Dracula | Philip Glass & Kronos Quartet

Dracula | Philip Glass & Kronos QuartetPhoto - Jamie Williams

In the 1930’s, adding a music score to a film’s soundtrack was problematic, and consequently no score was ever composed for director Tod Browning’s film version of Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’. Fifty-seven years later, composer Philip Glass was commissioned to write music for the classic 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi and in so doing chose the Kronos String Quartet to help ‘evoke the feeling of the world of the 19th century’. Of the project he wrote: ‘I wanted to stay away from the obvious effects associated with horror films. With [the Kronos Quartet] we were able to add depth to the emotional layers of the film.' Glass and the Kronos Quartet performed this new creation during showings of the film in 1999 and 2000 and once again last Friday night at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival. Two performances were available to cinema goers, one at the respectable time of 7.30 and a later session at spooky, vampire inducing midnight where devotees were invited to come dressed as Dracula himself.

‘Dracula’ really belongs to another time and place. Its use of fog and lighting special effects and extended periods of silence and character close-ups were intended to instill terror in its 1931 audience. These devices seen today from the vantage point of modern filmmaking all seem somewhat comical; and whilst I wanted to watch ‘Dracula’ in the context of the time it was made and hence didn’t laugh every time an obviously fake bat appeared or Dracula tried to control someone with his claw-like hand, most of the audience found the ‘terror’ of Dracula’s histrionics extremely funny – this, I felt was a shame as the movie is after all a horror movie not a comedy.

The Kronos Quartet took centre stage in front of the movie screen and the ‘quartet’ consisted of two violins (David Harrington and John Sherba), a viola (Hank Dutt) and a cello (Jeffrey Zeigler); there were also two keyboards played by Philip Glass and Michael Riesman respectively, with the aforementioned conducting the group from his keyboard. Glass’s score is intense and full of energy and added a vibrant dimension to the images on screen. The coupling of the staged and melodramatic acting and images with the intense music created quite an operatic effect, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the actors had suddenly burst out in song. There was at times a clash between the stillness of the film and the frenetic energy of Glass’s music (constantly repeated arpeggios are a favourite of Mr. Glass but after a while can make you feel very nervous!). It seemed also that the amplified string quartet was a little too loud, making it difficult at times to hear the dialogue. As marvelous as the music and the playing were, I couldn’t help wishing that the musicians would stop for a few moments in order to give the images time to breathe and to stop the feeling that there was a battle going on between the music and the dialogue; could this be why the film with this new score - released by Universal Studios in 1999 - allows the viewer to choose between the unscored soundtrack and the Glass score?

Criticisms aside, the music was fabulous and I would love to hear it on its own without the film to distract me; or alternatively I would love to see Bela Lugosi and the rest of the cast without the addition of all that wonderfully energetic music!

Sydney Festival 2011
Philip Glass & Kronos Quartet

Conductor Michael Riesman

Venue: State Theatre, Sydney
Date/Time: January 14 at 7.30pm and midnight
Duration: 1hr 20mins, no interval
Tickets: $65 – $55
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

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