In recent years, the line between live and recorded performance has become increasingly blurred. Rock fans go to large stadium concerts only to watch their music heroes largely in close-up shots on a Jumbotron. Umpires and referees at sports matches frequently rely on instant replays to review passages of play that are initially unclear. Lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks has become almost par for the course at internationally televised events such as the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies.

Poster for Modern Times, published by United Artists
Poster for Modern Times, published by United Artists

This blurring of boundaries has also found its way into the performing arts, traditionally thought of as a uniquely live endeavour. Initiatives such as National Theatre Live and the Royal Opera House Cinema now broadcast live performances of ballet, opera, and theatre productions from London into movie theatres around the world. In a twist on this trend, the Philharmonia’s presentation of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times turned a recorded film production into a live event, with Carl Davis conducting the orchestra’s performance of the original score – composed by Chaplin, arranged by Edward Powell and David Raksin, and restored for modern-day orchestral use by Timothy Brock – in a screening at the Royal Festival Hall.

I intentionally refer to the event as a film presentation rather than a musical performance. One of the great virtues of the evening was that it did not draw attention to the musicians on stage but instead presented the film as an audiovisual art, one that happened to have its image track in recorded form and (most of) its soundtrack in live form. Produced at a time when Hollywood was shifting away from silent film, Modern Times was intended to be Chaplin’s first “talkie”; however, Chaplin soon abandoned the idea, believing that the universal appeal of the Little Tramp would be lost if his character ever spoke on screen. The result is a predominantly silent film released as a sound picture, with music conducted by Alfred Newman and rare moments of spoken dialogue and sound effects used to punctuate key moments in the plot. Notably, the only instances of spoken dialogue are mediated through recording technology within the narrative – for example, through the factory loudspeakers or the prison warden’s radio – and thus function, in their own way, as sound effects.

Given that the film was originally released with its own soundtrack, the fact of its score’s arrangement for live orchestral performance seems emblematic of a longing for this recorded production to bear certain qualities of liveness that we now associate with silent film. The Philharmonia’s presentation of the film retained the spoken dialogue and sound effects, taking only the place of the original orchestra in the soundtrack. The live performance sounded lush and vibrant in a way that the original recorded performance does not, simply because of the limitations of technology at the time. At times, the orchestra seemed to be precisely synchronised to the events on screen; at other times, it seemed to provide mere musical accompaniment to reflect the emotional content of the narrative. Chaplin was known for working closely with conductors and arrangers to realise his musical ideas, sometimes specifying dozens of synch points within a single scene. In the concert hall, when these synchronisations worked, they were spot-on; if there were others that didn’t work, the performance nonetheless captured the spirit of each scene so well that the audience was none the wiser. Davis’ extensive experience as a conductor and composer for silent film, particularly his work with Chaplin films, certainly made all the difference in this regard.

Tellingly, the one musical number that the orchestra did not perform live was Chaplin’s rendering of Léo Daniderff’s 1917 song “Je cherche après Titine”. When his Little Tramp character, working as a singing waiter in a busy café, forgets the lyrics of the song during his performance, he rescues the act by singing nonsense lyrics while pantomiming the story, to the delight of both the on-screen audience and the real-life audience. Indeed, during this performance, there ceases to be a difference between the two audiences: both are captivated by Chaplin’s comedic skills, singing abilities, and overall charisma, honed during his years as a vaudeville performer before entering the film industry. Here, the live musicians defer to the recording, and the recorded performance captures the spirit of life.