Over the past few years, Coral Gables Art Cinema has repeatedly presented events where classic films gain new life through live musical accompaniment. The movies aren't basic blockbusters, nor are they paired with a live orchestra offering simply an arrangement of the original score. Instead, they're silent features ripe for reinterpretation through adjustments to sight and sound.
"The first live scores we hosted for After Hours were produced in partnership with Miami Music Club, and they were the ones who introduced me to Richard Vergez when looking for a musician to score Nosferatu," says Gables Cinema's associate director, Javier Chavez. This Saturday, January 11, the theater will again collaborate with Vergez — a South Florida-based visual and sound artist — for a screening of the influential 1920 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
"This time, I reached out to Richard about scoring a film for Halloween, but we ran into some trouble finding the right title until Igor Shteyrenberg from Miami Jewish Film Festival suggested scoring The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as part of a joint presentation," Chavez says. "It's the second live score we've hosted with the festival." (The first was René Laloux's Fantastic Planet.)
Vergez will perform his own original compositions for Caligari, which is a pitch-perfect choice in film for the occasion: The century-old movie is a timeless genre feature well-suited for a late-night crowd at Gables Cinema; it was created by a Jewish filmmaker (who fled into exile after the rise of the Nazis); and it happens to be a visual feast favorable for fresh musical accompaniment.
Asked about his interest in Caligari and Nosferatu — important pieces of film history from the 1920s — Vergez says he identifies with both on a visual level.
"I feel that German expressionism [the creative movement that birthed Caligari and Nosferatu] lends itself to aural interpretation with its use of shadow and contrasting lines," he says. "Foremost I am a visual artist, so that era of German art is a big influence."
Vergez believes soundtracking silent horror cinema makes sense within his larger creative trajectory.
"Scoring for the horror genre was a natural progression for me, stemming from my long-running dark, ambient music project, Drowning the Virgin Silence," he says. "My initial purpose with that project was to create music for imaginary films, particularly with a mood that would fit within surrealist or horror films. However, I'd be open to to other genres. Outside of film scoring, I compose music for modern dance pieces as well."
As for his approach to scoring a silent film — especially one that involves a live performance — "it's generally half-composed and half-improvised," Vergez says.
"I first determine the instrumentation, then just run through the film a bunch of times and see what works," he explains. "Instrumental music can say a lot without using any words. If the mood is there, the audience will feel it.
"I take into consideration [the film's] original score but do not rely on it; then I go about coming up with musical themes reliant on the characters and motifs. I always prefer a more abstract palette of sounds and nothing too technologically advanced, as the sound should appear to feel timeless and not overpower the film."
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Chavez says working with Vergez and other musicians, such as Mystvries and Treasure Teeth (for live score performances of Fantastic Planet and Metropolis, respectively), has been an absolute pleasure for Gables Cinema.
"I just love the idea of creating a new work and experience by combining an old film with modern instruments and music sensibilities," he says. "A hundred-year-old gap between the early days of cinema and the current day is bridged, and it really resonates. These films become modern in a way — or rather, you realize they always were.
"Richard's score for Nosferatu, among others that have been written, is perfectly matched with the film; you'd think they were made at the same time," Chavez says. "That's a mark of a great composer but also a film that is as fresh today as when it came out. Silent films were never truly silent either; they were accompanied by a live score. So it's another way of keeping a certain experience alive, similar to why we keep running films on 35mm or 70mm. You're not just watching a film, and you're not just listening to a live performance."
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Live Score Performance. With Richard Vergez. 11:30 p.m. Saturday, January 11, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-385-9689; gablescinema.com. Tickets cost $8 via gablescinema.com.