Dissonant, atonal and avant-garde music shows up occasionally in one cramped corner of mainstream pop culture: horror and science-fiction film soundtracks. It sounds like scary stuff to most ears, making it the perfect accompaniment to looming vampires or psychosis. And so it seems fitting that the instrumental group Tortoise attracted a large audience Oct. 12 by performing a live soundtrack to silent horror classic Nosferatu at Chicago’s Orchestral Hall. Tortoise’s music – once famously called “post-rock” before everyone gave up on figuring out what that label meant – has never been that abrasive, but it hasn’t exactly been mainstream, either. Under normal circumstances, Tortoise wouldn’t be expected to fill thousands of seats at a venerated temple of classical music (home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), but the lure of free admission and a spooky movie pulled in a diverse crowd.
The 90-minute suite that Tortoise’s members composed for the German vampire movie had a true symphonic sweep, with subtly overlapping movements and recurring themes. Like the best silent-film music, it enhanced the experience of watching the film without overwhelming it. Although Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922, is not all that suspenseful, it is still a genuinely creepy film, thanks in large part to the spectral appearance of Max Schreck as the vampire. Tortoise’s churning, subterranean sounds were a perfect match for the film’s undead title character. Some of the musical motifs came straight out of the horror-movie composer’s manual – foghorn-like blasts and skittering violin shrieks (simulated violins, that is) – but most of it was quite original.
The less frightening scenes were dominated by a bright and somewhat stately melody on the marimba and synthesizer, while Tortoise kept the audience’s pulse racing with insistent guitar chords during the more dramatic action sequences. Sampled bits of human voice and animal sounds surfaced in the mix, sometimes synching up with the action on the screen. But in one of the most striking moments, Tortoise used sounds resembling the chirping and fluttering of birds in an indoor scene that had nothing to do with birds. It may not have made any logical sense, but it created an appropriately surreal mood. Most impressive of all was Tortoise’s ability to fade out one theme while another one emerged. The members of Tortoise have said they may reuse the music they developed for the Nosferatu performance. It should lay a strong foundation for future recordings.