Vamping it up
Post-rockers Tortoise stake out new ground as horror-film composers.
Local instrumental group Tortoise has never shied away from experimentation, with its sprawling, hypnotic passages influenced by everything from krautrock to cool jazz to dub reggae. But the veteran Chicago band hasn’t ever tackled a project quite like its Saturday 13 show.
For Macy’s Day of Music—the 11th annual free musical performance series at the Symphony Center—Tortoise was invited to play a semi-improvised score to a screening of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 creepy silent-film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the film, young estate agent Thomas Hutter travels to Transylvania to sell a house to the eccentric Count Orlok. When Hutter realizes Orlok is a vampire, the count—entranced by a photo of Hutter’s wife—is already en route to make her a creature of the night.
“It has been crazy,” says multi-instrumentalist Doug McCombs about preparing for the performance. “At first I thought maybe it was too much work for us. I thought we should be writing songs for our next record. But we’re looking at this project as something that could generate new material.”
After the band members each composed their own music for a section of the film, they welded the ideas at percussionist-producer John McEntire’s studio in Wicker Park, playing along to the film projected on a wall. We talked to McCombs and multi-instrumentalist Dan Bitney about how they slayed the score for the vampire flick.
In the beginning…
When coming up with music for the opening sequence, Bitney began by putting “Salt the Skies” from the band’s 2004 album It’s All Around You into his computer and chopping it up to fit that section. As the credits end and the title cards announce the coming of vampires, the peaceful, vibraphone-driven melody fades, and the score launches into a menacing guitar gallop. “I played it along with the movie,” Bitney says, “and it was just kind of one of those magical moments. It synched up so well.”
A villain in disguise…
Bitney also used existing Tortoise music for the scene in which a disguised Orlok picks up Hutter in his carriage. This time Bitney plucked two tracks from 2001’s Standards, “Eden 2” and “Eden 1,” to represent the impending doom as Hutter nears the vampire’s estate. Foreboding keyboard and vibraphone melodies reverberate over murky, repetitive bass lines and a propulsive, overmiked drum kit. “The melodies have a dark, gloomy quality to them,” Bitney says. The rhythm, he adds, “relates to the pacing of the carriage and the anticipation [Hutter] must have.”
A menace on the move…
Resting in a coffin full of dirt and rats—thought to be the carriers of a new plague—Orlok journeys via ship from Transylvania to Bremen, Germany. On the way, the entire crew mysteriously perishes. “My theme for the death ship is a group of ominous, descending chords in the lower register with [discordant] bass notes thrown in randomly, sort of like a pulse,” says McCombs, who plugs his guitar into an octave pedal that helps him produce exceptionally low frequencies. “I wanted [the theme] to be like the ship: this slow but relentlessly driving thing.”
A madman on the loose…
Hutter’s boss Knock is sent to a psychiatric facility, where he attempts to bite his jailor on the neck, vampire-style. McCombs came up with a “really dissonant [guitar] chord” for Knock “because he’s so crazed, jumping around all wild-eyed,” he says. “By finger picking the chord and improvising little trills on the higher strings, it’s indicating he has a screw loose.”
Tortoise shells out the soundtrack to Nosferatu on Saturday 13 at the Symphony Center.