Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hutter in the Castle of Count Orlock

Here is the latest preview of the work, this time setting Lacu Miseriae where it occurs first in the film - in the castle as Orlock stalks Hutter.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Main Sections of Music Complete

I recently completed the main sections of music (not the score) for the Nosferatu Project.  These are the bodies of thematic material that accompany most of the scenes in the film, and between them there are some transitions of ambient music that will serve as mental rests for both the musicians and the audience.  The main sections of music will come in acoustic and electronic varieties, the later of which I'm calling "specters."  There is a fair amount of repetition, more than I normal use, but I believe the repetition will be helpful in clarify the origins of the material.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to export the newest material in mockup form tonight, but stay tuned this weekend for the last installment of previews on YouTube.  From here on out I'm working on just the score for the musicians, which will allow me to dig into the orchestration a little deeper (though I love Reason for doing mockups, it still lacks samples for the most interesting techniques on many orchestral instruments).

Below is an image of the Final Cut Pro file I've been working with...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lacu Miseriae

Working on the Road - St. Louis Logistics:

The Nosferatu project has gone well since my last post earlier this month.  Despite the crippling heat, I haven't slowed down much, partly because my workstation is directly in front of an air conditioner.  Petra's Roland digital piano serves as instrument and desk, with my main computer sitting on it.  It is an older keyboard, and so is only equipped with MIDI I/O - no USB port. This is fine - I find usually that MIDI over USB incurs an unacceptable amount of latency in older products.  Instead, I use an EMU 0404 as an intermediary.  No perceptible latency with this USB device, and it receives the MIDI from the keyboard.  This makes improvising to the moving images on the computer directly in front of me quite easy, though I honestly hardly ever keep a complete improvisation (why, for good or bad, that I do this, could be the topic for my dissertation).  At any rate, I like the EMU because it is so small, but don't get me started on Creative Labs' terrible Snow Leopard support - despite their good quality products, they are most certainly a PC driven company.

Updates to the Score:

After the my last post, I chose to tackle the most difficult sections of the live score - the climactic final Act of Nosferatu, and the "masculinity in crisis" introduction, when we first meet the characters.  These are difficult in different ways. 

The climax of the film has a complex series of potential hit points, in my analysis, combined with a complex contour of anticipation (tension) and realization (release). 

The introduction of the film is bizarre in that the uncanny, slightly excessive frame rate, combined with Hutter's boyish, Dandy-like antics, push the envelope for what is acceptable in a male protagonist.  Of course, this view of acceptable male acting, now almost one hundred years after this film was made, is anachronistic - the actor playing Hutter was perfectly within the norms of acting at that time.  His histrionic style, as was popular then, communicates emotions more through body language, rather than through dialogue and the "grain of the voice" (Roland Barthes' essay of the same name is surely applicable outside of music, to speech in acting). 

Another section that I completed was the epic journey up Borgo pass, as it is known in Dracula (the pass is unnamed in Nosferatu).  In this section, I tip my hat to Werner Herzog (and Richard Wagner), whose 1979 rendition of the Nosferatu / Dracula tale is influential to me, despite being another anachronism in relation to the Murnau version.

I will present the three new sections of music in the order they appear in the film.  First we will see the rather plainly titled "Hutter and Ellen's Waltz," wherein the seeds of their destruction are already evident.  This is a fairly plain Waltz, without (many) metric eccentricities, because these are saved for later developments in the music and plot. 

Then, we will see Hutter's march, onward and upward to the top of "Borgo Pass."  This motoric music is thickened greatly by the use of delay lines at regular metric intervals, which give the illusion of four contrabasses and four bass clarinets. 

Finally, I will present some of the music from the final act, under the title "Lacu Miseriae," Latin for "Pit of Misery."  This will be accompanied by stills, rather than the moving image, for I do not want to give too much of the score away (come to the show in October!).  These are "double" stills - artifacts of oversampling the older, slower frame rate with the faster NTSC 29.97 fps.  They depict scene transitions that are half the pixels of one scene with half of another - and they are almost always eerie in the their implications.  There is always hidden beauty in the accidental artifacts of our technology.

Hutter and Ellen's Waltz

Borgo Pass

Lacu Miseriae

Thursday, July 7, 2011


"Sehnsucht" - Credits and Introductory Intertitles (from the UCSD Nosferatu Project)
Paul Hembree, composer

About this scene and the music:

This is the first music the audience will hear in the theater.  These are the original credits for the film, in addition to the introductory intertitles, which provide the background to the story.

My favorite intertitle:  "Nosferatu: Does not this name not sound like the deathbird calling your name at midnight?  Beware you never say it - for then the pictures of life will fade to shadows, haunting dreams with climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood."

The last line is particularly telling.  Is Nosferatu a real person, a corporeal menace who murders his victims with claws and teeth?  Or is he a dream, the product of a fevered mind, haggard from disease and the aftermath of war?  Does he come from afar, a with the gaunt countenance of foreigner, or does he come from within - does he "climb forth from your heart?"

The idea that a part of Nosferatu is our own dark desires manifested is a driving force within this music.  It is constantly searching, yearning for something which it cannot find.


Though I haven't uploaded anything in the last week, I've been busy with the project.  Logistically, composing for an 84 minute film, with no dialogue, is quite difficult and exhausting.  With dialogue, foley and background noise to dodge around, music for the "talkies" is less dense.  And I'm a composer who usually writes dense concert music.

