Silent film screening Faust
Interview with Erika Grant
Faust - A German Folktale by Friedrich W. Murnau is a classic of the German silent film era. The Wellington Film Society is screening the film on the 10th October in partnership with the Goethe-Institut New Zealand and the Wellington City Council. A highlight will be the live-score by four local musicians: Erika Grant, Rosie Langabeer, Isaak Smith and Neil Feather. The artists have been commissioned by the WFS to compose the music for the film.
We had the pleasure of talking to Erika Grant about the project. The New Zealand musician and music teacher gave us her insights on the characteristics and challenges of composing for silent films.
Erika, how did this project come to be?
The Wellington Film Society approached me to make a soundtrack for the film, possibly as far back as 2019, I can't remember. The last few years have been a bit of a fog for us all, I'm sure! I've previously been involved in making soundtracks for three other Wellington Film Society events and have always had such a good time. So I leapt at the chance to do this, especially with the involvement of my three good friends Isaac, Rosie and Neil.
What sparked your interest in composing the music for Faust? Was the story of the film known to you before taking on this project?
I wasn't overly familiar with the story of Faust, though I did know the concept of the "Faustian Bargain". I guess I said "yes" to the project before even knowing what film would be chosen because it's always such a fun and interesting journey to make a live soundtrack. Since then I've watched the film numerous times and have fallen in love with so many parts of it: the special effects, the acting, the fashions, the characters.
No, I drew no inspiration from any other soundtrack that had been previously made and instead thought about the friends I'd like to work with and what kinds of music they make. I also thought about certain composers that I love and how to incorporate their energy into the soundtrack, e. g. Moondog and Harry Partch. A lot of the ideas come from the instruments we're using, especially Neil Feather's invented instruments.
I haven't even watched the film with the sound up at any point, because I didn't want it to influence me in any way. Instead I let the imagery of the film inform the moods and the sounds that I'd like to work with. There's a lot of trial and error, lots of working with different sounds and concepts and seeing if they'll provide the right character or mood for the scene.
(This demo recording for Faust features an instrument invented by Neil Feather. It's a rotozither as well as some synthesized noise and percussion. A rotozither is an instrument that has a circular or cylindrical zither or harp that rotates past magnetic pickups to produce a melody.)
What were the challenges you faced when composing?
A big challenge that came up was that since we decided to create the soundtrack together, half the crew have moved to Auckland! So we've had to have zoom rehearsals and have shared a lot of ideas that way, in lieu of being in the same city.
Having the film rescheduled a couple of times due to covid has been pretty hard, as you gear yourself up to make it, and then it's put off. So finding the energy to do it - now with the reassurance that it won't be put off again - has had its ups and downs too.
Also making final decisions about instrumentation and moods is sometimes hard! There's so many possibilities and combinations of things available that you have to be economical about things and limit choices, also so you don't run out of steam halfway through performing the film. It's a big lesson in restraint and control really.