On July 24, 2014, I was able to project a show of five magic lantern song-slide sets and one recitation set from my ‘Iron Duke’ lantern of 1905, with some additional effects added from a smaller 1890s lantern. Professor Peter Tregear and Dr Kate Bowan from the ANU School of Music sang and played the original words and music, and they were fabulous. Trevor Anderson from the National Film and Sound Archive also operated the ‘effects’ lantern for the angel effect in Jane Conquest. The event was part of the History, Cinema Digital Archives organised by Jill Matthews from the Humanities Research Centre and held in the theatrette of the NFSA. Here is our original abstract:
Martyn Jolly, Kate Bowan and Peter Tregear: ‘Will the Angels Let Me Play’, and other songs and recitations: a performance of magic lantern slides with song and piano
Collections such as the National Film and Sound Archive or Museum Victoria hold hundreds of magic lantern ‘song slides’. These sets of hand-coloured glass transparencies were produced in the early twentieth century to promote the sale of the sheet music for popular songs. They were projected by a magic lantern and accompanied by musicians and singers. Their popularity peaked with the First World War. The slides that remain, with their sentimental and melodramatic storylines, surreal photographic montages, and lurid hand-colouring, are still fascinating when we see them on the museum light box, or see the digitized copy in a museum database. But they were made to be performed, and were part of a technical ensemble which included the magic lantern, a musician’s performance and, most importantly, a singer’s voice. For this presentation this complete ensemble will be brought together once more, the slides will be projected by vintage magic lanterns and accompanied by live music and singing from the original sheet music. Will this be a reenactment, like we might see at an historical theme park? Or will it be authentic interpretation, such as an early music ensemble might perform on their antique instruments in a concert hall? Why bother with an original magic lantern when the optics and resolution of a contemporary scanner and data projector can reveal more detail more conveniently? And, no matter how brilliant the performers are, is it even possible to re-enter the affective power of a long ago performance when so much has changed in the meantime? Through this practice-led research experiment, and through subsequent discussion with the audience, these questions and other will be explored.
Bronwyn Coupe has now edited a video of the complete performance, cunningly disguising my mistakes with edited-in digital copies of a few of the slides, but retaining the flavour of my projections, and the brilliance of Kate and Peter. Here it is:
I learnt a lot from the experience. Fortunately I had Ian Christie turning the pages of my cue sheets for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the changes for any of the songs! As it was I muddled two. Despite my rehearsals I need to have a better system for quickly accessing the slides in the dark, I was scrabbling around. I also think I should have realised that there was a certain amount of redundancy built into the slide sets by the manufacturers, and I could have left some out which would have given me more time to load the slide changer. The authority and smoothness (or lack of it) with which I changed and focussed the slides also became very important for the audience’s experience. The light levels in the auditorium— to satisfy both projection from the lanterns with their relatively low-lumen output from the LED floodlights I had in them, as well as the necessity for Kate and Peter to be able to read the music — was also crucial. I have been reading nineteenth and early twentieth century newspaper review of lantern shows in Australia and exactly these same issues are frequently reported on — both negatively and positively — by the writers. The audience discussion afterwards didn’t decisively answer any of the questions raised in the abstract. However it covered the historical accuracy, or inaccuracy, of our ‘re-enactment’ — a big issue with some of the experts in the audience — and the general visual culture of the period — in both America and the UK where the slides were made, and in Australia where they were shown. Also discussed were small but crucial details such as the lack of gain in the painted wall on which I was projecting, compared to the modern cinema screen on which the digital versions were projected. But there was enough there to go on with.