Nosferatu re-booted: Silent film classic gets new soundtrack
In November, Sydney’s premier contemporary chamber group Ensemble Offspring will team up with Perth-based composer Chris Tonkin for a new interpretation of the silent film classic Nosferatu: A symphony of horror. The project will be presented as the sixth edition of the Goethe-Institut KinoKonzert series, which has fascinated Australian audiences since its inception in May 2018. Goethe-Institut’s Jochen Gutsch spoke to lead percussionist Claire Edwardes and to the composer Chris Tonkin.
Chris, what do you have in mind in terms of instrumentation and arrangement for the Nosferatu soundtrack?
Chris Tonkin: I‘ve chosen cello, clarinet, percussion and electronics all of which I’ve written for quite a bit over the years. There’s a large colour range in the group that I find attractive. For Nosferatu I split and mix these up into different combinations; sometimes all four, sometimes one or two instruments alone, sometimes all acoustic and sometimes all electronic. The film is over 90 minutes long so I’m aiming for some variety. The performers will probably appreciate the odd break also.
Claire, Ensemble Offspring has collaborated with many composers. Is there a set process for commissions of new pieces?
Claire Edwardes: We are always on the lookout for new and exciting composers to commission as well as coming back to long term collaborators, such as the wonderful Chris Tonkin from Perth. We recorded a work Chris wrote for us on our first CD — he approached us about collaborating on Nosferatu a few years ago and we are really grateful to Goethe-Institut for getting on board with it. We commission a mixture of established and emerging composers, mostly Australian and a handful of international — but really we are committed to the championing of Australian composers.
About seven years ago we initiated our own commissioning fund — The Noisy Egg Creation Fund. This was a way to develop our private donor base for the first time and it was really necessary because gradually money was being siphoned away from the Australia Council for the Arts, so no one could rely solely on government funding for the creation of new work in Australia any more.
We have commissioned over 30 works via this means and we are so proud of this statistic. Sometimes our commissions are for large collaborations such as an upcoming opera by Cathy Milliken which we will present with Sydney Chamber Opera in 2022 — and other times they are small chamber works such as some for our Birdsong at Dusk touring trio program in 2019, for which we just commissioned a pied butcherbird piece from Hollis Taylor and Jon Rose. Ensemble Offspring: Claire Edwardes is third from the right | © Keith Saunders
Chris, some of the artists in our KinoKonzert series respond to exact cues in the films, while others improvise more and follow a general mood — what’s your approach?
CT: A bit of everything actually. What you’re describing are really degrees of correspondence between the image and the sound/music. While planning the music I went through and made notes of how and where the music might accent the film. For instance there are some instances where there may be actual direct sight and sound coordination, in the moment. More often it might be a question of capturing momentum, the direction a scene is taking. Then there’s also, as you say, following the general mood of the scene with music that seems appropriate. I’m going for a balance and trying not to overdo any one approach.
Claire, Ensemble Offspring is known for high-level musicianship and for mastering complex music. However, the group also engages in educational and community projects. Please tell us a little more about those.
CE: It is indeed a fine line to tread — that of valuing musical and presentational excellence alongside community and educational goals equally. It is a constant work in progress.
One project dear to our hearts is Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers. Ensemble Offspring worked really closely with the five composers in the first iteration over 2017 and 2018 and even travelled to Brewarinna in central NSW to perform their works in an outdoor setting at the festival there presented by Moogahlin. It was such a wonderful experience and one that we are committed to into the future.
We feel it is so important to champion and support Indigenous composers in our niche art music scene, given how sidelined they have been pretty much always. The times, they are a-changing, thanks to Chris Sainsbury, the founder of the program, alongside all of the partners, and that is so exciting.
However, the issue of relevance-vs-excellence also pops up from time to time in that initiative and that is something that we all grapple with. ‘First nations first’ is their saying and so it should be. I am totally in support of that mantra yet because Ensemble Offspring is all about quality and excellence and high level musicianship as you say, when we are making recordings or performing their work in concert it is important to us that these airings show off everyone in the best possible light.
In a way this whole tension is a big part of new music making in general and working with young and emerging composers as there is always an element of variation from piece to piece when a young composer is still finding their voice and honing their technique. So it is definitely something we are very well attuned to and take in our stride!
Chris, you studied violin and piano and have majored in music composition. However, these days you focus more on electronic music and sound art. What is it that attracts you to this way of working?
CT: With composition I’ve always thought a lot about colour and the ‘shape’ of sound, which is an approach that lends itself to electronic music, which is often about manipulating sound on these terms. I think this is why I like instruments like cello and clarinet also, not only because of their colour range but also their ability to make sound shapes, transitioning smoothly across the whole spectrum. Percussion of course also has a virtually infinite variety of colours.
I like the programming aspect of computer music also. There are right and wrong solutions so it’s a nice change from composition where you’re often deciding — sometimes it seems arbitrarily — between so many possibilities.
For more information on the Nosferatu edition of Goethe-Institut's KinoKonzert series, click here.