An interview with Viola Dana By Ant Gray
Viola Dana—a group committed to composing and performing live scores to iconic films from the silent era—is giving Perth audiences a rare chance to see F.W. Murnau's 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror on the big screen. Rabbit Hole talked to Viola Dana members Kathy Corecig and Pete Guazzelli about their latest project.
Viola Dana was an actor from the silent era. Why name the group after her?
Kathy: She was a good friend of Buster Keaton. After reading a couple of Keaton biographies and learning about how difficult his life was, anyone who was a friend of Keaton’s seemed like a good sort. Part of creating and performing new soundtracks for some of Keaton’s films is, in a way, trying to keep his work alive—so in a small way we’re a supporter of him, just as Viola Dana the actor was a supporter being his friend. That, and we have a viola in the band.
Up till now you’ve concentrated on comedies, especially Keaton’s. Who chose Nosferatu?
Pete: Nosferatu was Kathy’s suggestion, but we were both thinking of choosing something away from comedy and with a strong theme that people connect with.
Kathy: We didn’t want to just be known for doing Keaton comedies. The ‘Blue Grassy Knoll’ is already renowned for that. Pete came up with some really great, strong themes for the score for the first two acts, and I used some of his ideas and some of my own to score the remaining acts.
We have performed it twice now. It’s a very different experience performing a live soundtrack for a horror film as opposed to a comedy—the audience is a lot quieter as they’re not laughing at the gags onscreen. I found this a bit disconcerting when we played it the first time. Something about hearing the audience crack up watching Keaton in the other films we’ve scored had always helped me feel a very immediate connection with the audience.
Having seen your Keaton shows, the audience is much more boisterous than they normally are, especially the kids. I saw you perform Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) at Fremantle Prison for the Fremantle Festival two years back. The children up the front were enthralled. One kid was laughing so hard, the audience started laughing at his reactions instead of Keaton's antics. Is this an effect of doing a life score? Does it encourage audiences to be less passive?
Kathy: Yes, I think it does. Maybe the audience feels less inhibited making noise having living, breathing musicians in front of them who are making sounds in response to the film in real-time.
I recently read that the ‘silent’ era wasn’t so silent. There were hawkers outside competing loudly for audiences to see their shows, and inside the projector made a lot of noise. In part, the music was originally intended to drown all that out. And then sometimes they had audience sing-alongs between films, and sometimes too actors would speak dialogue and there might be live sound-effects as well.
Kathy: It would have been a very different experience going to the cinema back then.
Yeah, I guess it sounds like more of a ‘shared experience’ for the audience rather than a bunch of people having simultaneous yet disconnected experiences. And it seems like having a live score seems to hinge on a paradox—the immediacy and presence of performers providing the score along with the spatial and historical distance of what’s happening onscreen. Yet a live score brings everything into the present again. Seeing your performance of Keaton’s The General from 1926 for example—it felt surprisingly contemporary.
Kathy: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. Having a live score brings things more into the present. Especially when the audience senses that the musicians are interpreting what they see as it flickers across the screen. Whether it’s improvised or scored, there’s something of a freshness and immediacy of inflection in relation to what’s happening. It makes the audience feel deeply immersed in the viewing experience as they’re simultaneously interpreting not only the film but also the musicians’ own live interpretation. And this certainly does make the experience feel more contemporary, as the musicians’ interpretation is something happening long after the film was made, even if the musical elements hark back to the contemporary times of the film itself.
Pete: It’s interesting to hear that the silent era wasn’t really that silent. I haven’t really thought about it until now, but it’s not really that surprising when you think about theatre tradition before cinema. Early cinema goers would have had those noisy, interactive experiences in theatres and probably brought that same rowdiness to the movies. I guess that got lost when cinema evolved and became the dominant entertainment-art form.
It changes things when you stop seeing silent films as being somehow ‘quaint’ and ‘lacking’ and start seeing them as a necessary and vital bridge between theatre and now what we know as the classical Hollywood style.
Pete, you once told me Japan had a different tradition during the silent era. That they used to have people who narrated the film as it happened.
Pete: Yeah. It’s called benshi and it stemmed from the kabuki tradition. The benshi stood to one side of the screen and related the story and text to the audience. I first heard about it watching a documentary on Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s older brother was a benshi.
Do you see Viola Dana as fulfilling a similar function as the benshi by non-verbally ‘narrating’ the film?
I look at technology now and the amount of time we spend in isolation on our devices, and how it’s great to be involved in performing in an older tradition that not only reinterprets, but also reconnects audiences with an older form of relating to technology. Kind of a new-world benshi.
