A spooky treat arrived just ten days before Halloween: Muhlenberg College alum Bryson Kemp, from the class of 2016, provided piano accompaniment to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror film classic Nosferatu. The free event, which was open to the public, took place on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 21, in the recital hall in the Center of the Arts and was sponsored by the Film Studies and Music departments.
Nosferatu is a retelling of the Dracula story. It is so close to the original story that the widow of Bram Stoker, the author of the 1897 horror novel Dracula, tried to have the film banned for copyright violation. The event provided the audience a rare opportunity to experience silent films similar to how they were experienced back in the day with a live musical soundtrack.
For me, the silent film appeared to be more funny than creepy, perhaps because of the less technologically advanced film effects. Although silent films can be hard to understand at times, Kemp’s accompaniment expressed the story. By listening to the change in pitch in the music, it was clear which parts were meant to be scary and which were happier.
Marc Szechter ‘22, an audience member, said that he found it especially interesting when Kemp plucked the strings of the piano to enhance the music.
“I loved the part near the end where the shot jumped from the sunrise to Knock in the psychiatric ward, as it symbolizes the juxtaposition between the outside world and the horror of the story. The dissonant music fit the mood of the film very well. There were some moments when the pitches of the piano accurately mimicked a noise that would have happened in the film,” said Szechter.
“I had seen a few Charlie Chaplin movies, but I had not seen a silent film for quite some time, and it was really cool watching and listening to a live accompanist.”
During his time at Muhlenberg, Kemp double majored in Film and Music and studied as a master class student. Recently, he applied to perform at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, which is the largest festival of its kind. He has attended the festival in the past, and the first time he went, he received contact information from some of the films’ composers.
Kemp and his siblings all grew up playing the piano. “I think it’s really fun to translate your feelings into the keys, and I love playing the piano,” said Kemp.
Although Kemp and his three older sisters all took piano lessons, Kemp did not know how to read music very well.
“I play by ear—it was really bad as I can’t read music very well, but my passion is doing it [playing the piano] every week. You know, I am a film composer, so I am making a career out of it,” said Kemp.
Kemp said that he chose Nosferatu for his performance because it is almost Halloween and the creepy film is perfect for the occasion. Dr. Paul McEwan, professor of the Film Studies department, recommended that Kemp should accompany this film.
“[Nosferatu] is one of the iconic scary films and there are a lot of influences from it,” said Kemp.
Kemp’s favorite part about accompanying silent films is that it requires his to improvise.
Kemp explained that the hardest silent film genre to accompany is comedy and he was thankful that the movie he chose was horror. Nonetheless, Kemp had to watch the movie several times to get the scenes down cold and to have a good knowledge of the order of the scenes.
As someone who has very little experience watching silent films, it was very interesting to have had the opportunity to watch it just like people did many years ago. It felt like going back to a time before audio systems.
“I just love translating emotions through the keys and expressing yourself through the music,” said Kemp.