Since his aptly-titled debut album, 2000’s Retrograde Renaissance, lutist/composer Jozef Van Wissem has been on a mission to “liberate” the lute from its image. While Van Wissem is no stranger to playing within a traditional framework, his body of work positions the lute as a highly pliable vehicle for avant-garde experimentation. No surprise, then, that his score for F.W. Murnau’s seminal 1922 horror classic Nosferatu bears more in common with drone metal groups like SunnO))) than what we might typically associate with classical and Baroque forms. Van Wissem describes the music’s climactic passage as “dense, slow death metal”.
Because much of Hans Erdmann’s original score was lost, Nosferatu has been a popular attraction for screenings with live instrumentation for decades. However, Van Wissem’s treatment puts a new twist on a venerated film whose impact continues reverberating throughout modern cinema.
In a special PopMatters guest essay, Van Wissem, perhaps best known for his decade-long collaborative partnership with director Jim Jarmusch, takes us inside his process. (Van Wissem won the Best Soundtrack award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for his work on Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and has worked with Jarmusch on five other albums, along with other notable collaborations with the likes of Tetuzi Akiyama, Maurizio Bianchi, and Captain Beefheart alum Gary Lucas.) As you’ll learn, Nosferatu’s historical backdrop coincided with the history of the lute in ways that resonated with Van Wissem’s campaign to cut the rope on the instrument’s rather weighty social baggage.
His score, titled Nosferatu: The Call of the Deathbird is out, fittingly enough, on Halloween via Incunabulum Records.
Scoring the Death by Jozef Van Wissem
When I first started composing for film, my objective wasn’t to make a great score. Instead, I wanted to promote the classical solo lute as a serious avant-garde instrument. The lute, as I saw it, would feature as a character in the movie. In the process, the lute would shed its academic image as well. I never thought my approach would become a success, but it did.
After that, I found it interesting to use other instruments in my scoring work: electric guitars in an alternate tuning, beats, ambient electronics, field recordings, non-musical elements, and voice. You could say I became more of a “complete” film composer, although I still don’t like bombastic orchestral scores. I prefer a more subtle sound — and a subtle story, for that matter.
I like to establish an imaginative working relationship with a director before the movie even gets made. I prefer to ingrain my work in the structure of the film beforehand. That way, I can help set the mood for the film. I’ll typically give a director music before the movie even gets shot.
How does one properly align a score with a film if the music precedes the movie itself? The answer is that it requires a creative approach to editing. It’s possible, for example, to adapt the visuals to the music instead of the other way around. Hence the image can be adapted to the length of the musical piece. However, movie producers generally require you to submit separate audio stems. They sometimes use these stems out of context. In the end, you can end up in a situation where you don’t recognize your own work.
The unfortunate reality is that film producers tend to prefer music that’s recognizable, i.e: predictable. Producers sometimes give composers Spotify playlists to imitate. How can a film develop its own identity when its music is based on existing scores? Experimental sound can be scary to producers, but experimentation is the lifeblood of music.
As a film composer, I can read a script before beginning work, or I can just meet the director for a drink instead. For me, it’s preferable not to see any visuals or mood boards beforehand. At times, I feel like it’s better not to have the script before I start on the music. The result can end up being purer that way.
My process typically unfolds in the following way: I write the theme; I make it come back in different variations in similar moments in the film so that it enhances the storyline; I craft the music so that it forms its own separate storyline, which makes for a more layered cinematic experience; and after all of this is done I add more atmospheric and ambient sections or, say, a slow guitar drone.
As much as I value the importance of experimentation, though, for me, it’s all about a good, simple melody. The way the melody gets repeated is also crucial. It’s more difficult to come up with a timeless melody than it is to write a thousand notes. A few simple notes can convey a tremendous amount of content, feeling, energy, color, and context. And, as I see it, the melodies are already there for the taking. They are already somewhere up there, floating around. All you have to do is channel them.
A director, of course, has to be open to this process. So it’s better to be friends with the director. Or maybe, perhaps, it’s better to work with a dead director.
In 2019 La Cinémathèque Française commissioned me to compose and perform a score for F. W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu. As iconic as the film is, I find scores for early films so predictable and displeasing to my ears that I sometimes watch with the sound turned off. So I didn’t feel compelled by a sense of duty to history when I started thinking about how I was going to approach it.
As it happens, around the same time, I found an old seven-inch record on the street with the sounds of extinct birds. I enhanced those bird sounds through electronics, which became my starting point. Live soundtracks to silent films can become too reactive. I try to create a feeling of buildup that’s anchored on a solid musical idea that runs like a thread through the whole experience. I also knew that I wanted to go from silence to noise over the film’s 90-minute runtime.
The first part of my score consists of slide Baroque lute with a repeating sparse three-note bass pattern. There’s a lot of space in the pattern on purpose. I added the manipulated bird sounds and 12-string electric guitar. When the film’s final act kicks in — the apotheosis moment when the Count Orlok character dissolves into the sun — the music culminates in a dense, slow-moving cloud of one-chord guitar drone.
Nosferatu is replete with subtle graduations from light to dark as intricate shadows are cast on bright surfaces. Murnau employs a lighting technique based on chiaroscuro, which was popularized in the Renaissance during the golden age of the lute. When Murnau shot the film — during the interbellum period between world wars — lutes were quite popular in Germany. At the time, the instrument was making its first comeback since its disappearance in the 1750s.
Instrument manufacturers produced large quantities of a new hybrid instrument that combined a pear-shaped lute body with the neck of a guitar. Because so many of these instruments were built, you can still find them today. I think they sounded quite bad.
The use of lutes in Germany was part of a larger back-to-nature movement. This movement was against city life and jazz. It was called the Wandervogel. Later that movement would dissolve into the Hitler Jügend (Hitler Youth). So here was a chance to turn all of these unpleasant associations inside out.
I performed my score at a screening of the restored version of the film at their theater in Paris. Much to my surprise, the event sold out, with 500 people in attendance. I was a bit overwhelmed by the response. Despite my insistence on coming to the table with my score worked out, the audience showed me in real time how to fine-tune the music. I wasn’t going to repeat the performance, but people kept asking.
Murnau was influenced by Nietzsche. At the time, the idea that God was dead was in the air. You could say that the German expressionists replaced God with art, and Murnau was a master of shadows at a time when the world was only just crawling out from the shadow of World War I. Of course, darker shadows were yet on the horizon.
Murnau served in the German Army’s Flying Corps during WWI as an observer/gunner. He survived eight crashes without any severe injuries. Oddly enough, he died in a car crash in 1931 after emigrating to Hollywood. In 2015 cultists supposedly dug up his body and stole his head. Candles were found at the grave site. Perhaps my score works best by candlelight.