General News / October 17, 2017

Matthew Nolan discusses early horror films & reimagining the score of ‘Vampyr’

General News / October 17, 2017

Matthew Nolan discusses early horror films & reimagining the score of ‘Vampyr’

“Dreyer brings an even more esoteric sensibility to bear in his work, and ‘Vampyr’ has a transcendental quality like almost no other film from that period. Dreyer takes us on an unusual journey to the ‘beyond’.”


It’s nearly Halloween in Dublin, which means that cinemas and venues across the city will be hosting screenings of classic horror films in the weeks running up to October 31.

On Friday October 27 however, something special is taking place.

Renowned composer Matthew Nolan has assembled a team of musicians that include David Kitt, aka New Jackson, (synth / midi guitar), Margie Lewis (vocals / violin), Erik Friedlander (cello / live processing) and Catherine Sikora (tenor and soprano sax / flute) to reimagine a pioneering film in the horror genre.

The group of artists will perform live a new score for the 1932 French-German Horror outing ‘Vampyr’ during a screening of the film on the alter of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

We caught up with Matthew Nolan to discuss why he chose Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s chilling piece of film. Click here for tickets to the screening.

Where did the initial concept come from?

There is no initial concept as such. I’ve been in interested in Dreyer’s earlier films for many years and even scored ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ with my old band 3epkano back in 2005/06. ‘Vampyr’ for me is a much more intriguing proposition than the earlier movie. In truth, the concept emerged from a conversation that started with Tom and Maria at the Bram Stoker Festival.

The first project we conceived together was last year’s screening of Todd Browning’s ‘Dracula’ – which myself and Sean Mac Erlaine produced new music for. This was a huge success for the festival and opened up a new and exciting creative space for me. We picked the conversation up at the start of 2017 to see what might be viable this year. Many films that were either direct Stoker adaptations or influenced by his work were considered. However, it struck me that it might be more interesting to look at what influenced Stoker’s creation. This of course lead us to Sheridan Le Fanu and his collection of short stories ‘In a Glass Darkly’. Vampyr, as you know, is loosely based on two stories from this collection. This made total sense and allows us to offer an event that celebrates not just a cinematic legacy but opens up a meaningful dialogue with a literary antecedent to Stoker’s Dracula.

When I first saw the team you had involved I knew it was going to be a reimagining of the score, not just a live version. Shed of Ostgut Ton soundtracking ‘Nosferatu’ a few years ago came to mind. Were you worried about messing with a classic, or were you confident you’d do it justice?

This is always the hardest thing to work through before starting any new project. It’s particularly tough when the original score works so well. Zeller’s music is nuanced, understated and consistently echoes Dreyer’s ambition. However, once you get beyond those doubts and neuroses you have to just trust your instincts. I’ve been through this process many times and adhere to a simple guiding principle. Which is, it’s our job to serve the film!

If a respectful attitude is maintained at all times then we give ourselves the best chance at doing the movie justice. In many ways this becomes an open experiment and like any experiment a measure of failure must be acknowledged. Ultimately, the audience in the Cathedral will make that call.

How did you capture the nightmarish nature of the film in the live score?

Myself, David, Erik and Margie decided on a different starting point for creating the score. We deliberately avoided a more traditional approach which relies on the creation of various musical motifs. The structure and atmosphere of ‘Vampyr’ was calling for something different. Unusual textures and experimenting with tonality became our focus. This dictated certain decisions around instrumentation and we were also careful to make sure that creative decisions were made with the performance space in mind.

Vampyr: Screening & Live Score performance

St Patrick’s Cathedral offers a unique opportunity to make the venue part of your instrument. By that I mean its acoustic properties will be utilised to maximum effect!

You’ve worked on projects that involved classic films like ‘A Page of Madness’ and as you mentioned ‘Dracula’ with Bela Lugosi. What is it about those early decades of film that draws you in?

For the most part it’s the relatively open space that has been left for sonic interpretation – at least in the work by directors I admire. Almost all of what I’ve worked with from that era has been completely silent.

The filmmakers I admire the most in this period – Murnau and Cocteau in particular – can tell a story visually. This affords any musician/composer a degree of latitude to experiment. ‘Dracula’ posed different challenges given the amount of dialogue but myself and Sean actually used this as an opportunity to experiment even further. Each film offers its own invitation in terms of musical response and you just hope that what you produce is enhancing the theatrical presentation whilst maintaining respect for the work’s integrity.

I’m a big fan of early horror too, visually and more recently with an appreciation of the scoring, you clearly gravitate to the genre around that time too?

There is just something about that period which strikes a chord. It is particularly resonant in German cinema from the 20s and early 30s. There is a psychological depth and sense of metaphysical terror that is utterly compelling. It’s a well-worn thesis but Weimar cinema was a frightening reflection of the evolving social and political reality of the time.

Vampyr: Screening & Live Score performance

Cinema seemed to provide insight into the unconscious motivations and fears of a nation. This darker terrain is completely fascinating and the reason why Lang, Murnau and Pabst have been so important to me. Dreyer brings an even more esoteric sensibility to bear in his work, and ‘Vampyr’ has a transcendental quality like almost no other film from that period. Dreyer takes us on an unusual journey to the “beyond”.

You’ve recruited some pretty talented names in Irish music, across a number of different genres and styles. Most notably for us David Kitt as he just featured in Issue 003 of our magazine. How will the process work up on the alter?

I guess so. The wonderful folks I’ve put together for this collaborative venture do seem to cover a lot of musical ground. The crucial common denominator is their ability to put creative ego to one side and stay focused on the what the film needs.

The kind of openness and generosity that these guys possess is what makes this project particularly special for me.

Click here for tickets to the screening and live score performance.