Score One for Horror: Berklee, Boston Pops Scare up New Nosferatu

The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra will perform to picture a new score, written by Berklee composers, to the seminal horror classic Nosferatu, aiming to create the most haunting experience Boston’s Symphony Hall has ever known.

October 14, 2015

On the night before Halloween, the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra will perform to picture a new original score, written by Berklee film scoring professor Sheldon Mirowitz and students from his Scoring Silent Films course, for F.W. Murnau’s seminal 1922 classic silent film, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Berklee and the Pops, led by conductor Keith Lockhart, aim to create the most haunting experience Boston’s Symphony Hall has ever known.

A Historic Undertaking

Nosferatu is often considered the ultimate Dracula film despite nearly being lost to history. All traces of Nosferatu were supposed to have been destroyed in the wake of a copyright lawsuit brought and won by Bram Stoker’s estate but a few bootlegged copies survived; the same cannot be said of Hans Erdmann’s original score to the film.

Mirowitz is well positioned to spearhead this new version, given his ongoing work with the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, which has written and performed several new scores to classic silent films in recent years, drawing rave reviews from sources such as the Wall Street Journal and Indiewire, and earning a slot at last year’s renowned San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The Berklee version of Nosferatu features the work of eight of Mirowitz’s film scoring students chosen via a highly selective application process. Mirowitz says the course is, in fact, a gig, and an extraordinarily challenging one at that, as evidenced by scorebooks ranging between 400 and 700 pages in length.

“This is, for sure, the biggest thing that these kids have ever done,” he says. After a rare pause for breath from the hyper-energetic Mirowitz, he adds, “Listen, this may be the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”

For the Pops, the event will mark the orchestra’s first to-picture performance of a full-length silent film. Mirowitz says that such an undertaking is “the single-hardest conducting job there is,” but he takes confidence in knowing that the performance will be led by Lockhart, the Pops’ world-class conductor.

“The work is quite strong,” Lockhart says of the score, adding that he hopes the project will be a gateway to more collaboration with Berklee in the future.

Lockhart was particularly impressed with the score’s unusual orchestration, which includes theremin (one of the world's earliest electronic instruments)—to be played by leading theremin virtuoso Rob Schwimmer—and Moog System 55 modular synthesizer, donated by Moog Music, to be played by Michael Bierylo, chair of Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design Department.

To write for orchestra, theremin, and Moog synthesizer, Bierylo says, students in Mirowitz’s class not only had to score in a traditional sense, but they also had to annotate settings for the synth that he will play—just one of the challenging aspects of these young composers’ work.

Watch a video about how this score and this concert came to be:

Beyond "Trial by Fire"

Few composers or orchestras present new original scores to full-length silent films to be performed live to picture for one simple reason: doing so is incredibly difficult. Considering what these young composers have been asked to do, “trial by fire” undersells it. Not only are they participating in scoring a feature film for the first time, but they’re doing so without dialogue or sound effects to help convey meaning and emotion—and they’re doing so for the demanding Mirowitz, who plays the role of head composer, director, and producer all in one, prepping them for a career of seemingly endless rewrites, big personalities, and unreasonable deadlines that must nonetheless be met.

The project’s rigors are ultimately worth it, Mirowitz says, because “the pedagogical payoff of this experience is ridiculously high. There is basically no one who has gone through this class who isn’t actively working in the business now.”

Emily Joseph ’15 may be a good case in point. After graduating from Berklee earlier this year, Joseph, who was tasked with the final reel of the new score to Nosferatu, is now interning and learning the industry ropes in Los Angeles.

Originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, Joseph says, “I never thought, coming in to Berklee, that I would have the chance to score a movie before I left. It’s really exciting, and I’m already seeing things that I learned in that class helping me in my internship.”

In the course, Joseph explains, students must create and sequence all of their music and come to class with a full mock-up to present, often with only a few days to get it done, similar to a ghostwriting job in Hollywood.

Watch Joseph and other students discuss more experiences in Berklee's film scoring department:

Victor Kong, a dual major in film scoring and composition from Malaysia, points to one of the key takeaways from the course: realizing that visual cues are generally less important to hit upon than the underlying emotional cues. Many can do the former, but the latter requires a solid and nuanced sense of storytelling.

“Before this class, I was thinking about scoring to the picture, not scoring to the story,” Kong says.

Another student from Malaysia, Joy Ngiaw, who has taken a major in film scoring and a minor in video game scoring, worked closely with Mirowitz on the film’s crucial first reel, learning how to introduce thematic material with subtlety in order to allow the score room to build to climax.

The other Berklee student composers on the project include Amit Cohen from Israel, Wani Han from South Korea, Matthew Morris from Canada, Hyunsoo Nam from South Korea, and Elena Nezhelskaya from Russia.

While all have grown as writers, Ngiaw says the experience was equally valuable for its lessons in people and life skills such as persistence and time management. While Ngiaw initially doubted whether she had the chops for such an undertaking, she now says, “In the end, I learned that you’ve just got to believe in yourself.”

The Makings of an Unforgettable Halloween's Eve

Believing in yourself isn’t easy when you’re just starting out, but those with more experience are confident that the students involved in creating Nosferatu’s new score have played a critical role in a piece likely to leave Symphony Hall astonished.

“The music does a really good job of pushing the buttons that the movie pushes visually,” Lockhart says. “I expect people to completely forget there’s an orchestra there as we do what a great film score does, which is integrate those two parts into one emotionally communicative device.”

Mirowitz, an Emmy-nominated composer with a long list of well-received film and television credits to his name, is equally confident in the work of his students. “I’ve done a million things in music,” he says. “This is the one thing I can guarantee that if people come to see, they will flip out.”

Find tickets to Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror at Boston’s Symphony Hall on Friday, October 30, 2015.