‘A Symphony of Horror’

Austin band adds spectacular live soundtrack to silent vampire flick

In the front row with Count Orlok.

In the front row with Count Orlok.

Photo by Carey Wilson

The Invincible Czars perform Nosferatu, March 10, at the Pageant Theatre.

That F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German expressionist masterpiece, Nosferatu, is able to tell a complex tale of romance and horror with nothing but silent black and white moving images—supplemented by an occasional few words on placards—is an endeavor that required nearly supernatural craftsmanship and narrative skill. But, it could be argued, creating and performing a cohesively evocative live musical accompaniment to such a silent visual narrative is an equally, if not more, impressive task.

Such a collaboration is certainly something you don’t see every day, so I felt extremely lucky to find myself cozily ensconced in the front row of the Pageant Theatre last Thursday night (March 10) for The Invincible Czars’ performance of a modern original soundtrack in sync with a showing of the nearly 100-year-old film. The Austin, Texas-based band features Josh Robins (electric guitar, percussion, samples/loops), Phil Davidson (violin, keyboard, glockenspiel), Leila Henley (bass clarinet, flute, vocals, percussion, synth), and Jeff “The Jaguar” Grauzer (bass), and they brought a sumptuous blend of serious musicianship and good-humored, top-hatted performance art to their “orchestra pit” in front of the Pageant screen.

After a melodramatic introduction of band and film by The Jaguar, the lights dimmed and the theater filled with pulsating electronic sounds, the rattling of dried bones and an ominous vocal chant. Gradually, the initial sounds were supplemented with melodious violin, bass clarinet, shimmering guitar harmonics and the eerie chiming of the glockenspiel as the film’s title, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, played upon the screen.

Unlike typical silent-era movies shot mainly on sound stages resembling live theater settings, Nosferatu—which tells a slightly altered version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—is brilliantly shot in many picturesque locations in Germany and Slovakia, giving the film a visual sense of authenticity that enhances the story.

The Czars’ genius manifests by combining modern as well as era-appropriate musical forms with the images being aurally illustrated. Sprightly romantic piano and violin introduce young lovers Thomas Hutter and his wife, Ellen, who must part when Thomas is sent by his boss to Transylvania to visit a new client named Count Orlok.

The journey to the count’s castle provides plenty of musical inspiration. The melancholic sweetness of intertwining pastoral themes flows with open guitar chords, sweet flute and violin lightening the countryside in Thomas’ departure, and syncopated “horsey” rhythms jogging along with the carriage across the increasingly creepy landscape to the count’s castle.

The plot thickens when Thomas wakes in the castle with what he describes (in a letter to his wife) as twin “mosquito bites” on his neck, and Ellen awakens with a vision of the count threatening her husband. Keeping with what has become a tradition in the band’s silent movie projects—adapting some appropriate classical music into the themes—the Czars, in this case, played Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances on piano, violin, guitar and spook-house electric organ.

The film’s tragic happy ending brings forth a musical crescendo of sadness and triumph that was echoed by the audience’s applause and hooting for this brilliantly realized wedding of contemporary musical sensibility and technology with early 20th century cinema.