New music complements 1920s silent film “Nosferatu” at AFI
by Virginia Terhune
This year’s pre-Halloween screening of the 1922 silent vampire movie, “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror,” in Silver Spring again promises to be a cinematic event and also a new musical one.
“The idea was to give it an Eastern European klezmer and Gypsy vibe,” says Brendan Cooney about his contemporary composition evoking Transylvania that will accompany the film at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center on Friday, Oct. 26.
This year is the first time Cooney of Boston and his musicians have accompanied “Nosferatu” at the theater.
AFI Silver, which first began running the film around Halloween in 2005, has used several groups to accompany the silent movie with live music.
Last year, “Nosferatu” was accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra based in Cambridge, Mass., and in the years before that, by the Silent Orchestra based in Springfield, Va.
Introducing Cooney and his group this year will be James White, a news/traffic anchor and reporter with Total Traffic Network and Metro NewsSource.
Klezmer music, which makes use of the clarinet, fiddle and accordion, was developed as secular music by the Ashkenazi and Hasidic Jews in Eastern Europe.
Although rooted in a different culture, Gypsy music has some of the same rhythms and harmonies, Cooney says.
“There are a lot of similarities ... and cross pollination,” Cooney says about some of the influences in his score, which is one of several he has produced for his company, Not-So-Silent Cinema, based in Boston.
The company also has produced music for “The Mark of Zorro” starring Douglas Fairbanks and “The General” starring Buster Keaton using different musicians for each movie.
Cooney will play the piano for the two screenings of “Nosferatu” with four other musicians on clarinet, violin, bass and accordion.
“It’s really a different experience [for an audience],” says Cooney about watching a movie with a live score instead of hearing music that has been incorporated into a film.
“It’s more of a collective experience, with people more present in the room with each other,” he says. “There’s an electricity and excitement in the room.”
The original score for “Nosferatu” has been lost, which is why the silent German classic directed by F.W. Murnau is a popular one for composers today, says Cooney.
During the 1920s when the film was first released, silent movies typically were accompanied by piano, organ or sometimes orchestras, but Cooney says he didn’t want to recreate that sound.
“All of it is my own conceptualization,” he says about his work for “Nosferatu,” which also includes musical sound effects to complement the plot.
Cooney also says that although he and his fellow musicians follow his composition, each performance offers room for some improvisation.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility,” he says about adapting to different audiences.
Based on the 1897 book “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, the 85-minute film tells the story of estate agent Thomas Hutter who travels to Count Orlok’s castle in Transylvania to sell the blood-thirsty man a house near Hutter’s in Germany.
Nosferatu (Romanian for vampire) must drink blood during the night to stay alive.
Sleeping in a coffin by day, Orlok leaves his castle and boards a ship, decimating the crew along the way, before arriving in Germany where his fate intertwines with that of Hutter’s wife Ellen.
Cooney has posted an eight-minute section of “Nosferatu” with music from a performance in 2011 in Somerville, Mass., on his website www.notsosilentcinema.com.
“This is the fourth year that we’ve done the film [at different venues], and the score has evolved in front of different audiences,” Cooney says.
“There are cues and recurring themes, and it’s fairly sophisticated for what it is,” he says.
The film and the score are “really welded together,” says Cooney. “You can get into the music and appreciate it, but I didn’t want it to overshadow [the movie], respecting the film tradition.”