The occasion was a screening of the classic Bela Lugosi horror film Dracula (1931), with live musical accompaniment by Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble. On screen, a legend of eyebrow-raising, blood-sucking suspense had his way with helpless victims. On stage, an in-the-flesh giant of modern music propelled the vampire forward through his constantly whirring fingers.
Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the Count of Darkness is iconic; some would argue every other Dracula is a mere imitation. Despite laughingly bad "special effects" (you can practically see the fishing rod and wire from which bats are dangled), the movie is not mere historical spectacle. Even though our 21st-century brains have been desensitized by decades of blood and gore, this film's exceptional cast, helmed by Lugosi, still draws audiences into its supernatural world.
The film was originally released as a talkie with no musical score. In 1999, Universal Studios commissioned Philip Glass to supply the classic creeper with his signature pulsating harmonies. The result is a unique cinematic experience. The film's original sound hasn't been manipulated (dialogue and incidental music remain) and the Glass Ensemble's live accompaniment provides its soundtrack as an addition.
This arrangement works magically at moments. The bat hovering just outside a victim's window seems to bob up and down in perfect time with the ubiquitous undulations of Glass' music. The recurring motives of the score emphasize a series of repeated visual images: long fingers floating slowly towards delicate necklines and hungry, blood-shot eyes locked in ravishing stares.
Where it doesn't work, the music obscures the acting. Silence is an important tool in a musician's arsenal and in this score it is underused. Glass' famously repeating arpeggiated harmonic patterns conjure a sense of perpetual movement. When a carriage is rushing up a dark path towards a decrepit castle or when Dracula races to reach his coffin before sunrise, this momentum amplifies the action and suspense. But for dialogue-driven scenes in a sanitarium parlor, the music distracts causing Lugosi's dramatic pauses to lose their punch.
Last night the Glass Ensemble wasn't on its A-game; sloppy entries and too many wobbly high notes from the woodwinds distracted. But after a decade of annual holiday-driven late-October performances, perhaps fatigue is understandable. Contrarily, Lugosi's faultless performance is locked in time. At the end of the movie -- when the lights dimmed and the cloaked Count disappeared -- there was Glass, nearly as old as the film itself, sitting unassumingly at the keyboard, his hands effortlessly churning away, spinning timeless tales.