An original rock score by the Bloomington band M enlivens F.W. Murnau’s silent vampire thriller ◆ by Stephen Simms
[Stephen Simms is a founding member of the legendary, mid-90s Bloomington band, M. In a rare comeback appearance, they will perform their original score to F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film, Nosferatu at the IU Cinema on Sunday, October 27th at 6:30 pm. The film and performance are a co-presentation of the Cinema and The Ryder.]
My father is a very patient man and when I was 13, he agreed to take me and some of my geeky friends to the first science fiction convention held in Indianapolis in 1981. As part of the convention, science fiction films were shown on the televisions in every room. It was around midnight, hopped up on Coca-cola that I first saw F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Even though it was on a tiny Trinatron and I was a maturing lad, it pretty well scared the hell out of me. I loved the shadows and the exaggerated facial expressions. Nosferatu was very different than the vampires I had seen on television. He wasn’t sexy and well dressed like Lugosi or Christopher Lee. He was an alternate dark portrait of uncontrolled id – base, ugly, and frightening.
While the special effects are nothing by today’s ridiculously CGI heavy standards, they still give me shivers. From a crazed coach ride to the Count’s castle to the ghostly Nosferatu materializing to a sickly sailor who later walks through a wall carrying his coffin, I was and still am mesmerized. Max Schreck played the towering, hook-nosed, vampire. It wasn’t until later I learned that the word schreck meant fright – very appropriate.
Fast forward to 1988. I was studying electronic composition at Roosevelt University and living in the Herman Crown Center, a downtown dormitory shared by Columbia College, Roosevelt University, and the School for the Art Institute of Chicago. The basement of the 17-story building contained a snack bar and a practice space that you could reserve for a few hours at a time. One night while out for a soda I saw a light on in the practice space (a rarity) and peering through the window I saw a young guy in a comb-over mohawk tearing into a massive set of drums with a level of energy that I had never seen. The fusion of quartz clock timing with wild polyrhythmic drum fills made my composer-self quite excited.
I stared through the window in amazement as I heard him play along with Neil Peart, Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, and others. I had no idea then that we would be periodically making music together for the next 24 years. We became fast friends, eventually sharing space together in a tiny closet that the administration called a room. We challenged one another musically, often waking up in the morning to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Noonward Race” or “Crisis” by Jaco Pastorius. At this time I was a serviceable rhythm guitar player, a mediocre pianist, and a terrible trumpet player who longed to play the bass.
I had music and musical ideas in my head, but I was frustrated that I didn’t have a fluid musical voice the way that Bennett did. During the summer of 1989, I moved briefly to Bloomington to take some additional music classes and almost fail a French reading course. I met some of the members of the unique and amazing Bloomington band, The Belgian Waffles. I loved those guys right away because the musical ideas were as important if not more important than the notes (something that I had been trying to learn in Chicago). The Waffles did it all: harnessing sounds from a shortwave radio, playing plumbing diagrams, writing a song about the Star Trek episode in which Kirk fights the Gorn. They relied in many cases only on their ears and minds to spontaneously guide the size and shape of their musical improvisations.
Later I graduated from Roosevelt with a Master’s in Composition and moved to Bloomington to study music theory, hoping to better my compositions through an exploration of the ideas behind music.
I bought a bass and reconnected with the Waffles who were getting musicians of all sorts together to improvise and drink bourbon on Thursday nights in Tony Woolard’s large basement. The group ended up being known as the Torture Chamber Ensemble. It was a fitting name because the one rule these long jam sessions had was that nobody could play their primary instrument. These sessions were all about listening to one another and trying to make something musical from what you had been dealt. I played saxophone for the first time in Tony’s basement. I still have fond memories crashing and playing in the 4th of July parade, proudly sliding a trombone up Walnut street using a small cymbal as a wah-wah occasionally slapping it against the bell for emphasis.
It was during these experiences that I met a thoughtful religious studies major, with incredible ears and a masterful melodic sensibility which he executed with what seemed like ease on his Paul Reed Smith guitar. His name was Jason Bivins. Occasionally between basement sessions, Jason and I would revert back to our primary instruments and improvise. He was crazy talented and had a lot of experience playing in bands, blending hard rock and avant-jazz. I had only played the bass in public two or three times at this point and was flattered that he wanted to make music with me. Someone remarked that the melodic parts of our improvisations reminded them of Baroque music. Even now, I am not entirely sure what to make of that remark, but when Jason sent me email in the Spring of 1995, asking if I wanted to hang out and play, I was excited and keen to see where it would go. We met a couple of times playing quietly and fleshing out melodic bits we thought were interesting. It was agreed that it would be much more interesting if we could find a drummer. The quiet dynamic we had established was to change radically.
As luck would have it, Bennett was working as an X-ray tech in Colorado and having a miserable time his then-girlfriend. I told him that I was living in a 5-bedroom place with only 2 roommates and that he should come to Bloomington, move in with us, and start a band. A few days later Bennett arrived and I realized that I was going to need a more powerful amplifier.
