The weekend of July 11-13, the Trylon Microcinema’s ongoing 5th Anniversary Silent Film Festival took a turn toward the dark side with the 1922 German Expressionist classic Nosferatu. The film, subtitled “A Symphony of Horror,” tells the story of a young couple named Hutter and Ellen whose lives fall under the shadow of the fearsome vampire Count Orlok. Minneapolis band Fate’s Palette composed and performed an original score for the film, their first-ever foray into film scoring.
Together since Fall 2011, the band’s members (pictured from left to right in the photo) are Owen Brafford on bass and piano, Lindsay Keating on clarinet, bass clarinet, and vocals, Evan Keane on percussion, and Sarah Muellerleile on violin.
Owen Brafford describes Fate’s Palette as “a dark chamber rock group with influences ranging from punk cabaret to contemporary classical.”
For the film score, he notes, “We pulled from modernist composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, ambient music and minimalist classical, and even a dash of doom metal, specifically Sunn 0))).”
The following are highlights from a conversation I had with the band on July 14, as they were recovering from their weekend of performances at the Trylon.
How long did you work on the Nosferatu score?
LlNDSAY: We had our album release February 1 [for their debut album Rule of Thirds]. We probably sort of started talking about [the score] in March. We worked on it a little bit in April. Owen was gone all of May. We really spent June and July working on it a lot.
OWEN: We kind of upped our scheduling game, lots of late nights and frequently early mornings, too. None of us are morning people.
LINDSAY: And I’m not a late-night person.
Did anything surprise you about the actual performances of the film?
EVAN: We’ve never played such a captive audience before, so that was interesting. You’re in a movie theater, so you have to be quiet. Usually we play in bars, where there’s always people talking and drinking. Usually there’s always somebody talking at our shows. And it was nice, because we get really quiet in a lot of parts, so people could actually hear that, too.
SARAH: It was nice to give us an opportunity to get the whole range of dynamics that we’re capable of, too. . . Normally we have to be loud in bars, because you’ve got to be louder than the people talking.
LINDSAY: I was surprised by the difference between performing to an audience at a bar and performing alongside a film. . . I’m the singer, so I’m usually up-front, and I’m performing and people are talking, so it was interesting to play music in a completely different context. I also felt less nervous as we did more performances, because I felt like, oh, the audience isn’t looking at me, they’re looking at the screen, and I’m looking at the screen and I can’t even see them. So I just got into my groove.
OWEN: I was surprised—maybe I shouldn’t say this–at the ticket sales. We kind of play some weirdo music, and I’d say the film score’s a little weirder than we usually did, but you know, we sometimes have trouble getting our friends and colleagues to come out to a bar. But then we somehow packed this show. And I think a lot of that was the notoriety of the film. It was just surprising.
LINDSAY: It sold out every night, and they had a waiting list, where they had to turn people away. . . It was really exciting.
OWEN: We’ve never been in that situation. It was kind of unusual for us.
LINDSAY: (Laughing) It was great! And [the Trylon] invited us back. They were already like, “So for the next one. . .”
Do you have some ideas about what film you’d like to do next?
OWEN: I do.
LINDSAY: (Gasping and laughing) You do? I’m thinking, “We just finished this one! I don’t know.” I’m in grad school [for a degree in library and information science from the University of Illinois], so I’m thinking about being done with grad school in a couple weeks. I mean, it would be really fun to do again, but we’d have to figure out a more effective way to work on writing the score. Because it was really hard.
OWEN: This was a learning experience, definitely.
LINDSAY: I’ve only ever written five-minute pieces, and I felt like initially starting, what do I do? I don’t understand. How do I write ninety cohesive minutes? How do you go from writing a five-minute tight little song into ninety minutes of music that flows? So I felt really stuck at the beginning because of that. We sort of broke the film down into parts. So we were like, OK, “The Death Ship,” “The Death March,” “Hutter and Ellen,” “The Finale.” We would break it into parts so we’d have something digestible.
Did composing for the film change your perceptions of silent films at all?
OWEN: It didn’t change how I see silent films, except maybe the potential of one, in that, based on what kind of music you write, it can really dramatically change how an audience is perceiving a particular passage. I think we had one section certainly that we played it very ambiently, but I think the original score [the 1922 score by Hans Erdmann, meant to be played by theater orchestras] called for much more tense, aggressive strings, sort of these orchestral swells, but it was really full, and we went with much more sparse. When we had that section done, it was interesting to watch the two different versions. The one that was much more full, I felt like that scene wasn’t living up to the music, whereas I felt like what we did, at least satisfied what I was feeling in the film there, which was kind of a sparse segment, in terms of the action and the progression of the plot.
Which scene was that?
OWEN: It’s the arrival of the ship. After Count Orlok takes the ship.
EVAN: It’s when the ship’s coming into the town.
OWEN: And then he’s carrying the coffin around, that whole part.
