Sep 15 2011: Caligari with Dulcimer: An Interview With Geoff Smith (Big Issue in the North, 2004)
This piece was written to promote a tour in which Geoff Smith was travelling around a variety of cinemas performing his live soundtrack to screenings of a then recently restored print of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), a film usually tagged as the definitive Expressionist movie but one that also created much of the vocabulary of the Freudian thriller, the horror film and the cinema of Surrealism over the next ten to twenty years. The piece itself is an odd one: a long introduction, a few comments from Smith about the film then a conclusion in which the music and the history of the dulcimer is discussed.
There’s a feeling of rush in its execution, which to be fair is probably very close to the truth: it wasn’t unusual to be putting down the phone, or returning from a face to face meeting, with not much more than an afternoon to get finished copy filed. Wherever possible things were less frantically paced, but circumstances often ensured copy was something to be turned over very quickly. When I read this now, almost a decade after writing it, there’s certainly a lack of fine tuning, but I have such fond memories of Smith’s score that if re-presenting the talk here points a few additional people in its direction, then that’s all to the greater good.
The hammered dulcimer and legendary German horror films aren’t things you usually expect to find in the same places but that may be about to change. Dulcimer maestro Geoff Smith‘s latest project is nothing less than a full soundtrack for Robert Weine’s 1919 silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, to be performed live at screenings, and with the originality of the film itself in no doubt, Smith’s approach to scoring it afresh has the virtue of uniqueness before the titles even start to roll. The combination might not seem an obvious proposition on paper but it makes perfect sense once you’ve experienced the two running together in an auditorium.
Telling the story of the mysterious Caligari, a lunatic asylum director who tours provincial fairs displaying his patient, Cesare, a man who has never once woken in his 24 years of life, the doctor uses his somnambulist to commit a series of murders. Anyone who opposes or slights the doctor seems to end up dead, as does anyone who makes use of Cesare’s unsettling party piece – the telling of fortunes. A young man, whose best friend falls victim to Cesare, sets about uncovering the dreadful truth behind the ‘cabinet’ of Dr Caligari.
Or perhaps he doesn’t. Without giving away an ending as mysterious and shocking as that of The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, let’s just say the truth of the narrative is not a straightforward matter in this film. But then, it’s clear that Weine wasn’t very interested in conventional ideas of realism either. As Smith points out, “that ending is still very effective now, even after we’ve had 80 years of getting used to ‘twists’ in the plots of films. It’s hard to imagine what it must have seemed like in 1919, only just after the end of the First World War, when the conventions and language of film as a medium were still being invented.”
In the case of Caligari there’s a strong argument that it more or less invented a new film language all its own. Look at any horror movie – from James Whale’s Frankenstein to David Lynch’s Eraserhead – and you’ll see something of Weine’s Caligari. Whether it’s Werner Krauss’s doctor, looking for all the world like Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter, or Conrad Veidt’s Cesare carrying Lil Dagover – the fainted love object of the film’s hero, Francis – over the expressionist rooftops, like a spooked-out, gothic King Kong climbing a prototype Empire State Building, Weine’s movie can seem eerily familiar even to those who’ve never actually seen it.
Think of the lurking shadows of film noir, the mad scientists of any number of B-movies, the psychological structures of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Spellbound and you’ll find that Weine anticipated each and every one of them. It’s hardly surprising, with all this to live up to, that even Weine himself failed to reproduce the unique mix that made Caligari such an instantly recognisable film. The closest he came, perhaps, was his influential 1924 horror The Hands Of Orlac, the story of a pianist who receives a murderer’s hands in a transplant operation and becomes an unwitting serial killer. Effective as it is, set against Caligari it’s pretty crude stuff.
“Caligari really is just one of those magical films where everything came together perfectly”, points out Smith. “You can tell they had a great time doing it. I’ve watched it so many times by now that I feel I know the people personally and one thing I’d love more than anything is to get onto that set when they were making it. You can just tell they were having fun…and you suspect they knew they were doing something very special, even on set, before the filming was finished.”
A long-time admirer of composers like Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann, Smith hopes that his own efforts at scoring pay respect to the legacy of those greats. “Morricone’s reputation is huge, and he’s held in fantastic esteem, but I think even that’s understating the case,” he says. “Morricone isn’t just a great film composer, he’s a great composer full stop. You can listen to his soundtracks and they affect you, even when you haven’t got the first clue about the movies they came from, they have a kind of emotional and psychological impact that goes beyond just colouring in the moods of a scene.”
“I’ve come to respect him even more”, he continues, “as what I tried to do with my Caligari score is create a kind of soundscape that involves itself with the design, atmosphere and complexity of the film – but even doing that, which compared to what Morricone achieves seems pretty basic – has given me a definite feeling of having had to fire on all cylinders as a composer and performer.”
Smith’s chosen instrument, the dulcimer, turns out to be an unlikely but ideal vehicle for conveying the moods of this particular film. Playing three dfferent kinds of dulcimer simultaneously – chromatic, diatonic and microtonal, the latter two designed and built by Smith himself for the purpose – the eerie chimes and vibrations perfectly complement the strange atmospherics and unique look of Caligari. Like the famous Roy Budd score for Get Carter, or the zither music used to such great effect in The Third Man, but stripped down and fed through a haunted house, the music draws out the peculiar textures and angularities of the story with real precision.
“The dulcimer is an ancient instrument”, explains Smith. “It predates the piano and guitar and there are references to it in the King James Bible, but it’s always been trapped as a folk instrument and not really used outside that context. People just don’t get to hear it very much, and don’t know the sound – even those involved professionally in music can draw a blank when trying to place it. But that also gives you a lot of freedom because the relative neglect means the tunings and playing styles have never been standardised the way they have with piano and guitar, say.”
It’s a freedom Smith has been very inventive in exploiting, designing not just his own instruments, but his own hammers and playing styles to go with them.
“Most of those in the West who do know about the dulcimer think of it as only a folk instrument”, he says, “yet dulcimers appear in almost every culture in the world in one form or another. In India it’s the santoor, in China the yang chin, in Bavaria it’s the hackbrett – and in some places, like Iran, where the santur has very high status, you can study techniques at music academies and schools. Within Britain there are lots of regional variations, too, so you’ll find very different tunings can be used in Norfolk to those you’d find in Birmingham, and both will be quite different to the tunings you find in Glasgow.”
But it was one of the better known versions of the instrument that first led Smith to his unlikely obsession with the dulcimer, and – perhaps appropriately – it was in the context of a film that he heard it.
“Yes, it was one of those old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes adventures”, he laughs. “Holmes and Watson walk into a cafe and there’s a gypsy band playing, and right in the middle is someone hammering away at a cimbalom, which is, of course, the Hungarian and Central European version of the dulcimer. But it wasn’t so much the sound that drew me at that moment – it was just the intriguing thing of seeing someone playing strings with sticks that appealed to me. I’m not sure why it struck such a chord then, but it’s something I’ve been exploring ever since, and it’s an interest I don’t think will ever go away”.