Interview with Composer Matthew Nolan – Vampyr: Screening & Live Score performance
Vampyr: Screening & Live Score performance
Time 21.00 – 22.30 – Date October 27th – October 27th – Location St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Part of the Bram Stoker Festival – Oct 27th – 30th
In earlier times, Cinema used to have a live element, with organs played at most screenings. Do you think that’s something we have lost over the years?
In the silent era most cinemas had an in house accompanist. Larger theatres had small orchestras on a retainer too. In Germany there was the tradition of the film explainer who would offer live narration. In Japan, the Benshi would offer a more performative type of live narration. The early cinema of Brazil featured fitas cantatas, filmed operettas with singers lip-syncing behind the screen. It was really was an amazing time for cinema goers. So, to be honest, a huge amount has been lost. The advent of the talkies called time on all of this. The intervening period has seen the cinema going experience move further and further away from these musical and theatrical elements. In a way I’ve been trying to reconnect contemporary audiences with that experience. It’s not always successful but for the most part it’s great to offer audiences an alternative way of engaging with cinema from the silent era – or more specifically, pure cinema.
What was your feeling towards silent film before you started work on soundtracks? Have you always enjoyed them?
I always enjoyed silent cinema. I grew up watching Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd movies. They were a regular part of my childhood Saturday mornings in the late 70s / early 80s. However it was only really when I started lecturing in film that I looked more closely at the European tradition. That was quite the revelation. Cinema in Germany, France, Russia, and Scandinavia had a visual and psychological sophistication that really blew my mind.
You have provided soundtracks for a variety of silent movies at this stage. How did the first one come about? Was it your own idea or were you asked to do it?
The first one was very much my own idea and the catalyst was a screening of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in the IFI about 15 years ago. It was presented without any soundtrack. This was quite an unsettling but engrossing experience. It got me thinking about musical possibilities but I didn’t know how someone with my musical background could approach a project like this. It was only when I spotted that Mark Linkous had written a score for the film that got me thinking that maybe it was possible. After that it all happened quite quickly. I booked a venue, a 16mm film print from the BFI, and 3epkano came into being. It was a really exciting time for me.
How do you set about writing these pieces? How often would you watch the films prior to writing the music?
The process is simple. It all starts with watching the movie over and over again. I try to avoid thinking musically until I’ve established a close understanding of the film. That part can take time but it pays off when the scoring begins. It allows me and whoever I’m collaborating with to work more organically whilst maintaining a keen focus on what the film needs.
Have you worked on the soundtrack for any modern films?
I’ve never managed to produce a new score for anything contemporary. At least not with the intention of performing it live. In my old band 3epkano we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to make music for more recent film. It would be great to produce something new for a modern movie but it’s so tricky getting permission and often licensing costs can be prohibitive. Hopefully someday.
Are there any silent films left you’d particularly love to soundtrack?
There’s quite a few but the top few now would be Lang’s Die Nibelungen (both films), Ozu’s Dragnet Girl (with a Benshi), and Ponting’s The Great White Silence.