Fringe preview: Graeme Stephen brings Nosferatu to life
Jazz Guitarist Graeme Stephen Brings German Horror film to life with a dramatic score, writes Jim Gilchrist
The frightful shadow of the vampire slides up a staircase to the reverberating strains of electric guitar and cello, Charlie Chaplin and Jacky Coogan career round a corner, propelled by fiercely distorted guitar, saxophone and accordion… The grainy images flickering on screen are vintage, but the musical accompaniment is as contemporary as you can get: welcome to the world of guitarist Graeme Stephen, a widely respected guitarist on the Scottish jazz scene who in recent years has been turning his compositional talents to “live” scores which he and colleagues perform for silent movies.
Stephen can be found playing in various line-ups – in long-standing partnership with eclectic saxophonist and piper Fraser Fifield, performing everything from free-improv to Led Zeppelin in the prog-jazz trio NeWt or underpinning the Hammond organ grooves of Breach. He was Instrumentalist of the Year in the 2011 Scottish Jazz Awards, and the 2012 awards saw him win the “Innovation” award for his score for the extraordinary 1927 German expressionist film Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans.
Next Friday and Saturday, as part of Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar Fringe programme, he joins cellist Ben Davis of Basquiat Strings to play his score for another German expressionist classic, Nosferatu, famous as the first vampire movie.
Stephen’s loop pedals and other sophisticated electronics, plus his top-notch collaborators, are a far cry from any preconceived ideas of silent film accompaniment as Keystone Cops-style piano or weepy string quartet.
The melodramatic highs and lows of a silent film like Sunrise, an extraordinary achievement for its time, lend themselves to contemporary scoring, as does director Murnau’s other silent classic, Nosferatu, which made the grotesquely featured actor Max Schreck the first horror movie icon.
Stephen’s playing often has a diaphanous, almost ambient quality to it that perhaps predisposes him to programme music. “Even before I started doing the films,” he tells me, “my music was always about something, in visual terms or a story of some sort.” Stephen, Aberdeen-born but based in Edinburgh, had been thinking about scoring Sunrise for the best part of a decade, after he saw the American band Lambchop playing a live score for it at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. “Then I got a commission from the Scottish Arts Council and got on with it. The film lends itself to it. It’s amazing – Nosferatu as well, by the same director. “I’ve always been a fan of horror, and, like Sunrise, it has a lot of drama, which is good from a musical point of view.”
One presumes such scoring, and its live performance, as a split-second affair, perhaps involving close attention to a stopwatch. Not so, responds Stephen: “I usually watch the movie a good few times, then I break it down. It’s as if the tempo comes to you as you’re watching the film. I write it scene by scene, then when playing the score, it’s amazing how the film becomes part of it, and leads you along. It’s a bit magical.”
Stephen is working on a score for another classic of German expressionist cinema, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Away from the silver screen, however, he is far from idle, having recently “quietly released” a new album, Tilt, a mixture of electronically bolstered solo work and playing with saxophonist Julian Argüelles, bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Chris Wallace, and is due to record a duo album with long-time collaborator Fifield. In the meantime, he has just recorded the scores of Sunrise and Nosferatu, due for release in October.
He’s also in discussion with a film-maker about what could be his first venture into more conventional scoring for films as they’re being made: “It’s something I’d love to do.”
MORE INFO: Nosferatu, with live soundtrack from Graeme Stephen and Ben Davis, is at the Jazz Bar
Originally published in The Scotsman