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Comes the Dawn – Mallarmé Leaves Its Mark on Nosferatu

by John W. Lambert

October 31, 2010, Durham, NC: Triangle fans of the historic (1922) horror film Nosferatu, a Dracula-story knock-off, enjoyed an embarrassment of riches on Halloween weekend as at least four screenings were given between Hillsborough and Cary. All featured music in one form or another, perpetuating one of the glories of the silent film era – the presence of live musicians in the "pit." Talkies spelled the end of the great theatre orchestras and of theatre organists and pianists, too, leading (among other things) to increased union activity on the parts of instrumentalists faced with major waves of job losses. (It's funny how this sort of thing is still with us as more and more dance companies stick it to musical artists by using recorded music for ballet...; some things never change.) Anyway, there’s been a mini-revival of silents with live music of late, and this weekend's spook-tacular is probably the greatest local example of the fad to date.

At the Carolina Theatre's matinee, a 63-minute "restored" print was seen, and the estimable Mallarmé Chamber Players did the musical honors, performing a score composed and arranged mostly by Eric Schwartz, with additional contributions by Michael Burns. The ensemble consisted of five superior artists plus the composer: Carla Copeland-Burns, flute, and Michael Burns, bassoon and composer (both affiliated with the Blue Mountain Ensemble), Suzanne Rousso, viola, John R. Beck, percussion, James Douglass, keyboard (in this case, an electronic piano/organ/synthesizer that produced an array of sounds, musical and otherwise), and composer Schwartz, whose performing contributions seemed to center on the occasional bit of electronic wizardry not provided by Douglass' instrument. This substantial ensemble set the offering apart from other Triangle efforts thus far, most of which have involved a single player who improvises (or so it's been said) as the movies unfold. (That's nonsense, of course – these things are all pre-planned, so for the most part, the improvisation involves making sure the music fits what's going on on the screen….)

The Mallarmé-istas, Durham's somewhat insurgent chamber ensemble, provided a wide range of sounds and sound effects that included a sort of modified Sprechstimme, shouts, bangs (on brake drums and more conventional percussion instruments), slides that suggested portamento string playing of the time the film was made, unusual breathe-through or blow-through flute techniques, some whimsy from the bassoon, and more. The players were clad in various ghoulish and witch get-ups that reminded some of the great Witch of Delaware (although admittedly that's a horror story of an entirely different color).

The music, consistently effective and often very, very effective, is in the form of a multi-movement suite of sorts; this is logical enough if you think about the need to support a sequence of scenes. The point of music as an accompaniment to film is of course akin to incidental music for plays – it enhances emotion or meaning or comments in some way on the action. In this case, the music was more prominent than usual, even for a silent film, so movie buffs might have found it too much of a good thing. Given that this horror film is for the most part one of cinema's more amusing essays, however, the fact that the music was in the foreground much of the time was a definite plus. And, again, the luxury of having some of our state's finest musicians playing in the "pit" for this show made it special enough to linger in the memory.

But about that restored film…. If you look up the technical specs for Nosferatu at the IMDB – see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013442/ – you'll find that the lengths of this flick range from 65 to 94 minutes. This screening was advertised as taking 63 minutes. Much of the on-screen action was jerky and choppy, and some of the scenes were ridiculously fast. There's no doubt that the projection speeds were often incorrect – and thus this restoration left much to be desired. (A parallel is the transfer of acoustic recordings to CD – they weren't all made at a uniform 78 r.p.m.) One can therefore only hope that the versions of this Gothic classic seen in other locations this weekend – including the one at Duke Chapel at 5:00 p.m. the same day – featured better transfers of the original movie.

Mallarmé's season continues with a remarkable "historic Bach" program in February. For details, click here.

Edited/corrected 11/2/10.

   
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