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Silent film ‘Nosferatu’ to come alive with score by the Andrew Alden Ensemble

Courtesy of the Andrew Alden Ensemble

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A silent film from the ’20s will air twice this weekend at the Gateway Film Center, but to write the score, the composer had to watch the horror film about 50 times.

“Nosferatu,” the 1922 silent-era horror film created by F. W. Murnau, will receive a new touch when it is screened at the Gateway Film Center on Friday. The film will be accompanied by live music from the Andrew Alden Ensemble, performing an original score composed by Andrew Alden.

The ensemble is a quartet from Berklee College of Music in Boston, made up of Alden on keyboard, a percussionist, an electric guitarist and a violinist/violist. 

“Nosferatu” is not Alden’s first experience in composing music for a film. Prior to “Nosferatu,” Alden wrote music for “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” 

“It’s a natural thing for me to combine movies and music because I was a film-scoring major (at Berklee College of Music in Boston) and I love movies,” Alden said. “I love old movies so I combined my own score to ‘Night of Living Dead.'” 

After his experience composing for “Night of the Living Dead,” “Nosferatu” seemed like the next step, Alden said. 

In approaching the score for “Nosferatu,” Alden said he broadened his musical influences. 

“I listened to a whole bunch of different kinds of music,” Alden said. “I listened to world music and jazz.”

And, of course, Alden had to watch the film. He watched “Nosferatu” about 50 times, act by act, while writing the score. 

“‘Nosferatu’ is broken up into acts. I watched the first act five, six times, (and would) start to just jot things down in my notebook,” Alden said. “Then I would move onto the next act and do the same, and eventually I just sat down and looking at my notes and wrote the whole thing.”

Although Alden has a composed score to the film, the musicians improvise on the score during the performances. The ensemble will occasionally play certain movements slower or faster, Alden said, and a system of signals and cues help guide improvisatory moments in the performance. 

“One night we might play a movement of the score for two minutes, and one night we might be a little bit ahead or behind and play it three minutes or four minutes and have more improvisation,” Alden said. “So it’s always this organic, different story-telling that we’re trying to do. So it’s definitely not the same. It’s not like we sit down and press ‘play.'”

Alden guides the ensemble in improvising based on what is happening in the film.

“(Alden) will tell us where to go, and it’s up to us to try to play, improvise and try new things,” said Andy Cantu, the percussionist in the ensemble. “In rehearsals we’ll discuss what went bad, what didn’t.” 

Cantu said there’s a lot of communication around whether to perform the score as written or to improvise, but there is a lot of fun to be had in improvising on the score. 

“I have a lot of fun … as a drummer, trying different sounds, doing an effect on my cymbals (and using) mallets around the drum set,” Cantu said. 

Regardless, “Nosferatu” is an influential film, said Dave Filipi, director of film/video at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in an email. 

“It’s one of the great horror films of the silent era, was very influential on the horror genre and more specifically the vampire genre to come,” Filipi said. “(The film) can also be viewed within the German expressionism movement which is perhaps even more of an influence on future filmmakers than simply horror filmmakers.” 

There are two screenings of “Nosferatu” scheduled on Friday at the Gateway. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 the day of the show for the 2 p.m. showing. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 the day of the show for the 8 p.m. showing. 

Representatives from the Gateway could not be reached for comment.

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