Organ Reframed: Nosferatu Session

“Children of the night…what music they make” – Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Organ Reframed’ three-day festival aimed to unchain the organ from its strict rooting with a varied and experimental programme that challenges perceptions and shines a new light on what the stunning instrument can really do. The organ has been confined for far too long, and on opening night it was not only reframed but uncaged, set free, dismantling the social boxes that others have placed on it, and stepping out of its musical confines that have, up to this point, been unfairly placed on the instrument for reasons unknown.

The incredible Union Chapel transformed into Transylvania for a screening of the 1922 German Expressionist horror film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (a Symphony of Horror). Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is a classic and Max Schreck’s legendary performance as Count Orlok (changed from Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula) is still absolutely terrifying to this day. Seeing the film set to a new score by composers Irene and Linda Buckley inside such a grand church, with a row of candles flanking the upper balconies and live instrumentation on stage, was something else. It wasn’t unsettling as such; the horror was more defined, its presence surrounding the church in a fog of dread.

The chapel’s 1877 organ, played by James McVinnie, was accompanied by Robert Ames on viola and Laura Moody on cello. The chapel dimmed to pitch-black, and as soon as the film began to play, the two musicians took their seats on the stage. Electronic drones, sighs and ominous rumblings were inserted into the score, providing certain scenes with an unspeakable dread and filling the chapel with an eerie atmosphere. An unholy choir entered, chanting out the name of the vampire like a warning to the unwary: Nosferatu.

The organ started Act I by playing a bright, reassuring passage. Hutter was at home with his beloved wife, and the music reflected the comfort of home. When he learned of the journey he was to make across the Carpathian Mountains, the music died. Silence took over, and then an ominous, rumbling drone began to rise. He was entering a land occupied by werewolves and phantoms. Viola and cello played with quicker, plucked notes as he journeyed deeper and deeper into the countryside; the attack of the strings sounded like prodding footsteps. The temperature actually dropped in the church as he approached the cold, decrepit castle of Count Orlok. The tension went up a notch until, with Hutter looking on, the carriage came around the bend, driven by a familiar stranger who took him the rest of the way to the castle. When the door to Hutter’s room swung open of its own accord and Count Orlok appeared in the doorway, the rumbling, menacing drones kept rising and rising. A genuine presence of evil pervaded the grainy atmosphere, as well as a feeling of utter helplessness in the face of this ageless, dusty thing. Shadows were left on the spirit as well as on the neck.

In more recent years, the vampire has had something of a sexualised makeover, but this is what it should really look like (the kind seen in Dracula, Nosferatu The Vampyre, Salem’s Lot and N0S4R2). Sex and eroticism are important elements in the history of the vampire (feasting on a woman without sin, the drinking of another’s blood), but the original vampires lack charm and are in desperate need of courtship classes. Orlok himself – itself – resembles a day-walking zombie who’s substituted sunshine for soil, a soulless entity left to stalk the Earth. There was nothing romantic about this, nor was it a teenage love story (what’s up with that, anyway?) It was invasive and startling, and the screeching string sections were proof of it.

The score was menacing, but it was also foreboding. In order for the music to be effective, tension can be prolonged but not sustained. As a result, Buckley’s score was always cold and controlled, and the restrained instrumentation appropriately adjusted to the scenes on film. The drones came from the cold, rotten earth, bringing a plague on board its ship. Whenever Count Orlok appeared, the sighs and whispers immediately fled. They were replaced by a more primeval drone that sounded as if it’d risen out of a coffin itself. The organ became a dissonant beast in some parts, with clashing intervals pumping blood through the score. The organ grew louder until a shot of the ship sailing on the sea came into view. You could feel the salty spray of the sea breeze as the sound of the water appeared.

Although the film is now rated a tame PG, it was a frightening experience, and an excellently realised one. Those iconic shots lit up the dark chapel – a growing shadow on the wall, rising out of his coffin on the ship, or looking out at you from across the street, with shrieking strings accompanying a stalking, jerky movement of a hideous creature. It was an experience like nothing else, a cinematic and musical experience bound together as one, like Nosferatu and the victim. The organ lowered its fangs into its audience. It was a symphony of horror.

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