The German cultural critic and composer Theodor Adorno also saw film music as a bridge, but in another way—one that during the silent era helped the audience deal with what would have been at the time a frightening new technology. Adorno, in a book called Composing for the Films (1947) that he wrote with Hanns Eilser, said:
“Since their beginning motion pictures have been accompanied by music. The pure cinema must have had a ghostly effect like that of the shadow play—shadows and ghosts have always been associated. The magic function of music that has been hinted at above probably consisted in appeasing the evil spirits unconsciously. Music was introduced as a kind of antidote against the picture. The need was felt to spare the spectator the unpleasantness involved in seeing effigies of living, acting, and even speaking persons, who were at the same time silent. The fact that they are living and nonliving at the same time is what constitutes their ghostly character, and music was introduced not to supply them with the life they lacked […] but to exorcise fear or help the spectator absorb the shock.
Motion picture music corresponds to the whistling or singing child in the dark."
Kathy: That’s really interesting. It makes me think how audiences would have been more accustomed to actors speaking onstage. Perhaps music in a silent film may have helped to fill the void made by the absence of actors’ tone, emphasis and inflection of speech?
Just like emoticons fill a similar function in text messaging—in silent film the music becomes literally 'expressive'.
Pete: I also agree with Adorno's description of cinema as shadow and ghosts.
Murnau is a beautiful example of a filmmaker who has this understanding.
Maybe Nosferatu intensifies that underlying anxiety about that ghostly voicelessness of the actors onscreen.
Pete: It’s obvious with the subject matter—vampires, the living dead, the phantom—the ‘anti-living’ so to speak. But also, there’s Murnau’s subtle use of shade and light, of techniques like fades and double exposures, which give the film an ‘other-worldly’ essence. I would have loved to have been in the audience when Nosferatu was first screened to feel the audience’s reactions.
Is there great deal of variation in each performance? How much of the score is improvised? Is your experience different each time?
Kathy: There is a lot of scope for improvising—most noticeably at set points within the score. All of our scores have several places where there’s a chord progression or vamp, over which one or more of us will improvise in response to what’s happening onscreen. There’s also the constant improvisation that happens as we interact with the pace of what’s happening, and with what each other is doing.
So, the performance is a lot more organic than people probably realise.
Kathy: Only one of our soundtracks—Sherlock Jr.—is played to a click track, so usually we have to improvise where we may need to linger a little longer until the next scene starts, or quickly transition into a new section if we’re lagging behind. This type of ongoing improvisation or adaptation is what makes every performance exciting and unique.
And since silent films are totally mute—there’s no incidental music, no dialogue, no sound effects—when it comes to scoring and improvising there must be a lot of opportunities to respond to the film.
Kathy: It's an exhilarating feeling having all those opportunities to respond to musically when composing for film. There are considerations of characterisation, themes and inter-relationships in the film that can help musical ideas form. However, there's the overall form of the film—and how I feel its contents fit into that—that has a strong hand in steering how my musical ideas are going to thread together. The threading together then creates 'problems' such as how to relate one musical idea coherently to the next; how to create what feels the right amount of variety of textures, use of instrumentation and musical forms; how to control the overall feeling of intensity in the way I want.
I say ‘problems’ but these considerations often give rise to the most satisfying and interesting parts of the score...at least in my opinion!
It seems that film music is not just about accompanying the action onscreen, but carrying the emotional content of the film.
Kathy: Definitely! It’s a fairly big weight to carry, especially when composing for a film from the silent era. The composer is imposing their own interpretation of the emotional undercurrent on the film and is able to try things musically that can heavily influence the audience’s interpretation of the film. That’s quite an enormous thing to grapple with.
How was it collaborating together this time around on the Nosferatu score? In the past you’ve both worked independently.
Kathy: Although Pete and I collaborated this time, we worked fairly independently on roughly half of the film each. He scored Acts 1 and 2 and I scored Acts 3 to 5. There was some sharing of ideas—I reference some of his themes, particularly towards the end—but the actual composing was done separately.
And how much does the rest of the group—Tristen Parr on cello and Joe Grech on guitar—contribute through the rehearsal process?
Kathy: Joe and Tristen contribute a lot in the way they play what we’ve written, whether it’s the way they shape a phrase, their choice of chords, tone colour and rhythmic feel, or even suggesting things that can be adjusted in the score to work slightly better for their instrument. They’re brilliant musicians and really bring a depth of thought, feeling and skill into everything they play.
When you think about it, there’s a dizzying amount of interpreting going on. Nosferatu is Murnau’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Viola Dana is reinterpreting what Murnau did, and what the actors have brought interpreting Murnau’s story and direction. You and Pete are interpreting each other. The whole group is interpreting the score you’ve written, and every performance is going to be different anyway because you’re responding to the film differently every night. The audience is certainly getting their money's worth!
Kathy: (Laughs) That’s a great way of looking at it!
What drew you to Nosferatu? Do you think Viola Dana will work with material this dark again?
Pete: People love being scared, suspending their reality and allowing themselves to be transported by the phantoms in front of them.
There are some amazing silent films that would be awesome to do—Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), which is another Murnau film, Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Lost World (1925)—but at the moment, with only a few films under our belt, I think it’s great to give the audience an opportunity to experience the ‘must see’ films of the silent era, with a great, live soundtrack.
As for returning to the dark side of cinema—yeah, definitely.