Sound for the sinister silence

Robert Bruce brings Faust to life

According to a great source of popular culture the 1971 World Book Encyclopedia “Faust was a magician who amazed German audiences… with weird exhibitions and far-fetched boasts. He claimed to be in league with Satan.” And so a fantastic myth was born from which F.W. Murnau created Faust a 1926 silent film classic.

What could possibly improve such a creation? How about a dedicated musical creation performed live during the viewing?

Calgary’s ProArts Society is presenting Robert Bruce pianist and composer accompanying Murnau’s greatest film in the historically gothic Cathedral Church of the Redeemer.

“Old films are often classic by default: just because they’re old” says Bruce. “And of course silent films have their own particular style of cinema…. A silent film is a different type of experience than a sound film. Having said that Murnau seems to have been outstanding in his field.”

Murnau is probably best known for his early vampire classic Nosferatu . Although Bruce’s introduction to the filmmaker was through a later work called Sunrise it was Faust that caught his imagination.

It’s not just creepy old European films that grab hold of Bruce however. While Greta Garbo failed as a muse Bruce found common ground with Buster Keaton’s comedic antics and has composed and performed alongside his films for years.

According to Bruce the silent film genre allows musical creativity to flourish. “A lot of silent films are being released today on DVD and they’ll have several soundtracks: a piano score a small ensemble score a theatre organ an orchestra; it could be any number of things and they can all be different. Back in the day very few silent films had music written for them. Basically whatever the house musician played in Calgary or Lethbridge or Edmonton. You’ll have three completely different scores because whoever’s playing in the theatre is providing the music.”

Bruce says that while some modern silent film composer-performers cater to the flavour of the film attempting to re-create the original sense of its era he is looking for more from his compositions preferring to participate with the film “not overshadowing nor being overshadowed but resonating with the work. I have my own sound but I perform in harmony with the film” he says.

Not surprisingly Bruce is involved in other compositions with visual components not the least of which is his Classical Nouveau programming a live multimedia and multidisciplinary presentation. “I’ve written about 30 modern art songs with piano strings percussion harp one or two singers and dancers. It’s hard to describe actually; it’s not meant to be a performance as much as an experience. It’s meant to be as beautiful as it possibly can be.”