On June 14th, 1995 Bennett, Jason, and I played together for the first time and we liked it. Sitting on the porch, we knew we had a band. I managed to convince them that we should just call the band M, a name that was innocuous and open for interpretation: the wonderful Fritz Lang film, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Mozart, Motorhead, Mental Masturbation, Mute, Music. Perhaps the tipping point was when we noted that in Star Trek all habitable planets were of class M. We decided that when people asked what the M stood for, we would give a different response each time. That sounded like fun, so everyone was on board.
With the support and assistance of the Waffles and local therapist, poet, and musician, Eric Rensberger, we had our first gig at the what is now known as the Ivy Tech Waldron Arts Center and were off to the races. A young composer friend said that our music was what happens when math rock and free improvisation have a baby. We played regularly at Second Story, the Bluebird, and a wonderful record store in Louisville called Ground Zero.
Late in the Summer of 1995, I started working on a shot-by-shot examination of Nosferatu using techniques I had learned from music theorist David Neumeyer. I mostly focused on what characters were in the shot and what the action was like that connected shots together.
David had also introduced me to Erno Lendvai, a music theorist who studied Bela Bartok’s music extensively. He had some interesting ideas about the golden mean and its presence in Bartok’s music, particularly in his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. If you have an evening to waste sometime, ask me about this (a personal hobby horse of mine). Lendvai’s other contribution to Bartok scholarship was the articulation of what’s called a tonal axis system. Lendvai divides the octave in half mathematically claiming that Bartok used a tonal system based on that division. For example, Lendvai says that in the key of A, both the chord A and Eb could serve a tonic function and that a secondary tonal axis (perpendicularly crossing the line between A and Eb on a diagram of the circle of 5ths) exists connecting the keys of C and F#. Our happy-go-lucky protagonist, Hutter, got the key of A while the evil Nosferatu received the other side of the axis, Eb. The key of C is equidistant from A and Eb, a minor third apart from each, so I assigned that to Ellen, married to Hutter but seemingly drawn to the repulsive Nosferatu. So, we had keys assigned to characters, more or less, and needed melodic ideas to tie things together.
Earlier that summer, I found a Bruno Ventura guitar strung with nylon strings sitting on the curb waiting for the trash. It had a hole in it where the back had become detached and was covered in white latex paint. I was raised not to take anything from someone else’s trash bin without asking. Hilariously, the owner of the house decided that he wanted to sell the guitar. He asked for $5.00 and I wouldn’t offer more than $4.50 wanting to feel like I got a deal of sorts. Jason and I wrote the melodies for our score by passing that acoustic guitar back and forth while watching the film over and over again.
Once we had a tonal framework with melodies, Jason and I brought Bennett onboard to fill in the gaps and to give some rhythmic character to what we had done. Bennett’s bowed cymbal in conjunction with Jason’s delay pedal made for some eerie listening and was just what I had hoped for. We spent hours in my big kitchen rehearsing, our eyes transfixed to the tiny TV atop my rolling kitchen island.
We needed a film, a projector, and a venue. I rented a 16mm print of Nosferatu from a fellow in NYC and rented the Monroe County Public Library’s auditorium. All we needed to do then was to keep practicing, promote, and hope that someone showed up.
My friend Chuck offered to be our projectionist and helped us get things set up the day of the performance. Once all the gear was in place we were ready for a practice run-through. The film started to roll. We played for about a minute and realized that the print we received was running at a much higher rate of speed than the one we had been rehearsing to. We were nothing short of freaked out and were going to have to speed things up somehow. At this point we had an hour or so to play with the print and were able to make a game plan – cut impulses to repeat things and watch one another with a higher than our already high degree of attention. We made it through somehow and the audience seemed to really like what we had done. We actually made some money much to our amazement.
Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this again, but not have to worry about renting the film or the hall? Enter Peter LoPilato and The Ryder film series. I was an adoring fan of The Ryder even before I moved to Bloomington. While attending Wabash College in Crawfordsville, I would occasionally drive to Bloomington to check out something wonderful – Swimming to Cambodia with Spalding Gray or Home of the Brave by Laurie Anderson (neither of which are on DVD – a terrible shame). Peter offered us a chance to play several dates in late October as part of the film series… for four wonderful years. Our last show and the last time I played publically as a member of M was for The Ryder in early November of 1999.
Jason moved away to North Carolina where he has become a tenured professor of religious studies. Bennett is now a high school science teacher that drums professionally on evenings and weekends. I gave up music theory for a career in IT, working on the high performance storage system that backs the Big Red II supercomputer.
Over the years Peter would suggest that “the lads get back together.” It was a tempting idea, but reuniting would prove difficult. Years became a decade and then some. But as I’ve said, my father taught me to be patient. And then the IU Cinema opened. Jon Vickers, director of the Cinema, has done so much in his role to provide members of the Bloomington community with truly amazing cinematic experiences. I had no idea that we would have a chance to play at the IU Cinema, but I sent mail to Peter and slipped Jon a DVD document of one of our 1999 performances. I was both surprised and elated to hear that Jon and Peter were interested in scheduling us for this fall. This was an offer that our geographically challenged band could not refuse. So I hope you’ll come to see us perform our score for Nosferatu on October 27th at the IU Cinema. We’re not sexy and well-dressed like other bands but we’ve got big ears and know how to rock.
The Ryder ◆ September 2013