With the looming inevitability of Halloween, the Princeton Garden Theater gets into the restless spirit of things with screenings of two horror classics accompanied by live music. “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) will be presented by musicians of Not So Silent Cinema on Wednesday, October 25. “Carnival of Souls” (1962) will be performed by violist Adam Sterr on Monday, October 30. Both shows will begin at 7:30 p.m.
“Phantom,” of course, sports one of the signature roles of Lon Chaney Sr., promoted in his day as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Chaney designed his own distinctive and often very painful make-up. Viewers at the film’s premiere screamed or fainted at the Phantom’s unmasking, which still has the power to jolt. Another highlight is a costume ball at which Chaney appears as the Red Death. The film is good, histrionic fun.
A brand new, original score has been written for the silent classic by Brendan Cooney. As founder and music director of Not So Silent Cinema, Cooney tailors his instrumentation and pulls together different groups of musicians to suit each project. His score for “Phantom” employs piano, organ, and strings.
“I try to give different films different sonic textures and compositional styles,” he says. “That calls for different groups of musicians. I guess it’s also an excuse for me just to get to play with different people.”
Playing live with a film presents a unique set of challenges, especially for an ensemble of performers. Cooney says he used to bring a clock, but now that he has been doing it for so long, he has gotten a feel for the rhythm.
“As long as the music is well-written and really timed well, and I remember the tempos for the different sections, we don’t really need it,” he says. “The clock kind of gets in the way of things. The scores are also designed so that there’s lots of room for catching up. I’ve developed different compositional tricks for the inevitability that things don’t always go as perfectly as planned.”
These include “little vamps” at the end of sections before the next cue comes along so that it’s easy for the musicians to get back on track.
“Everything’s time-coded to specific minutes and seconds for the whole film,” he says, “but there’s also a lot of freedom within that, maybe sections where someone might improvise for a while, or very short moments of improvisation on a notated theme. The musical ideas are very carefully timed to line up to what’s happening. There are recurring motifs and themes that develop in different ways, like characters that develop throughout the film.”
Cooney, who makes his home in Philadelphia, studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. As a performer, he divides his time between jazz piano with the Rhinoceri Trio, old-time and bluegrass banjo with Noggin Hill, and versatile chamber musician with the New River Ensemble. As a teacher, he has experience in both the jazz and classical fields. He is a certified instructor of the Taubman Approach, which he studied with Robert Durso at Princeton’s Golandsky Institute after “mangling his hands with a jazz performance degree.” The Taubman approach emphasizes healthy technique in pursuit of musical expressivity.
It was about a decade ago that he got the idea for Not So Silent Cinema. “I got into silent film kind of by accident, or just by happenstance,” he says. “Somebody asked me years ago to accompany a silent film on a concert series that they were doing. I’d never even seen a silent film, but I went and did the gig, and I thought, this is really fun — this is a really different way of thinking about music. It allowed me to focus on my own skills as a musician. So I started to go with small ensembles, and the scores got more and more sophisticated over time, and now it’s become its own entity.”
His music for Not So Silent Cinema has enlivened comedies by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and lent zest to Douglas Fairbanks’ acrobatics, with a lively blend of flamenco, tango, salsa, mariachi, and jazz for the swashbuckling classic “The Mark of Zorro” (1920). His score for “Phantom” tempers melodrama with modernist textures, to ratchet up the tension, and includes quotations from Gounod’s “Faust,” as befits a story set in and beneath the Paris Opera House.
“I think if people have never seen a silent film with live music, they don’t always know what to expect,” Cooney says. “Seeing a film with a live ensemble is a really different experience than seeing a film in a theater. It kind of brings a film to life, and it makes it feel a little more like you’re a part of it.”
Not So Silent Cinema is much in demand this time of year, with performances of Cooney’s scores for “Phantom” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) in Bethlehem, Ambler, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, October 31, the musicians will present “Vampyr” (1932) at FringeArts, 140 North Columbus Boulevard, in Philadelphia. More information and clips are posted on the group’s website, www.notsosilentcinema.com.
While every expense was lavished on “The Phantom of the Opera,” which nowadays would be described as a Universal Pictures tent-pole release, “Carnival of Souls” is a bona fide, dyed-in-the-ghoul cult classic. Produced on a budget of only $33,000, “Souls” caught fire on the midnight movie circuit and through showings on late-night television.
The film’s director, Herk Harvey, plays a supernatural stalker who plagues a young organist as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery following a tragic automobile accident. In fact, it is tempting to dismiss “Carnival of Souls” as an automobile wreck in itself, but the film possesses the undeniable ability to compel and disturb. Its atmosphere of surreal menace has informed the films of George A. Romero, David Lynch, and many others.
The original soundtrack sports an eerie score for organ by Gene Moore. However, little of the music overlaps with the film’s minimal dialogue. That realization tempted Adam Sterr to try something different.
