Texas Tech ensemble performs 'Nosferatu' score
FARMINGTON — Whether they consciously grasp it or not, most of the people who have seen the Texas Tech University Elegant Savages Orchestra and Balkan Ensemble perform a live score accompaniment to the classic horror film “Nosferatu” understand they are seeing something unique.
That’s the opinion of Texas Tech music professor Roger Landes, who composed the score with colleague Christopher Smith. The 12-piece ensemble will perform the score during a screening of “Nosferatu” this weekend at San Juan College.
“I think the audience realizes, ‘Something’s happening tonight, and it’s not going to be repeated,” Landes said during a phone conversation last week from Lubbock, Texas.
That’s because the score that Landes and Smith — who will conduct the group — put together includes plenty of room for improvisation.
“Chris cues improvisation from the individuals within the ensemble, so it’s different every night,” Landes said.
Of course, that process doesn’t always unfold smoothly, he acknowledged. The show here will mark only the fifth time the group has performed the score.
“It all happens in front of an audience,” he said. “And we joke about that – the audience gets to see the film and also gets to see the sausage getting made.”
The idea for composing a score to “Nosferatu” — a German Expressionist horror film shot in 1921 and released in 1922, and directed by F.W. Murnau — was something Landes, a Balkan music enthusiast, had been kicking around for years. It reached fruition in 2015 when one of the organizers of the Flatland Film Festival in Lubbock approached Smith about doing a project in association with the event.
Smith mentioned the invitation to Landes, and the two quickly struck on the notion of composing a score for “Nosferatu” with Balkan music. The film’s original score had been lost for decades before the composer’s notes were rediscovered in 2006, and it was recreated.
But Landes had something different in mind by introducing a Balkan element to the project. He noted how the film, part of which takes place in the Balkans, is a knockoff of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel and reflects many of the prevailing prejudices of the Victorian era.
“It’s about Irish-English people who are freaked out by the threat of a plague from the East,” he said. “It’s got a lot of racist and anti-Semitic sentiment.”
Recognizing the unsavory nature of that expression, Landes said he and Smith decided to confront it head on.
“And one of the ways to confront it is to give voice to the Balkans through Balkan sound,” he said.
The two composers liked the fact that the subject matter would provide some challenges to their students.
“It’s a class of German Expressionism, and, yet, it has these elements that can’t be removed,” he said of its anti-Semitism. “You can’t ignore them or forget them, so you just have to deal with them.”
Landes said the film inescapably caters to prejudices by having its main character, an undead male of Balkan ethnicity, “preying on beloved white women.”
“What’s behind it is particular to its time and its place,” he said.
Landes and Smith chose not to shield their students from that kind of thinking. In fact, he said, “Nosferatu” gives them a chance to address uncomfortable concepts and issues.
“It’s an opportunity for our students to engage in a cultural and visual artifact they were otherwise not familiar with,” he said.
The score that Landes and Smith came up with does not adhere to the film in the traditional sense, he said, explaining that the music does not match the action on the screen. Rather, the two developed 12 themes to represent characters or situations in the film.
“We didn’t have the luxury of preparing 93 minutes of music,” he said, referring to the film’s length. “So we wrote music that could be brought out and layered and repeated.”
During his research into the film, Landes said he managed to obtain a copy of the script — and discovered, to his dismay, that it was only eight pages long. Obviously, that meant Murnau allowed his cast to improvise heavily.
So Landes said he “back engineered” a new script by watching a video of the silent film and implementing the scene titles. The script he came up with was 52 pages, and that became the vehicle through which he and Smith identified where they thought they needed music.
When the two professors presented their idea to their students, they were met with a great deal of enthusiasm, Landes said.
“A lot of our students are band, choir or orchestra students, and most of them want to become school band conductors or directors someday,” he said. “So a lot of their favorite music is film or orchestral music. Well, in the modern world, one of the places where orchestral music is used most is in film.”
Getting involved in this project gave those students some rare practical experience working in that area, Landes said.
“They all love the ‘Harry Potter’ movies or the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies,” he said. “But, other than that, there aren’t many films out there with large scores.”
When Landes and Smith began working with their students on the score, it wasn’t long before the two professors could see how much it was benefiting them in ways that had nothing to do with music.
“They realized, ‘I learned something about the origin of the vampire myth and Eastern culture,’” Landes said. “So they really enjoyed it.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Screening of “Nosferatu” accompanied by a live performance by the Texas Tech University Elegant Savages Orchestra and Balkan Ensemble
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22
Where: The Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington
Admission: $18 for adults, $15 for students and $12 for seniors at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette
For more information: Call 505-566-3430