As France braced itself for the clash against Germany in the European football championships, another clash brewed at the Philharmonie de Paris, between the brilliant Dr Van Helsing and the mysterious Count Dracula. And whilst the Franco-German encounter seemed to have most of Europe enthralled, Paris’ premier concert hall was nonetheless packed to the rafters with a different kind of fan, no less enthralled to see Philip Glass alongside the Kronos Quartet, a long-standing “dream team” in the world of contemporary American music.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in 1931 © Wikicommons
Bela Lugosi as Dracula in 1931
© Wikicommons
Originally commissioned and released as a Universal Studios Home Video production in 1999, Glass’ scoring of the 1931 classic Dracula came as a refreshing addition to the black and white “talkie”. Though there have been numerous different cinematographic incarnations of Dracula and his maleficent exploits, both silent and with sound and even music, it is interesting to witness the impact of adding a musical score almost 70 years later to a film originally without music. Despite this age gap, however, the music is clearly thought out and keenly reflects the film’s mood and setting. Director Tod Browning’s production is one more focused on the curious and almost seductive aspects of Dracula, and Glass reflected this through the more intimate and subtle timbre of the string quartet (in reality a piano quintet, if we count Glass), rather than the more stereotypically horror-associated instrument: no theremins in sight, thankfully...

It is easy to quickly recognise Glass’ instrumental and melodic treatment, particularly when performed by the Kronos. Full of arpeggios and chordal development, there are numerous hints to Glass’ previous works, such as his third quartet Mishima, but these are concealed within a much more chromatically dense and complex structure. The music evolves with the events on screen, whilst generally not making itself too obtrusive or conspicuous. The music is not afraid to back off and disappear into the background, but it is always there. Glass’ music is pervasive. And yet, it is perhaps a shame that it is precisely so pervasive. The film makes use of space and eerie silence in very effective ways, such as amplifying the resonance of actor Bela Lugosi’s rich and textured voice; these are at times unfortunately lessened by the constant presence of Glass’ ever-modulating arpeggios, occasionally dampening the effects of Browning’s cinematography.

Kronos Quartet © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

Despite this occasional absence of silence, Glass’ music is nonetheless a wonderful addition to the film, putting across convincingly the sentiments felt by the characters on-screen, notably Dracula. As the Count explains to his peers the beauty of death and the “worse things” that can await man, we see not a monster but rather a man almost longing for death… for peace. Though the acting talents of Bela Lugosi are largely responsible for conveying such emotions, the music never comes into conflict but rather fully amplifies these emotions.

Performing since 2013 alongside their newest member, cellist Sunny Yang, the ensemble sounds exactly as it should. One element has always set the Kronos ensemble apart, and that is its synchronicity: it feels as if they think as one. Naturally, the ensemble was equipped with a click track and under the careful watch of conductor Michael Riesman, allowing for perfect timekeeping with the film, but the ensemble felt together on a higher level, an emotional level. This is far from the ensemble’s first time performing this work, but they manage nonetheless to retain a certain excitement and freshness in their interpretation, as if they are discovering it for the first time.

Understandably, the film has aged in the only way a black and white film about a Transylvanian vampire can, and despite the occasional chuckles from the audience, it is safe to say no-one was left undecided as Dracula was finally defeated and the ensemble bowed to rapturous applause.