Adam Sterr, an experienced musician and dancer, is accustomed to working with other artists. “I thought, if I’m writing a score for a film, it’s kind of like a collaboration. It’s already something that another artist has created, but I’m trying to create my own thing to complement it. A lot of people have done silent films. I wanted to do something with dialogue. It had to be something in the public domain. It had to be something that I actually like. It had to have music that didn’t overlap dialogue because I was going to have to take the music out. The film that immediately came to mind was ‘Carnival of Souls.’”
Sterr had first seen “Souls” while growing up in Wisconsin on a late-night B-movie outlet called “Chiller Theater.” Hervey, the mastermind behind the film, which continues to make money, never saw a cent for his creation, thanks to a shady distribution deal and the fact that nobody bothered to file for copyright. “I had seen ‘Carnival of Souls’ in high school, and it always stuck with me as a very visually interesting film,” Sterr says.
Once he made the decision, he secured a digital copy of the film and took out all the sound in between the dialogue. That proved to be the easy part. Sterr knew that he would have to go in and “Foley” the soundtrack. Jack Foley, an early sound technician who worked at Universal Studios, pioneered the insertion of sound effects into films to synchronize with the onscreen action. “It’s really jarring to go from a film that has all of the background — room atmosphere, sounds effects, any noises — to dead silence, so I knew I would have to go in and address that. So the bulk of the work was actually going in and putting in all of the background noises from the parts where I had to remove the sound.”
Sterr worked as a professional dancer with the ballet companies of Richmond and Milwaukee and served in an artistic capacity with the Portland Ballet before moving to Princeton last year. His partner worked in Portland’s wardrobe department. When she was offered the job of costume designer and fabricator for the American Repertory Ballet, the couple relocated to central New Jersey. Sterr himself now works as an instructor at ARB’s Princeton Ballet School.
However, most Princetonians probably recognize him as “that guy that plays outside the Garden.” Weather permitting, Sterr busks with his viola at the corner of Nassau Street and Vandeventner Avenue. The viola has been a parallel passion for him that he has pursued from the time he was boy. He received instruction on the instrument at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music before graduating from Butler College with a BFA in dance.
He was invited to play inside the theater after pitching the idea for “Souls” to the Garden management. “I sent it out to a couple of different fringe festivals and went and played it there. Then I pitched it to the Garden, saying look, this is perfect for Halloween. I’m doing it around and getting a good response to it. Are you interested?”
Sterr has performed his score, with the film, at fringe festivals in Providence, Rhode Island, Rochester, New York, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. After his appearance at the Garden, he will be taking it to Baltimore.
Sterr’s recent album, called “Space Radio,” is made up entirely of original music for viola. Working in the studio, he was able to create chords, harmony, and counterpoint through the use of multitrack. “I wrote all the music, I played all the parts,” he says. “After I did the album I was thinking, how can I continue to play this music? Because when it’s avant-garde chamber music, there are not a whole lot of avenues that would allow that many performances of that kind of music. It’s very niche.” Eventually he struck upon the idea of playing with film.
“I started to experiment with different ideas I had, some from the album and some that I created just for the movie. Everything I play for the film is live. There’s nothing pre-recorded, but I’m using looping peddles. Essentially what they do is you play a phrase, and then you hit the pedal and it plays that phrase back. It records whatever length of phrase you want to play and continues to play it back until you stop it. You can stack layers on top, however many you want. You can just keep stacking layers. I’m using a couple of looping pedals. That way I can fill out and create these soundscapes, rather than just have a solo viola line throughout the film. I wanted to be able to pull this off as a solo artist, but I also wanted it to have a layered sound.”
A multi-octave pedal is employed to emulate the sound of an organ. “Through the film, you have straight acoustic viola music, you have multi-layered soundscapes of looping, and then you also have poly-octave organ kind of music that I’m playing. So it’s a variety of different things that I’m doing with one instrument. I play it all from memory, so I don’t have a score. I have tons of notes that I’ve taken on it as part of the creative process, but when I do it live, I do it from memory along with the film. There is some degree of spontaneity, but it’s not totally free-form improv at all. It’s very set.”
“A few types of people should really enjoy this: cult film fanatics, people who like to see live music, and people who like to take in unique art projects. I think all three of those groups of people will definitely like it, and just the general movie-going public should enjoy it, too, because there’s nothing about this that makes it inaccessible.”
Not So Silent Cinema, Princeton Garden Theater, 160 Nassau Street, Princeton. “The Phantom of the Opera,” Wednesday, October 25, and Adam Sterr’s “Carnival of Souls” (1962) Monday, October 30, 7:30 p.m. $9.50 to $13. 609-279-1999 or www.thegardentheatre.com.
Audio samples from Sterr’s “Space Radio” are posted online at www.adamsterr.bandcamp.com.