All of the harmonic material for the score is based on a core repertoire of tortured neo-expressionist harmonies that are none-the-less flexible in that they can evoke many moods.  Here, open, neutral intervals within the harmonies are emphasized, though they compress as the dire mood of the introductory intertitles sets in.  

The exercise of rarefying a core set of materials in different has been enlightening.  I've been relying on traditional techniques of variation, in addition to simply taking more time between events.

One interesting technique used in this excerpt is "pedaling" a single harmony by using smooth voice leading to traverse between several inversions of the same chord.  Of course, this more accessible within my music than in traditional tonal music, because the harmonies here predominantly have five or six distinct pitch classes in them.  These "extended chords" have nearly as many notes as regular scales in western music.  To a certain degree, this contributes to the sense that the music is perpetually modulating between keys, because the total repertoire of pitches continually shift.  I'd like to think that the smooth voice leading and directionality of the lines combined with the lack of a "home" creates a sense of yearning in the music.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Backdrop For Ellen's Premonitions

"The Sonambulist"

About this scene and the music:

I've begun to test out musical "pads" to set the mood for each major scene in the movie.  Currently these pads are mostly acousmatic, that is, they are composed of acoustic sounds that have been altered with the computer.  In the October performance, live performers will intermingle with these prerecorded sounds. 

For this scene, I'm drawing upon the book on which this film is based: Bram Stoker's Dracula.  As the protagonist Jonathan Harker (roughly the same character as Hutter in Nosferatu) lies paralyzed on a couch in a remote wing of Castle Dracula, three female vampires approach, ready to drain him of life.  Harker comments upon their voices:

"They whispered together, and then they all three laughed - such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips.  It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water-glasses when played on by a cunning hand" (Stoker 1897, 38).

This scene does not occur in Nosferatu, because there are no female vampires in Count Orlok's castle.  However, the idea of a sweet siren song, calling over great distances seems appropriate as a back drop for Ellen's premonitions of Hutter's impending doom.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Marked Hit Points in Act I, Investigating Occult Markings

After getting some repairs rolling on equipment I use in my other research assistantship, I was able to work on marking up hit points and major transitions in Act I of Nosferatu.  In the process, I started looking for fuel for composition.  My approach to composition frequently involves puzzles from the very beginning as a way to prompt a musical response.  Though the main prompt for my musical response is the event structure of the film itself, it is handy to have other sources of Otherness to respond to.  Knock and Count Orlok both read notes, presumably sent to each other, that supposedly detail the impending real estate transaction they are going through.  However, the notes filled with arcane, occult markings.  I took stills from the film and enhanced them a bit:

 The front of Knock's note from Count Orlok.

The back of Knock's note from Count Orlok.

Count Orlok reading Knock's reply.

These are really quite striking and fairly complex.  Of great interest to me are the magic squares, the boxes with number like symbols in them.  There are also some pictograms (snakes, crosses, a skull) as well as traditional Zodiac signs, but most are probably gibberish.  But what if they aren't...


Well, I just spent about an hour wandering around the Internet to see if people had already figured this out.  Apparently, the set designer for Nosferatu, Albin Grau, was an occultist and friend of Aleister Crowley.  The Wikipedia article notes that the symbols on these letters resemble Enochian, the language invented/discovered by 16th century English occultists John Dee and Edward Kelley.   So there may indeed be "real magic" in the letters between Knock and Count Orlok.  The investigation will continue, later, as well as solutions to the real problem - if these are spells, how do they sound?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer is here - time to get to work!

Now that summer is here, it means less time writing papers, teaching or researching, and more time composing.  My main summer project is writing a film score for the 1922 silent film Nosfertu, by F. W. Murnau.  The work will be performed live in Mandeville auditorium at UCSD, on Friday, October 21st, at 8 pm.  This event is sponsored by the UCSD German Studies Department.

I'll be providing updates on the project in both this blog and the related UCSD Noseratu Project blog, which is embedded in our main website:

After touring the auditorium and discussing the technical aspects of the performance with the Mandeville staff, we've decided on screening the film with digital video.  Though we were prepared to screen the film with the 35mm reels from Kino International, the problem of synchronizing the musicians with the analog reels was too much.  Kino authorized us to screen the video with a DVD, so I'm using their video and a custom sound track.

In the live performance, I'm currently planning on using amplified clean and processed acoustic sound from my four musicians, synchronized with a click track, along with some fixed and live electronic sound.

I've started the process of analyzing the film, using Final Cut Pro.  I'm making exact measurements of all of the scenes, along with the locations "hit points."  This is an interesting an somewhat agonizingly slow process of watching each scene a few times before moving on, deciding what are the important points, and marking them with FCP. 

In the process, you get a sense of what signifiers and signifieds lie hidden in the composition of the shots and in the non-verbal cues of the actors.  For instance, the introduction exhibits signs of "masculinity in crisis," indicated by Hutter's insane, childish antics.  Furthermore, in many of the early shots, Ellen stands almost a foot taller than Hutter because of some kind of step she is standing on near the window sill.  This height difference is eventually reversed as Hutter is packing his clothes to leave for Transylvania, but his boyish face betrays the manliness of his sudden embrace of Ellen.

Though the crisis mentioned above is interesting, it is difficult to make scoring decisions based on it.  What is maybe more important is the broad "going off to war" feeling of the entire introduction, while Hutter is still in Wisborg.  This film was shot two years after the end of World War I, and three years after the 1918 flu epidemic hobbled much of the German military.  In the film, we see the obvious connection to the plague, but less so to military conflict.  For more on the connection between World War I and film in the Weimar Republic, check out Shell Shock Cinema.