Monday, November 16, 2020

True confessions: notes on a weekend of making music with Dr. Mabuse at the Town Hall Theatre

Before the show: outside the Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 15.

Well, it didn't seem like 4½ hours.

And that's entirely to the credit of Fritz Lang, director of 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' (1922), a sprawling two-part tale of treachery among the decadent Berlin upper class.

Lang thought big, and the Mabuse saga was among his biggest: a whopping 270-minute deep dive into a now-lost world of casinos, crime, and corruption.

And once again, it happened: a century-old movie that seemed tough going when viewed at home snapped to life when shown as intended: in a theater on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience present. (Albeit a small socially-distancing one.)

Lang, somewhat like his counterpart D.W. Griffith in the U.S., had a knack for assembling films that keep viewers watching. Like the title character Dr. Mabuse, Lang was among those directors who knew how to keep an audience spellbound.

That's what happened on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14 & 15, at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., when we screened (and I accompanied) both parts of Dr. Mabuse. On either day, once the film started, it was hard to stop watching. 

And so I felt privileged to enter into another wing in the great cinematic mansion Fritz Lang built in Germany during the silent era. I've accompanied Lang's 'Metropolis' (1927), 'Spies' (1928), and 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) many times. I've even tackled his two-part adaptation of 'Die Niebelungen' (1925), which I accompanied last spring.

But Dr. Mabuse remained unexplored territory. I'd read about it, but actually never seen it or had a chance to do music for it until the pandemic cleared the Town Hall Theatre's schedule of first-run attractions. So why not uncork Dr. Mabuse and give him a chance? 

By the way: to understand the position of show biz where I live, consider the sign at left, just down the street from the sign promoting our screening. They don't call it the Town Hall Theater for nothing.

Back to Dr. Mabuse. To my delight, I found this was another link in the cinematic chain that Lang was forging all through the 1920s. 

'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' is full of the director's familiar hallmarks: a fixation with numerals, lots of guys wearing monocles (well, of course, but still distinctive), strange not-quite-Art Deco set design, a penchant for repeated words, henchmen wearing leather jackets and goggles, alarming facial hair, and more.

It took me awhile to get to the point where I felt I could musically do justice to Dr. Mabuse (by the way, pronounced "mah-BOO-zuh). This makes sense, after all, considering how tough it was for the prosecutor to bring Mabuse to justice. Har!

But I deliberately set about creating brand-new musical material specifically for Lang's world of Dr. Mabuse. 

For the not-so-good Dr. himself, I came up a motif of eight notes that traced interlocking augmented fourths over a drone bass. Intended as a leitmotif, or theme for the character, it proved versatile enough to be shaped in various ways to work whenever something nefarious was going on. 

What were the notes? C, then upwards F sharp, G, A flat, then down to D, then up to A flat, A, and B flat. If you wanted, you could keep the pattern going: down to E, then up to B flat, B, C, then down to F sharp, then up to C, C sharp, D.

Dr. Mabuse (a heavily made-up Rudolf Klein-Rogge) casts a spell on Prosecutor Norbert Von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). 

With each four notes, you're outlining most of a dominant seventh chord, but which isn't going to properly resolve, as the next four notes subvert traditional harmony and simply don't allow it. Rather, the next four form another dominant seventh chord, a whole step up, which is also not going to resolve, and so on. 

So the notes just on their own create a great deal of anticipation or tension. If you hold some of the notes through, or harmonize each note with a minor or major triad, or even other chords, all kinds of moods and textures are possible. 

As along as you keep the eight notes in there, it all seemed to hold together. And with 4½ hours, there's plenty of room to try out things and really work with the material. Losing myself in the task of creating live music for an unfolding narrative is my own personal version of nirvana.

For the many casino scenes, I came up with what I think of as "Kurt Weill jazz": a jaunty melody with lots of dotted eighth notes that cavort up and down the minor scale, but with little syncopation. Very German, to my ears. Call it "square" jazz—similar to what Weill came up with for 'The Threepenny Opera.'

But when that music had served its purpose, there was plenty of room (meaning lots of casino scenes) for general Offenbach-like melodies: upbeat diatonic ditties with chromatic runs made up on the spot over a boom-chick bass accompaniment. 

These tunes come from God-knows-where. Think of 'Be Our Guest' from Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast,' or the overture to 'Die Fleidermaus,' which I heard on the radio this morning and brought me right back to Saturday and Sunday in Lang's casinos.

For Prosecutor Von Wenk, it was a descending scale, usually in a minor mode, with a triplet turn in the other direction every fourth beat, and occasionally elsewhere, as warranted. With its steady beat and staccato feel, it made a nice contrast with the Mabuse music.

There was also a "love" theme that was basically held notes over a steady minor-key accompaniment, either big arpeggios or a steady beat of quarter notes as tension either rose or fell. The key here was that the love theme contained within it three rising chromatic notes, same as the Mabuse theme. So this created a lot of possibility for theme transformation on the fly.

Dr. Mabuse, a master of disguise, sorts through his many identities. Gosh, which to use for the high school reunion? 

In terms of special musical effects, 'Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler' has two moments. Near the beginning of Part 1, a scene on the stock exchange features multiple glimpses of staffers ringing bells to signal to traders that the market was about to close. So my grandmother's brass school bell came in handy, although overuse at close range kind of killed my hearing for much of the film. (The bell is LOUD.)

And near the end of Part 2, during the climactic gun battle, Prosecutor Von Wenk repeatedly blows a police whistle. So naturally I would use my own whistle—but wait, where is it? About halfway through the film, I realized my referee's whistle wasn't hanging around my neck. Instead, it was still in my carrying crate.

Luckily, the crate was on the floor to one side of the keyboard, just within reach if I leaned over quite far. Alas, it was completely in the dark. And so, while continuing the accompaniment with my right hand, I began playing an elaborate game of "touchy-feely" with my left in an attempt to find the whistle.

This went on for several minutes until I found the lanyard that the whistle hangs from, only to discover it was tangled in several spare extension cords and was not coming loose. I finally pulled it hard enough to snap the lanyard, only to discover it was the wrong whistle.

So back I went, fishing around in the darkness with one hand while the other created music for whatever was happening on screen. (I honestly can't remember.) Eventually found the whistle before audience members concluded I might be having a stroke.

Well, between the music, the bell, and the whistle, it was enough to accompany both parts of Dr. Mabuse, cinema's first true evil genius and criminal mastermind. And a good time was had by all!

Things will quiet down now—just a few screenings left this year, and a pretty blank calendar for 2021 so far due to the ongoing pandemic. 

If this keeps up, I'll have to make a sign: WILL ACCOMPANY SILENT CINEMA FOR FOOD.

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