Saturday, 7 March 2009

Restoration and Exploration: Concert for Murnau

On attending the Braunschweig International Film Festival in Brunswick, Germany in 2002, Manuel Göttsching found himself invited by the organisers to produce a score for a silent film. The idea was that the music would be performed live alongside a screening during the following year’s festival.

The silent film that most captured Göttsching’s imagination when viewed from the perspective of a potential music score was Schlöss Vogelod (Haunted Castle). Directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau in 1921, just one year before his vampire classic Nosferatu, Schlöss Vogelod is a dark, tense thriller based around an unresolved murder. A party of aristocrats gather for an annual hunt held by Lord Vögelod but they are confined to his castle as a result of torrential rain. Count Johann Oetsch arrives as an uninvited guest. Baron Safferstätt, who is also at the party is soon joined by his wife, the Baroness. The Baroness’s ex-husband was murdered several years ago and, although it was never proven, many suspect Oetsch of the crime. Count Oetsch is asked to leave and refuses. Instead he embarks on a hunt in the pouring rain. In the meantime the Baroness agrees to wait at the castle, in order meet Father Faramund, a priest, as she has something important to say.

A large source of inspiration for Manuel’s score was the work of another German musician, Willy Sommerfeld. During the 1920s Sommerfeld developed his reputation as a legend whilst working in Braunschweig cinemas, accompanying many of the greatest silent films of the time with his fine improvisational piano and violin work. Göttsching could clearly see a link between this approach and that adopted by Ash Ra Tempel with their daring improvisational live performances of the early 1970s. The original idea was to improvise an electronic score, a sort of contemporary update of Willy Sommerfeld’s methods of working with the piano. Initially Manuel began work on some pieces using drum machines and samples of whispered vocals but it soon became clear that attempting to work improvisationally with electronic equipment would be very difficult, as it would inevitably require some form of pre-programming.

Manuel’s next idea was to incorporate an orchestra. This seemed particularly fitting as the piece was to be performed alongside a screening at The State Theatre of Brunswick, a venue that has an orchestra and choir to accompany musicians. Again, the improvisational format proved to be potentially problematic as large orchestras are accustomed to working with written musical scores. Göttsching also felt that his early ideas to incorporate vocal fragments would be unsuitable for a traditional orchestral and choral format. Working electronically he began to produce pieces using horn sounds to convey the hunt, one of the central themes of the film and a cello sound as a musical device to express the suffering of the Baroness.

Whilst composing music for the planned screening Manuel had been using a demo tape made from a black and white version of the film, which played at 24 f.p.s. (frames per second). Unfortunately, the restored, colorized version of the film, which was delivered in August 2003 had a corrected, much slower speed adding 20 minutes to the running time. This changed the mood of the film and much of the dramatic tension completely, meaning that the music would have to be presented in a totally different way.

Running out of time, Manuel’s classical music training was put to use, as he was able to compose and produce notation for some of chamber pieces. The score now consisted of a number of compositions played on two violins, two horns and cello by musicians from the Staatsorchester Braunschweig. Some of these compositions were unadorned, whilst for others the classical musicians were accompanied by electronic music, which Manuel later added. The three longest pieces written for the performance, which made up about half of the score were performed electronically.

Two concerts for Murnau were performed on 31st October and 1st November at the Staatstheater (National Theatre), Braunschweig, Kleines Haus by Manuel, along with the quintet of musicians from the Staatsorchester Braunschweig. The beautifully packaged CD Concert for Murnau was released by MG Art in 2005 and included 55 minutes of music from the performances. Some of the material from the concerts was not included as it was designed specifically to accompany the images and would not make sense without them. Among these fragments was a rather frantic piece titled Die Nacht. With drum and bass-like rhythms this sounds like a manic precursor to the more sedate rhythms of Trunky Groove, later released exclusively on Manuel’s Live at Mt. Fuji CD.

The released material on the Concert for Murnau CD presents a fascinating blend of electronic pieces, compositions for chamber musicians accompanied by electronics and musical vignettes for chamber orchestra alone. The music is frequently sombre and melancholy, perfectly matching the mood of the film. It is clear that Göttsching is exploring new ground here, keen not to produce music in the same mould as his earlier work. In a typically bold move there is no guitar on this album and the three extended pieces, played electronically, in no way imitate Manuel’s 1970s albums. On first listen the chamber pieces may feel like a stretch to fans of rock (and/or) electronic music but repeated listens reveal these to be highly addictive. Auf zur Jagd is simply gorgeous, whilst Accused is both claustrophobic and compelling. Manuel Göttsching has recently stated that his next studio project may involve an orchestra and on this fine form we can only hope that this is the case.

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