Category Archives: music

Music. Reviews. Reminiscences.

What Music They Make: Kronos Quartet and 1931’s DRACULA

The 1999 release of Philip Glass’ score to Universal’s DRACULA (1931) was met with mixed reviews. Purists found the pregnant pauses in Bela Lugosi’s distinct Eastern-European delivery to be part of the charm of a film released only four years after the first talkie appeared. Scores were only just coming into their own . Director Todd Browning had 35 silent films to his credit (not including shorts), and would go one to make less than a dozen talkies. Indeed, one could argue that Browning intended a DRACULA that embraced silence and used it to cinematic advantage.

Except for two brief Tchaikovsky and Wagner excerpts, DRACULA without dialogue has little more than a few sound effects. Dramatic pauses abound, making all the more memorable the moment a wolf howls in the distance and the titular count opines how one should listen to the “children of the night…what music they make.”

Whether or not that was the extent of the music Browning intended is immaterial. In this day and age, it is not unusual for there to be “director’s cuts” and “extended versions” of films old and new. What is rare, however, is the superimposition of one art form over another as in the case of Glass’ score for Browning’s DRACULA. Writing a review in the New York Times (http://www NULL.nytimes NULL.com/1999/10/28/movies/music-review-dracula-hears-philip-glass-and-gets-thirsty NULL.htm) at the time of DRACULA’s release with the added score, Allan Kozinnoct wrote

“The idea of commissioning a new score for an old film is interesting from an interaction-of-the-arts point of view, and it might have been even more interesting if Mr. Glass had provided a score that worked, which he didn’t.”

Kozinnoct goes on to say that the “score does not allow for the concept of eloquent silence.” But is this silence necessary in Universal’s DRACULA? Does silence add to the suspense of a motion picture or, to the contrary, take the audience out of the sutured experience by having them dwell then on the absence of sound.

Horror films — especially those consumed by a modern audience — rely upon three potent conventions: lighting, sound, and camera work. Yes, the script must be solid. Certainly, the acting must be believable. But sudden jolts and uncomfortable (look away) moments are often the result of a well-placed camera, a well-lit set and/or a well-timed piece of music.

Except, if legendary horror director John Carpenter is to be believed, the soundtrack should be implied and not so plainly expressed. In a December 1995 issue of Mix: Professional Recording & Sound and Music Production, he is quoted as saying: “you shouldn’t be aware of what I’m doing. Yeah, when it’s scary or action-filled, you’ll hear it, and it’s fine. But you shouldn’t be sitting there listening to music, or aware of it.”

Album cover of DRACULA with music by Philip Glass, performed by Kronos Quartet

And that — despite its beauty of dynamic instrumentation, gloomy interludes and dramatic flourish — is why Glass’ score for DRACULA simply doesn’t feel right as one is acutely aware of listening to it. This criticism is not of the music itself. It is haunting and visceral, timed perfectly to suit the film, arguably augmenting the experience. But it is not the film. It is an addition. An experiment in art forms colliding and becoming something else. It is essential viewing for all of those fascinated with the history of Dracula on screen. But it is not Todd Browning’s 1931 masterpiece, where every languid line delivered by Lugosi must breathe with “eloquent silence.”

The DVD of 1931’s DRACULA with the music of Philip Glass performed by Kronos Quartet is available on amazon.com. (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Dracula-Universal-Studios-Classic-Collection/dp/B000035Z3K/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_15_t_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=7MDHNM6DQY18GZ3GNEQW)

These Days, Still Influence of Joy Division

On the thirty-sixth anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980), the inevitable articles will be written and social media posts will abound honoring the memory of Joy Division’s lead singer and lyricist. Many will romanticize Curtis’ suicide, misunderstanding the real contribution Curtis made to culture and modern music. Most will simply mourn the life of a talented frontman and artist that helped usher in what is now known as post-punk or proto-goth.

Joy Division were formed in 1976 in Manchester, England. They began as a punk band inspired by The Sex Pistols, but through an evolution of  dogged determination to transcend punk and a desire (actualized by producer Martin Hannett) to experiment with sound, grew to become a band unlike any previously heard in the history of popular music.

Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" single
Love Will Tear Us Apart 12″ single

In the end, Joy Division produced only a handful of singles (most notably “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=zuuObGsB0No)), and two official studio albums: the groundbreaking Unknown Pleasures (June, 1979) and the hypnotic Closer (released July, 1980 [after Curtis’ death]).

Although a number of compilations were produced in the wake of Curtis’ death, it is the two seminal albums and the aforementioned singles that would secure the band — consisting of Curtis, guitarist and keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris — their place in music history.

Part of a movement that would include acts like The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fall and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Divsion helped usher in a new age of popular music. The band that would rise from its ashes as New Order —with Sumner, Hook and Morris surviving — would go on to produce the 1980s dance hit “Blue Monday” along with alternative / college radio hits like “The Perfect Kiss” and “Regret.” Their longevity lasted well into 1990s with disbandment and reunions pretty much up to the present-day.

The influence of the Joy Division sound on New Order was short-lived. After recording material begun with Curtis and finished without him (the formidable single “Ceremony” with its haunting b-side “In a Lonely Place”) , New Order would turn to up-tempo electronica.

With the exception of tribute concerts by Peter Hook and occasional live performances of Joy Division songs performed by New Order and sung by Bernard Sumner over the past decade, New Order and its members clearly distanced themselves from the specter of Joy Division, especially in the early days (understandably, as the loss of Curtis profoundly affected his bandmates).

Other artists, however, so admired Curtis that they would go on to record songs alluding to him — U2’s 1980 “A Day Without Me” (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=LyxZstXOuuU) most notable among contemporaries. U2 had worked with Joy Division producer Martin Hannett on Boy and been given a tour of the studio when Joy Division was recording “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Bono was so enamored with Curtis that he would go on to tell Tony Wilson (founder of Factory Records, Joy Division’s label) that he thought Curtis was the best vocalist of his generation.

A number of artists have covered Joy Division songs over the years. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” alone has been covered numerous times (http://www NULL.vh1 NULL.com/news/17541/top-10-joy-division-covers/) (although not by David Bowie as once incorrectly reported). Moby, long a Joy Division devotee, recorded “New Dawn Fades” for the soundtrack to the 1995 DeNiro / Pacino movie Heat.  The Killers covered “Shadowplay” in 2007 (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=wrbKvxGgFfg). The list goes on.

Joy Division songs have even found their way into more recent pop culture. Britain’s “East Enders” television drama continually used an uncredited version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” throughout the series (2010, 2011…); NME would go on in 2012 to name it the #1 song of the last 60 years (http://www NULL.nme NULL.com/news/joy-division/64455). Then there’s the recent Lady Gaga vehicle “American Horror Story: Hotel” (2015-2016) which featured both “The Eternal” from Closer and New Order’s aforementioned “In a Lonely Place.”

All these years after Curtis’ death, the influence of Joy Division is as ubiquitous as ever. Bands like Interpol, The Editors, and, most recently, Eagulls and (the all-girl) Savages, are evidence that the influence of Joy Division is alive and well these days.

And then there are the truly bizarre inheritors of the spirit of Ian Curtis: those that go beyond standard rock and roll arrangements and introduce sounds that Curtis himself (a fan of so many genres, including Reggae) would have at the very least found interesting. Yann Tambour, from Stranded Horse,  a Frenchman who has been making his own versions of koras — the 21-string West African lute-bridge-harps, for years — covers “Transmission” in what has to be the most “out there” interpretation of a Joy Division song ever.

36 years on, and Joy Division is still inspiring experimentation.