Hidden from small

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

October 25, 2016

“It’s a classic, one of the greatest horror films of all time. An incredible piece of art!”

That’s Peter Conte, and he should know. Not only has this master organist seen the 1920s silent horror classic countless times, this Friday (9:30 PM in Verizon Hall) he’ll be responsible for a good portion of that horror, when he improvises an organ accompaniment during a live screening of the movie. It’s the perfect Halloween blend of thrills, chills, and spellbinding music.

Nosferatu is beloved by horror fans and film buffs everywhere for its creepy story and stark images, but it nearly died an early death. It’s clearly based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the filmmakers never bothered to get the rights. Although Stoker’s heirs convinced a judge to order all copies of the film destroyed, a few prints survived, and the movie rose from the grave to achieve cinematic immortality.

As was the case with a lot of silent films, this one came with a soundtrack for live performance in the cinema, written by leading German film composer Hans Erdmann. “It’s very much of its time, the 1920s,” says Conte. “It has a late romantic flair, a little bit of dissonance, definitely in a vein that fits a horror film; lots of (spooky) diminished chords.”

Conte bases his improvised accompaniment on Erdmann’s music. “I like to give every character and element in the film a signature tune, or ‘leitmotiv’ in the Wagnerian phrase. There are also little moments where you need to be precise: bells ringing, or a kiss or a hug by the romantic leads. You want to nail them as close as you can, but you want to highlight them very subtly.”

Remember, in performance this is all improvised; there is no score. “I make a cheat sheet, a couple of manuscript pages, mostly notes to myself of scene changes or action that’s happening,” Conte says. “Occasionally I’ll write a bar of music with whatever tune I’ll try to elaborate on. That’s pretty much all I work with, two sheets of paper. I could play through the written-out music in about four minutes if I went straight through, but I’m actually filling 90 minutes!”

One thing he avoids is inserting recognizable tunes the audience might know from a different context. “I think it detracts from the film. If you recognize a tune, all of a sudden you’re drawn away from the film. I try to disappear into the film texture. That’s the greatest compliment; if someone tells me ‘I forgot you were even there.’ That tells me I’ve done my job correctly. That’s the magic.”

Nosferatu will be shown Friday, October 28, at 9:30 PM at the Kimmel Center. Click here for more information.