Monday, July 15, 2013

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)
seen @ Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

I imagine the first time I heard the music of Philip Glass was probably in a movie, definitely during my video store years. It may have been Candyman; it may have even been The Truman Show, but I'll bet it was probably Koyaanisqatsi. If you've never seen it, I recommend it; it's an experimental art film featuring images of the natural and the man-made world, set to Glass' music. I would say that there's nothing quite like it, except it was so popular they made a sequel.

When Ruth recently did a post about Glass, I had commented that Glass' music is the kind that's so mesmerizing that it'll make you forget where you are. (I had recently heard his music in a bookstore and it took me awhile to reconnect to the world after I left.) I wouldn't call myself a fan of Glass' work, but I certainly appreciate it. It's atmospheric, ethereal; not the kind of music that grabs you by the collar but entices you to come to it instead.

In 1999, Glass composed a score to accompany the classic horror film Dracula that was part of a remastered edition of the film. The score was performed by the Kronos Quartet. The original film has next to nothing in the way of a score, so adding music to it is a welcome addition. Last Saturday, as part of Brooklyn's annual summer performing arts festival Celebrate Brooklyn, Glass, along with his Philip Glass Ensemble, performed their score live in accompaniment to the film itself. 

It was the first time I had seen a "talkie" with a live score. On occasions where I'd seen silent films with live scores, the music was a very powerful, very dominant presence. In these cases, the music informed the visuals and provided a context for what was going on, whether it was a single organ or a small orchestra. Here, the music didn't have to do as much of the heavy lifting, so to speak, because there was dialogue, but because the music was live, it had more substance, more immediacy, than if it were part of the film's audio track.

The Ensemble consisted of Glass on piano, plus horns, woodwinds and what must have been a keyboard (he was on the far end of the stage so I didn't see it), plus a conductor. I was sitting in the front and to the right, about eight or nine rows back, so I had a great view of Glass himself. I liked the fact that the score allowed for pauses. There were brief moments where a certain musical passage would end and you'd hear the dialogue for a little bit, and then a new passage would begin. Plus they allowed for music within the film itself, as well as important sound effects.

That said, while the music was beautiful, it didn't make the movie any scarier. That may simply be an inherent element of the film itself, made in 1931 and viewed by a 2013 audience - you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone truly scared by Dracula today - but it did make me aware of something else about Glass' music: it rarely makes you feel any deep emotion. Its beauty is a rather chilly one, an austere one, and while it's possible for one to be moved by a certain passage, its inherently repetitive nature doesn't really reach your soul the way composers like Beethoven or Mozart do. 

Glass' score didn't bore me; on the contrary, it made me appreciate Dracula more - but it didn't thrill me either. Part of me thinks it may be because he was working with a "talkie" film and his music couldn't overpower the dialogue, but even if it were a silent film, I doubt it'd be much different. I mentioned Koyaanisqatsi earlier; that's a film without a narrative or dialogue, so it's easier to project whatever emotions or thoughts one wants onto the combination of images and music. Still, like I said, I did enjoy seeing Glass perform live, in a venue like this.

As for the film itself, once again I was amazed at the difference seeing it on a big screen makes. Drac's castle loomed much bigger than in my memory of seeing it on TV, Renfield was creepier, Mina more beautiful and good ol' Bela Lugosi was a much more commanding presence. It's easy to forget sometimes how influential this film has become, how iconic the image of Lugosi as Dracula is and how every vampire movie that followed owes a debt to it. Seeing it on a big screen is a reminder of what this movie has meant to cinema history.

It had rained on and off all afternoon. I remember standing in line outside the Celebrate Brooklyn front gate in Prospect Park holding my umbrella as it drizzled for awhile, but it stopped well before the gates opened. I had gotten there fairly early, so I got a great seat, though as I entered I noticed that there were people who chose to camp out on the grassy area behind the seats. This kinda surprised me. I remember sitting in that area when I saw The Swell Season perform here a couple of years ago and I hated sitting there - and that area fills up pretty quickly once the regular seats are taken.

There was an opening musical act - that's one of the many great things about CB; you get more than your money's worth every time - a violinist named Kishi Bashi. I'm still not sure how to describe his music. He and his band would play a riff and it would go on a repeating loop and then he'd layer it with other riffs and adjust them as the songs went on. His vocals were high and wailing. He had one guy who played what looked like an electric banjo, but sometimes he'd bang on it like a drum. My description can't do it justice, but it wasn't bad. Way different from anything you'd hear anyplace else.

Horror of Dracula


  1. Sounds like an interesting day. On TV "Dracula" creaks, but I found on the big screen that, while it doesn't soar, it has much more of an impact. I always felt the right score would help the film immensely.

  2. Glass' was a good score; I'm not sure if it was the 'right' score though.


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