David Briggs improvises live on the organ.
Like conversational Latin, improvising on a church organ is a skill that's fallen a little out of favour. But in the antiquated collegiate surroundings of London's Inner Temple, barely altered since Herman Melville described them 150 years ago in "The Paradise of Bachelors", you've got no choice but to kick it old school. On Wednesday, recitalist and composer David Briggs played a live soundtrack to the 1922 silent vampire classic Nosferatu in the Temple Church. It's easy to forget how (unintentionally?) funny Nosferatu is - when Count Orlok sees a photograph of Hutter's beloved, he cheerfully tells him that "Your wife has a beautiful neck" - and Briggs did not ignore that, with quick interpolations of familiar themes, like Mendelssohn's Wedding March, among the ominous drones. I asked him some questions by email.
Dazed Digital: How many times have you done Nosferatu? Do you repeat motifs from performance to performance?
David Briggs: I think this is just my fourth Nosferatu, over the past five years or so, compared to 106 Phantom of the Operas! So I'm greatly looking forward to performing it again and in this instance I expect I will start totally from scratch when deciding on the leitmotivs. Some will be very well known (from the orchestral/operatic repertoire) and some freely composed, especially for the occasion.
DD: What's your favourite film to accompany, and why?
DB: The film I have played to the most, by far, is Phantom of the Opera – the 1929 version with the great Lon Chaney. I know it like the back of my hand, and always really enjoy it. It always seems to get a very good reaction from the audience, as well. I play about ten other movies, too – probably the ones I've enjoyed the most are Cecil B de Mille's King of Kings and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Last summer I played Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc in Berlin and Nuremberg, which was a very emotional experience for me (and also apparently for the audience).
DD: Is the tradition of cinema accompanists still healthy in Britain?
DB: I think it's sort of slipped somewhat out of vogue as the Wurlitzers have gradually disappeared from the movie theatres. There are a few exceptions to this, though, like the brilliant cinema-organist Donald MacKenzie. One day I would love to hear his interpretation of some of the movies which I play for regularly, but my schedule hasn't allowed for it so far! My approach is perhaps rather different to a traditional cinema-organ approach – more symphonic and "post-romantic", you could say. I'm very influenced by Mahler, Strauss, Dupré and Cochereau.
DD: Do you ever find yourself improvising something that's so good that you then use it in one of your compositions?
DB: Not consciously – I'm no Bach or Mozart! Having said that, when I compose, I think it all comes from the same place as the improvisations – except of course that when you compose you can always make changes. So, in some ways, improvisation represents a more direct line to your inner musicality and I think there's a certain honesty and excitement about that. I loved being inspired by the visual image, too.
DD: Might two accompanists ever disagree over what the mood of a particular scene should be?
Probably yes – rather like two composers might set a text in a totally different way. I composed a new setting of Psalm 98, "O Sing Unto the Lord", last month. Most composers begin set this text in a very bouncy, extrovert way – but I had the idea of beginning in a quieter, more atmospheric and introspective fashion – rather like sitting alone saying a personal prayer in some ancient cathedral. It soon becomes more vibrant, though. I always like an element of surprise in music – not exactly reinventing the wheel but allowing enough space to be able to project your individual musical personality. In Nosferatu there's certainly plenty of scope for that!