Silent film paired with live music

As F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic silent film “Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror” played on the screen at the Whitney Humanities Center, the harmonious sounds of a bow strumming a violin echoed throughout the auditorium.

But the source of the sound remained hidden from the approximately 60 audience members during the screening on Thursday evening.

The silent film event, the brainchild of film and Slavic studies doctoral candidate Jeremi Szaniawski GRD ’10, pairs a silent film with live music accompaniment by two Yale School of Music alumni. Pianist Trevor Gureckis MUS ’07 and violinist Caroline Shaw MUS ’07 returned to New Haven to stand behind the screen, creating the sound track for an otherwise silent film.

“It’s nice to be behind the screen because you can jump around and make faces without anybody else seeing you,” Shaw said.

In 2005, after auditioning students from the School of Music, Szaniawski chose Gureckis and Shaw to accompany “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” and they have led each year’s silent film performance ever since.

In previous years, the musicians played alongside animated, slapstick and melodramatic films, such as Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” But this year, the musicians specifically requested a horror film.

Although “Nosferatu” is considered one of the most critically acclaimed film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” the filmmaker never attained the rights, and he was forced to rename all the characters. Count Dracula, for example, is named Count Orlaf in the film.

The film follows a real estate agent named Hutter, who is captured by Orlaf while visiting the Count’s mansion. After Hutter escapes, Orlaf follows Hutter to his town, where the Count takes control and spreads a plague.

“It’s a very complex film,” Szaniawski said. “I think it’s one of the best films made based upon the novel ‘Dracula,’ and I think it has some very haunting imagery.”

While the musicians followed Szaniawski’s advice — to draw upon the music of German composer Robert Schumann — Gureckis said most of the performance was improvised. The musicians played eerie, atonal electronic sounds every time the vampire appeared on the screen.

“We come up with scaffolding as to what is going to happen and what kind of music we might want, but ultimately when we get on the stage and play, it is always different,” Gureckis said.

The inspiration for the silent film screenings at Yale came from Szaniawski’s experiences at these types of performances in Belgium. Before talking films, live music accompanied all silent films screenings. But today, the act of watching silent films with live music is harder to find.

At these screenings, Szaniawski said, the viewer gets a more lively perspective on the film.

“Live music is one of the most original ways to experience a film,” he said. “A film lacks a direct performance … and concerts and ballets have liveliness, but you miss the magic of the magnified image from cinema.”

Although Gureckis and Shaw now live and work in New York, they relish the opportunity to return for this annual event each year. Gureckis works as an assistant to composer Philip Glass, and played on dozens of Glass’ recent projects, including the Academy Award–nominated score for the 2006 film “Notes on a Scandal.”

“It’s a lot of fun to come back to Yale,” Gureckis said.

Two audience members interviewed by the News said the live music component enhanced their viewing experiences.

“I thought the musicians played very well,” Maya Cantu DRA ’10 said. “I like hearing live music with silent films, and I hope to see more of it here.”

The screening of Nosferatu was followed by the screening of a modern interpretation of the Dracula story, “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diaries,” a silent film from 2002 that has its own score. The event was sponsored by WHC Director and Spanish professor Maria Rosa Menocal, and it was organized by Szaniawski and the Yale Film Society.

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