Were there any challenges that came up during the actual performances?
SARAH: The first show was not as good as the rest.
LINDSAY: But we were getting started! I mean, it was good, but we’re just critical on ourselves.
EVAN: We had some technical difficulties, too. One of our amps was crackling.
OWEN: We also had the amps pointed straight at the audience, and I think we learned to rig them leaning back about 45 degrees so the sound bounced around the room a little more, partly so it’s not really loud for some people, but also so others can hear those parts better. It’s a small room for amplified sound, so trying to figure out how to distribute the sound a little more evenly is kind of a challenge.
Had you rehearsed the score at the Trylon before the actual performances?
EVAN: No, we didn’t really rehearse it in [the Trylon].
SARAH: We’d only rehearsed it in our practice space.
OWEN: It was nice to have not practiced and rehearsed it in there, because as we were writing it, we’ve kind of got our practice space geared so we can all hear each other pretty well. But in [the Trylon], I couldn’t hear the clarinet or violin amps very well. . . just because I’m tucked into this weird corner, I’m right next to the drums, I’ve got Evan’s amp in my ear. It kind of made it tricky to hear everything really well. And there’s no sound guy working some table, so we just kind of have to trust that our volumes blend well.
EVAN: It must have been horrible having my amp in your ear, too, huh?
Now that you’ve experienced the whole process from beginning to end, what stands out about the experience of writing the score together?
LINDSAY: Our band, we base all our songs off paintings. . . Every song we write, we use a painting for inspiration. So it was pretty interesting to go from a still image to a moving image for writing. . . I didn’t see the film as a regular film, from beginning to end with a plot. I feel like I saw it in snippets of moving art work. . . I didn’t see it as cohesive. I saw it as these beautiful snippets of filmmaking.
EVAN: That’s kind of how we wrote the piece. We picked apart sections. The first part that we actually wrote was the part when they’re carrying all the plague people out of their houses. “The Death March” is what we called it. And that’s like almost at the end of the movie. That was the first part that we wrote. We wrote a bunch of different pieces and then pieced them together. We had some themes in mind, for sure, but we broke it apart section by section. I think it would have been really tough to just start at the beginning and write it all the way through.
SARAH: I think in the future if we’re going to do this again, we would watch it and find out what the climax of the movie is, and write that part first, then work from there. That’s what I would do.
EVAN: I don’t even know what the climax of this movie is!
SARAH: I would have a really effective main theme, and then hint at it earlier, and then return to it later. That’s what I would do. That’s what I took from doing this.
EVAN: I mean, we did do that. . .Just not in that order.
(More group laughter)
SARAH: We didn’t do it very efficiently, is what I’m saying.
LINDSAY: No, we didn’t do it efficiently.
SARAH: We’ve been doing it for a long time very inefficiently, and then once we had to be efficient, we figured out how to do it.
OWEN: It was a learning process.
SARAH: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, this is what I learned from it.
OWEN: I already have a list of films.
SARAH: Oh, God.
Anything else you want to add?
OWEN: It was really interesting with this film score, that rather than trying to write a cohesive song. . . this was more like, we can pull from whatever we want, each one of us, and we can try to figure out how it fits in. So there was a lot of excitement about parts, and then vetoing of parts. It got kind of dramatic sometimes. But I think a lot of that was the variety of music we were pulling from.
I would say anybody who’s curious about writing film scores, pull from whatever you want and see what happens. I think that was one of the more enjoyable parts for us was the freedom that not writing in song structures allowed us.
SARAH: But at the same time, when you don’t have any constraints–
OWEN: You can get lost.
EVAN: The second show that we had, there was a bunch of young composers there.
LINDSAY: I think I said, “Don’t scrutinize us too much.”
EVAN: Yeah, they were all at a camp at the U of M [Junior Composers, an annual music camp sponsored by the North Central Region of the National Federation of Music Clubs]. That was probably the most intimidating audience we could have.
LINDSAY: Thirteen-year-old composers!
EVAN: The professor came up to me after the show and he said that they do this [camp] every year, and they do a different theme, and this year, they were all writing film scores. And so they came to watch us do our film score. He was like, “That was amazing, you guys did a great job, and the kids really liked it. Some of them were scared, some of them thought it was the best thing ever, and they’re all going to steal all of your ideas.” And I was like, that’s great. That’s what music is all about. We stole from other people, so they should steal from us, too.
The Trylon Microcinema’s 5th Anniversary Silent Film Festival continues the last two weekends of July with the 1927 science-fiction trailblazer Metropolis screening July 18-20 and Buster Keaton’s Go West and The High Sign July 25-27. Sold-out shows are highly likely, so getting tickets early is recommended. All tickets are $10.
The Trylon is located at 3258 Minnehaha Avenue South, Minneapolis, and the phone number is 612-424-5468. For show times, tickets or more information, visit take-up.org.