Composing for an ambivalent Vampyr

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Deep as I am now in preparation for this year’s Faclan Festival premiere of Dreyer’s mesmerising Vampyr, I have decided to surface for a moment from the closeness of the blank staves; black and yellow pencils and the ladder of black and white keys that has become the landscape of my looking in recent weeks, to allow for a little reflection on how the materials for this new composition are developing.

Unlike last year’s work on Nosferatu, this year’s work on Vampyr does not draw on any particular geographical, local soundscape for its key elements. Last year, the Jewish music of the communities of the Carpathian Mountains, and the haunting clanging of Carpathian church bells, provided an unexpected sound canvas for composition.

But last year’s film had a forward narrative that was relentlessly logical; clinical in its development of gothic horror, and forgiving in its final release. Vampyr is far more ambivalent a construct, and Dreyer a more complex director.

Both films share similar narrative devices – an unwitting innocent stumbles into an unfolding tale of horror. The perpetrator must be stopped in his / her tracks, and stopped for all eternity, along with his / her minions. Knowledge of evil comes from reading old books. Modern man destroys the evil of the past.

The theme of this year’s Faclan Festival, of which this performance of Vampyr is a part, is Belief, and belief in horrific quirks of nature, such as vampirism, are constructed as unresolved, unstoppable forces infesting humanity. Interestingly, and just like Christianity, knowledge of the phenomena of vampirism, and knowledge of its practice, rituals and threats, comes from ancient books. These books, in part, refer to archaic knowledge and creation mythology, and in part to human experience of the phenomena.

It is reference to written words that cements the truth in belief, and if the two films I am performing in this year’s festival bring any greater examination of the theme, it is in a demonstration of the enduring fantasy of the truth in print and written words, and the power that writing brings to myth. It is perhaps now impossible to imagine belief without discussing the predominance of the written word. Perhaps too, and here we have film too, the decline of ‘belief’ has gone hand in hand with the decline of the predominance of the written word as the principle cypher for human truth.

Dreyer’s Vampyr is a woman, but so shadowy is her presence in the movie – we learn of her wretched past from an old book – that the possibilities rampant in this gender inversion are left unexplored and at best elusive. Added to this is the androgynous nature of the Vampyr herself, looking more like an elderly, Victorian vicar in dark gowns than anything one might expect from more recent explorations of female blood suckers. But we also have the Vampyr in the making, a far younger woman and her potential victim, her sister.

The action in Vampyr takes place in a half-lit world, and in locations that are themselves bizarre and beset with portrayals that owe their inspiration to the post-Surreal world (especially in Paris) that Dreyer knew first hand. We are not in Transylvania, but the otherwise quiet French countryside of Contempierre, leaving little to explore in the geo-politics of the film’s director or its setting there being no particular history of such horrors associated with the area.

For me, in developing the score for the film, I have turned to a harmonic world that mirrors the androgynous nature of the Vampyr; of the film’s lighting, and it’s ambivalent settings. I am turning that guide into a musical palette with little by way of traditional harmonic progression or resolution, but also trying to avoid abstraction. And there is no better starting point for such ambiguity of harmony than in the music of Satie, yes indeed, a Frenchman.

I am not using any direct reference to Satie’s music, more a nod towards Satie’s unresolving harmony based on sequences of diminished and augmented triads. The result is that the piece is almost completely ‘through-composed’, but being a softie for a bloody good tune there are ditties a plenty smuggled in besides the half-world of the unresolving harmonies. As Satie has demonstrated in such pieces as Vexations, sequences of the half-blood relative chords is an astonishingly open and potentially effective approach, and one which in many ways prempted Schonberg’s tone rows.

A final note of my pleasure in this process, is that very much like Nosferatu, Vampyr is also not without its set piece moments, and the joy of writing music around some of the most starkly terrifying set pieces in the history of the horror movies is considerable, and a great challenge to the performer to accompany the art of the director in sound that enhances without dominating.

Vampyr is being performed as part of the Faclan Festival at 8pm on Saturday 3rd November 2012 at An Lanntair, Stornoway.

Nosferatu open the festival on Wednesday 31st October in An Lanntair.

Tickets for both performances are available at the box office: http://www.lanntair.com

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