In preparation for the gala release of In the Land of the Head Hunters in 1914, Edward Curtis commissioned an original orchestral score, which we now believe to be the earliest surviving complete score for a silent feature film. The project to restore the film was driven in large measure by the discovery of this score at the Getty Research Institute.
As part of his larger ethnological salvage project, Curtis routinely made wax cylinder recordings of Native American music with his photographic subjects (a large number of these are preserved today at the Archive of Traditional Music at Indiana University, Bloomington). The volumes of his North American Indian book series frequently include transcriptions of these, many produced by the ethnomusicologist and composer Henry Gilbert. Around 1910, Curtis made a number of recordings of Kwakwaka’wakw songs (see "Music Samples" section), some of which are transcribed in Volume Ten, The Kwakiutl.
In 1911-1912, Curtis produced and toured “The Vanishing Race”—what he called a “Picture Opera” or “Musicale”—a commercial entertainment featuring an in-person lecture by Curtis set to a dissolving slide show enhanced by short motion pictures, elaborate stage sets, and fancy lighting effects. To accompany his show, Curtis commissioned Henry Gilbert to write a musical score based on the wax cylinder recordings he had made among various groups; these included a series of pieces based on Northwest Coast music. Though intended to raise funds for the book project, the Musicale was a financial failure, and Curtis and Gilbert had a falling out over long unpaid bills.
Thus, in 1914, Curtis could not rely on Gilbert to compose an ambitious score for Head Hunters. Instead, he turned to John J. Braham, a New York-based conductor and arranger long associated with American Gilbert and Sullivan opera productions (see “Braham bio” below). Braham was also a composer who had, in fact, just completed a score for a 1913 film version of Hiawatha, a story that directly influenced the narrative of Head Hunters. Perhaps based on exposure to this film, Curtis commissioned Braham to score his own film, and it is likely that Curtis maintained his practice of supplying Braham with the wax cylinder recordings of Kwakwaka’wakw songs to “inspire” the film score. The film’s premiere screenings were heavily advertised at the time as featuring “Native music symphonized,” one component of the larger claim to cultural authenticity based on the use of an all-Native cast and on-location shooting. However, it seems as if this particular pronouncement was a hollow promotional tool, as there is little if any trace of the Kwakwaka’wakw sources in Braham’s final score for Head Hunters. Nonetheless, Braham’s score clearly embodies Curtis’s ambitions for his film in its blending of melodramatic, pop-culture musical clichés—the familiar thrum of the “tom-toms”—with “high-art” aspirations.
Though the film may have received limited distribution in 1915, we do not know if the score traveled with it. By the time the film was located and re-edited into In the Land of the War Canoes in the 1970s, the score was presumed lost. Within the two decades after Curtis’s death in Los Angeles in 1952, various area archives obtained portions of his estate. The Getty Research Institute acquired many boxes of sheet music composed by Henry Gilbert for the Musicales. In amongst these were a couple of files labeled “The Head Hunters,” containing Braham’s score for the film, which Aaron Glass discovered during his dissertation research. This project marks their restoration and public presentation for the first time since 1914.
Both John Braham's original 1914 manuscript score for Head Hunters and David Gilbert's 2008 transcription are available in complete form through the Getty Research Institute's online library.