sound for film & video

Interview: Andrew Alden and Nosferatu

It’s pretty hard to whirl a cat in Boston without hitting a music school, which means we’re blessed with more than our share of young, adventurous students of film composition. Lucky for us, their adventuring frequently includes forays into scoring for silent film.

Should one whirl the cat near the corner of Mass. Ave and Boylston street, one might find Andrew Alden ducking out of the way while working on his score for the famous ur-vampire film Nosferatu, which he’ll be bringing to two venues Halloween week. I had a chance to chat with him via e-mail about his score, and about scoring and performing for silents.

Q: What first got you interested in composing for silent film?

ANDREW ALDEN: I first got into silent film because I felt that I wanted to bring something new to something old. I am also an old film nut and wanted to bring my own personal take to the scores and modernize them. It gives me a chance to go beyond normal film scores and bring a chamber music approach to it all, which also in turn, brings film into chamber music.

What kinds of things are you doing to modernize?

The early film scores that are preserved through to today and on a lot of the DVDs sound like Stockhausenianish avant-garde vibraphone scores. So I use delay, and sampling and using things you wouldn’t hear in 1941 but would be more usual in 2012. That allows me to use more electronic elements. For example; in the attack themes I use sampling of really dark distorted vinyl that has been processed. A lot of what we do is influenced by Bang on a Can All-Stars, Ty Braxton, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor. We also draw from Phil Glass, Steve Reich and Radiohead. By that standard what we are trying to do is not make something that in 30 years would sound dated. But time will tell…

When you start mulling it over, what you’re trying for has layers akin to a temporal onion: take a film made 90 years ago, create a score for it today using sounds and styles the filmmaker couldn’t imagine at the time he made the film, while contemplating how audiences in the future might receive that combination. You’ve got a 120 year scope in mind.

What are the unique challenges and rewards of composing for silents versus for sound films or purely musical composition?

With sound films it can be very constricting. You are either artistically disagreeing with the director, or fighting with sound effects, in terms of where music should take place and what to write for it. With silent or silenced film I can write whatever I want because it’s my interpretation of the art work, rather than a recreation. If I were a painter and my subject matter was Marilyn Monroe I would take a completely differently approach than Andy Warhol. My goal isn’t to recreate, it’s to create something new.

So, it’s like working for the ultimate “hands off” director, who’s given you the ultimate picture lock (although even that’s not cut and dried, as we’ll see in one of the later questions). Speaking of sound effects, do you try to create sound effect-like moments with your instrumentation?

It is like working with the ultimate “hands off” director! We are trying to sync some special effects using more extended techniques from Beltran Del Campoour, our violin/viola player. He uses a lot of seagull harmonics and makes his violin sound like a creaking floorboard. Our drummer, Andy Cantu, underscores parts by watching the film and tries to roll and thump to cue. We don’t vocalize anything now but I guess in the future anything is possible.

How long did it take you to score Nosferatu?

About seven weeks. These were not eight hour days but overall I probably put in about 300 hours of work on the score. There are four cues written by my second in command Ryan Meyer.

Were there any scenes in the film you found to be harder than others?

The film is so inspiring and it lends itself to be written for. That being said, the only challenge was to not overdo the ending. I wanted something very subtle, as opposed to a big Wagnerian ending.

Are there leitmotivs people should be listening for?

There are some recognizable melodies for love, death, Nosferatu, and Nina.

Roughly 80 years have passed since the demise of the silent era, and sound sync technology has become very sophisticated. Here in modern times, there seems to be a tension between the “loose” cuing that would be unavoidable in a live performance of the silent era, and the ultra-tight, frame accurate cuing we’ve come to expect of the music in sound films. It presents today’s silent film performer with a choice: do you go more for an accurate historical recreation and allow the cuing to slide around organically, playing purely live to the film, or do you use the modern technology available that would allow a live orchestra to come close to satisfying contemporary expectations for tightness?

I am trying to do a combination of both. I have certain parts that are very tightly cued and the players are waiting for parts to happen on screen. That being said its not really Mickey Mousing, it’s more like when so and so is on screen we will play this melody. I don’t think very many people expect the same kind of film score out of me for Nosferatu as they would out of James Newton Howard if it was going to be prerecorded very specifically. In a lot of ways it can’t be, we have to allow for some “sliding” around because there are a million things that account for how the performance is going go for each show. Like if we take the first piece 5 less BPM one night, compared to the night before, things are going to shift. I also don’t think people want us to be playing a modern Hollywood score, I think they would rather have something a little more avant-garde to complete the entire experience.

Certainly a bit slop and hazard is a part of what we find charming and attractive about live performances. And I think that psychologically we tend to be more forgiving of timing in live situations than canned — something I believe is also true of pitch.

Speaking of those “million things”, what kinds of techniques do you use to stay in sync during your live performances? That final performance in the theater can be tricky, especially if you’re performing to a print, which can have missing frames or run a different speed than the material you rehearsed to, or even have entire shots missing. Sometimes it seems no two versions of a silent film are exactly alike.

We use a system of repeats that act like safeties. That way we play through music and get to a repeat, then repeat until something happens on screen, and we start another section. It’s a little haphazard but we get to be pretty specific and tend to nail it. It doesn’t hurt that we do it so much and we start to pick up on our tendencies and make our own adjustment.

The two films your ensemble has performed for are both horror films. Coincidence or penchant?

It’s a little of both. When we did Night of the Living Dead it was February/ March and that was a blast. People were coming up to us saying you should have done this around Halloween and we decided that we should do another horror film in the fall, eventually we settled on Nosferatu. We are hoping to do more family friendly tour in January possibly featuring Buster Keaton’s The General or short cartoons like The 1940’s Superman Cartoons.

Boston seems to be a hotbed for silent film musicians. Is it just because we’ve got so many music schools around, or it there something more to it?

I think that it has to also do with how many great artists and musicians live in Boston. Also as East Coasters we are all very much connected to history and our past, possibility more so than other parts of the USA, which might influence us to take a look a classic silent films.

The Andrew Alden Ensemble performs to Nosferatu at the Berklee College of Music on October 27th, and at the Brattle Theater on Halloween night. Further details are available at the Andrew Alden Ensemble website.

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