Monday, July 6, 2009

Lawton Electrical Orchestra Director

From Hearing the Movies

The following piece reads more like a press release than one of S. M. Berg's columns, but the information it contains is intriguing for the insight it provides us into the how practitioners of the time conceived the issue of coordinating music and film. One question we can ask is: what problems are this device designed to solve? There seem to be two primary ones. First, how to coordinate the music with the film given minimal rehearsal time; second (and I think more significantly), how to duplicate a performance across a number of theaters.

According to a letter that Lawton sent to Berg in April and that was published in the Exhibiter's Trade Review Lawton was General Musical Director of the B. S. Moss Theatres in New York City. (In July 1915, according to Moving Picture World, B. S. Moss owned, among other theaters, the Regent (Harlem), the Hamilton (Washington Heights), the Prospect (Bronx), McKinley Square (Bronx), Eighty-Sixth Street (Yorkville), and the Jefferson (East Side).) As General Musical Director, Lawton would have been interested in finding efficiencies for musical performance across the chain.

Here is the text of Berg's column:

Lawton’s Electrical Orchestra Director

Can readers picture in their mind’s eye a perfect synchronization of music and pictures, irrespective of what speed the film is run, no matter whether the picture is projected fast slow, no timing or signaling the operator, besides which the orchestra can be seated out of sight of both the audience and picture, and yet the musical setting be in perfect harmony?

This is no pipe dream, but a practical invention which has lately been perfected. The musician’s difficulty in playing for the film has always been in following the picture. Where the music is supplied by the lone pianist or organist, the trouble is not a serious one, but where the musicians in an orchestra are reading at first sight, and watching the film at the same time, the task is colossal.

Picture yourself playing a series of selected musical numbers, your whole attention given to the musical interpretation, your back to the screen, when a signal is flashed you to play either moderato, allegro, tremulo [sic], adagio or segue, etc. At the exact fraction of the second, all cues for the drummer’s traps and effects, the cornetist’s bugle call, etc., are given at the exact degree of time, without the continual watching and waiting on the part of the orchestral leader and his musicians. To be told of all this certainly appears an impossibility, but yet this is only a small part of what was demonstrated to the editor of these columns a few days ago.

The invention is known as Lawton’s Electrical Orchestra Director. It is operated and completely controlled by the picture projection machine in the booth, both machines running simultaneously. To be brief, Lawton’s Electrical Orchestra Director consists of a series of musical terms automatically flashed directly to the leader and to any or all of the musicians. In reviewing the picture you write on a paper record of the orchestra director what numbers you want played, when and how, all modifications of tempos and cues, and these will be reproduced at the exact time during the performance, irrespective of the speed at which the film is being projected.

With the electrical orchestra director, the leader, together with his musicians, whether they are in sight of the screen or not, can properly work up more cues than would be possible when watching the picture. The important feature of this invention is that the paper record can in a few moments be reproduced for any other theatre where this device is installed. It was demonstrated that the mechanism of the orchestra director is very simple in construction so that any person with an average intelligence can be taught to operate it within fifteen minutes.

By special invitation a number of the leader musicians throughout the country gathered to view and test in every possible way the Lawton Electrical Orchestra Director. After a severe examination, they all agreed that in order to attain a harmonious result between the screen drama and incidental music, the two must be automatically coordinated, and that the solution of this problem was “Lawton’s Electrical Orchestra Director.”

All credit is due Mr. Stanley W. Lawton, the inventor, who is a musician of great ability and musical director of a chain of New York theatres.

The sketches presented here are reproduced by the courtesy of the Popular Science Monthly.

Source: S. M. Berg, “Music for the Photoplay,” Exhibitor's Trade Review 3 February 1917, 638.

The image at the top of the page is a spliced image of a microfilm copy; hence its rather poor quality. So far I have been unable to locate the original item in Popular Science Monthly.

Here is a little item describing the device from March 1919 edition of the Illustrated World, unfortunately without illustrations:

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Illustrated world

And here are two patents associated with the Lawton Electrical Orchestral Director:

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1916 Patent. A PDF of this patent is located here.

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1923 Improvement. A PDF of this patent is located here.

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