The experience of watching Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ accompanied by
a Hauschka performance was almost a dream in a nightmare. Relentless yet just
barely happening. When taking in the experience as a whole, the flaws were out
stripped by the pleasure of being removed from one’s everyday life and placed in a
psychedelic nightmare featuring an old lady vampire called Chopin.
The film (originally mostly silent, now completely silent) was made in the 1932 and
was loosely based on the lesbian vampire tale ‘Carmilla’ from the short story
collection ‘In a Glass Darkly’. It features experimental filming techniques and an
ambiguous plot, creating a continuous developing mood. At times it’s highly
engaging whilst at others it becomes hard to follow. What remains constant is the
unnerving atmosphere which pervades every scene. This is remarkable considering it
does not fall back on the usual vampire set pieces of sharp teeth and blood on tap.
Lead actor Nicholas De Gunzburg looks like has seen as ghost for the entire film,
even though he rarely sees any. The grin on the vampire’s victim’s face is so
menacing it could get a squeal out of Van Helsing, yet the viewer is not witness to her
getting bitten, nor does she attack anyone. Dreyer managed to instil horror by way of
subtlety, making this a film that stands out in the genre. Today it is thought of as one
of his masterpieces.
The music which accompanied the film had the potential to be perfect for this kind of
picture. Hauschka specialises in ‘prepared piano’, altering the instrument’s
pitch, timbre and dynamic response by attaching various trinkets and curios. The
composer allowed me to have a cheeky close-up peek inside the piano. Knocking
around the strings were at least thirty ping pong balls, some feather dusters, a
full pack of orange tick-tacks, rubbers, gaffer tape, a bodhran and a fair few e-bows.
Needless to say this was all going through a number of effects processors. Critics
have hailed Hauschka as bringing forward the musical style first introduced by Henry
Cowell and John Cage. The composer explained that he has played along to several
different versions of the film, with variations in scene editing and
speed. Indeterminacy from all angles.
The sound which Hauschka produced didn’t stop for the entire duration of the film.
Not once. Long, sustained harmonic and rhythmic patterns crept around the room as
shiftily as the on-screen shadows. Notes rattled as doors opened and dream
sequences were supplemented by the build up of electronic loops. Although the
constant music did support the flowing scenes, one might argue that at times it was
detrimental to changes of emotion in the film. Nothing could be sudden, every
alteration of musical mood was forced to enter gradually, like the depressing onset of
yet another Yorkshire drizzle. A deliberate stylistic feature of the composer, some
may have felt it held the film back and perhaps made it a slice boring. You could even
go as far as saying Haushcka only played one endless extended chord all evening, but
it maybe depends on how much you took from the music. A cruel listener might say
the performance was but a melancholic drone; an admirer could see it as a successful
attempt to immerse you in the dazed horror of Dreyer’s artistic vision. Even if I go
to see Hauschka accompany ‘Vampyr’ another time, it’s likely to be pretty different
from my experience this time round.