of instrumental parts made by a copyist at the Arthur Tams agency in New York. From his experience in the live vaudeville and operetta tradition, Braham wrote music in the way he was familiar, as a string of set musical numbers to accompany a series of scenes. The score consists of 62 musical numbers. Braham must have had access to a scenario or outline of the film narrative since several of the movements have titles or notations referring to the action. During rehearsals, seven of the numbers were deleted entirely while others were shortened and altered in other ways to fit the film. The members of the orchestra marked these changes into their parts thereby providing us with many unique keys to the action of the film and how the music accompanies it. Braham did not conduct the performances nor do we know if he was present, but his nephew, William Braham, played percussion in the orchestra for the New York premier. The instrumental parts do not match exactly the existing manuscript score and so intervening material may exist. For now, the instrumental parts represent the primary source for the music as performed at the Casino Theatre in December 1914.
Restoring the music for In the Land of the Headhunters began with assembling a full score from the separate instrumental parts and noting the clues in them to the film’s narrative. “Watch for fall,” for example, alerted the percussionist to the scene where the Sorcerer is thrown from a cliff, and “Girl in boat” to the appearances of Naida in her canoe. Although the restored score provides keys to the progression of the plot along with the repetitions and breaks the orchestra made during the Casino Theatre performances, it can only be an approximation. Some performance materials are obviously missing (the conductor’s score and the piano parts, for example), all of the changes made in 1914 may not have found their way into the existing documentation, we lack sure knowledge of performance practice of the era, and the film that survives is not totally complete. Today, matching the film’s music to the projected play will largely depend on the conductor, as it did in the era in which the film originated.
Although the publicity material claimed the score was influenced by the Kwakwaka’wakw music recorded by Curtis and played to inspire Braham, one would be hard pressed to identify any relation between the two musics. Curtis’s cylinders are as authentic as any recording of a living tradition can be; Braham’s resulting music is set squarely in the self-conscious art music tradition, fitting the cultural importance of the event as envisioned by Curtis. Braham employs the musical signs of the Western cultural stereotype of the noble American Indian. Simple, regular dance rhythms contrast with the irregular beating and flexible tempo accompanying the singing on Curtis’s cylinders. Braham also imbued his score with the Western musical forms and compositional techniques with which he was most familiar. The opening seven notes of the overture provide a motif that reappears throughout the score and from which Braham develops other musical ideas. Some of these ideas he attempted to associate with characters and action in the film, although the scheme is not totally realized and was further disrupted by the realities faced during rehearsals and performance. Nevertheless, Braham produced music not lacking sophistication and reflecting his long experience as a figure, albeit minor, in the golden age of English and American operetta.
David Gilbert, Librarian, UCLA Music Library