On the third floor of Norlin Library, tucked away from studying students, four cardboard boxes filled with weathered manila envelopes contain sheet music, scribbled with 100 years’-worth of annotations from past owners.
The documents, housed in the Special Collections, Archives and Preservation reading room, are some of the last evidence of the birth of an American pastime: a night out at the movies.
The boxes are just a fragment of the nearly 4,000 silent film scores donated to CU Boulder’s American Music Research Center, jointly held by the College of Music and University Libraries. Alumnus Rodney Sauer, a chemistry graduate student turned silent film music producer, gifted the vast trove of historical sheet music to CU last summer.
Named after the influential theater chain where they originated, the Grauman scores shed light on what was going on in Los Angeles during the silent film era, when flesh-and-blood musicians would perform the music live at every showing.
Because many silent films were lost, and the music along with them, these scores are some of the only remaining artifacts of the once prominent corner of American pop culture.
The collection also includes sheet music for every instrument in the orchestra down to the triangle.
“Only wealthy theaters could afford to hire a live orchestra and have all the parts,” said Susan Thomas, director of the American Music Research Center. “The fact that we have the whole performance set makes it a particularly valuable collection.”
The center houses more than 80 collections, ranging from music by female composers of color to records of Denver’s Raging Grannies, an activist organization that protested through song. Now, with the Grauman scores on campus, Thomas said CU Boulder has one of the most important historical music collections anywhere.
Thomas previously explored the rich musical history of Athens, Georgia, before coming to CU Boulder to head the region’s largest repository of archival music.
“I’m a humanist. I think it’s really important for people to understand who they are and where we came from,” Thomas said.
Further, Thomas said the past directly looks to the future.
“I think there is a common misconception that archives only look backwards,” said Thomas. “I think they’re a very important driver of innovation.”
For instance, the collection allows students to think creatively about the ways they can combine music and image today, breeding a new generation of Hollywood music directors, composers and musicians.
The Grauman scores are available to students and faculty to study, perform and utilize for new projects or research, including rescoring the remaining silent films that are just now entering the public domain.
“This opportunity for students to get a sense of how musicians at the time were thinking about categorizing music and putting it together lets them make informed and creative choices about how they want to score the film,” Thomas said.
Rescoring a silent film can completely change the way an audience experiences the plot.
“You can change an actors’ intentions, you can make a villain a sympathetic villain or a totally evil villain just by the soundtrack,” Thomas said.
Thomas hopes to bring in specialized faculty to teach a full class, or offer a workshop on how to work with the silent film scores.
Until then, students can explore the Grauman Theater collection on the third floor of Norlin Library, where boxes of manila envelopes contain the sounds of America’s past.