Kendra Preston Leonard, Ph.D., is a musicologist and music theorist whose work focuses on women and music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and music and screen history, particularly music and adaptations of Shakespeare; and a librettist and poet. She is the author of five books, including Music for Silent Film: A Guide to North American Resources (2016) and Shakespeare, Madness, and Music: Scoring Insanity in Cinematic Adaptations (2009). Leonard has been awarded the Society for American Music Sight and Sound Subvention; an American Music Research Center Fellowship; the Janet Levy Award from the American Musicological Society; a Harry Ransom Center Fellowship; and the 2017-2018 Rudolph Ganz Long-Term Fellowship at the Newberry Library, all for work on music for silent film.
Dr. Kendra Leonard: Every time I’d go to a music scholarship conference, I’d stand around with my colleagues, saying “someone should find music from the silent film era and put it on line.” Then one year I thought, why not just do it myself? So in 2013, I created the name and wrote up some basic parameters, and filed for non-profit status. I contacted a number of colleagues about helping out; I had an initial advisory board for the first year, and then built the board we have now.
KM: Could you describe the challenges inherent in the creation of the archive, and even some of the less challenging or most enjoyable aspects of creating it?
KL: One thing I really did not expect was how some scholars didn’t want this repertoire to be made available to everyone for free—some people hoarded scores and materials and had staked a claim and did not want anyone else working on “their” topics or composers. That is completely counter to my philosophy and my goals for SFSMA. As a small, newer archive, SFSMA has to educate potential grantors and donors about what it does and how it works. Sometimes people contact us assuming that we can buy music from them and that their music is very valuable monetarily, or that we can assemble custom scores for performers to use in accompanying movies—they have to do that themselves! I love every time we find a truly unique piece of music with clear markings identifying what films it was used for—connecting the music with an individual performer, movie, or theater offers a glimpse into entertainment history.
KM: How would you describe the consideration of silent film sound and music in academia today?
KL: There is a good deal of interest in music for silent film, and a growing body of scholarly literature about it. I am particularly pleased to see that scholars are starting to interrogate the historiography of the silent film and the music for it in ways that include consideration of gender, sexuality, class, race, and other crucial factors that help us better understand the use of music and sound in the early cinema. There are a number of researchers who are new to silent film and doing important and interesting work on facets of the repertoire that have been previously neglected.
KM: Is there something we can learn from silent sound and music that is relevant to filmmaking, or the study of film history, today as both students of film or cinephiles?
KL: Absolutely! The more we learn about music and sound for silent film, the more we learn about the history of sound film music and sound and what influences music from the silent period has had on film music since. We learn about what kinds of music Hollywood’s composers heard when they went to the silent cinema as young people. We learn that music for the movies hasn’t always been a male-dominated industry. We learn that music has always had a narrative role in moving pictures, and we learn just how nuanced that role was from the beginning of filmmaking. We learn what the origins are of certain musical tropes in film. We learn about regional and other differences in interpreting films, performance practice, and other aspects of early twentieth-century entertainments. There’s an entire world of music and sound and image to explore.
KM: How does the SFSMA fit in within your own professional trajectory in terms of academic research and archival work? And related to that, what legacy do you hope it has?
KL: I’ve often said that in another academic life, I’d like to be an archaeologist and anthropologist. Running SFSMA and finding and digitizing works from the past and learning about the culture that surrounds them lets me be a musical and media archaeologist and anthropologist. There will never be a time when I’m not interested in learning about and making new discoveries about the past, so I see myself being involved with SFSMA and its work for a long time to come. I hope that the Archive will continue to thrive and add materials to its holdings, and that it will enable people from all over the world to do research, compile scores for performance, and discover more about music for the early cinema.
Learn more about the archive and connect with Dr. Leonard:
The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive
Kendra Preston Leonard’s website
Leonard’s current ebook project::
Music for the Kingdom of Shadows: Gender, Séances, and Cinema Accompaniment in the Age of Spiritualism