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Pittsburgh composer creates new score for a silent horror classic

Tom Roberts sounded almost giddy – not an emotion routinely associated with the 1922 German silent film “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.”

“I have fallen under the spell of Count Orlok!” the internationally touring jazz pianist quipped. “And I’ve been neglecting my dog, and my girlfriend, and my housework!”

Tom Roberts
Pittsburgh Silent Film Society
Pianist and composer Tom Roberts

Roberts, reached by phone, was putting the finishing the touches on his new score for the classic vampire movie, whose 100th anniversary the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society is marking with a pair of screenings, March 4 and 5 at the Harris Theater. Roberts will play his new score live, on an electronic keyboard programmed to sound like a grand piano.

The event began as a way for the Society to celebrate legendary director F.W. Murnau’s spooky and stylish landmark feature based on Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula.” Fri., March 4, is 100 years to the day since its release.

“It’s such a remarkable film and has had such an influence in cinema history, but also on horror and all the vampire films that came after it,” said Society founder Chad Hunter.

Hunter asked Roberts, a long-time Society collaborator, to perform with the film live. He could have simply used public-domain music. Instead, Roberts chose to create something new – even though he was previously unfamiliar with more than a few iconic images of the wraithlike Count Orlok, with his pointy ears, long, talon-like fingers, and minatory shadow.

Roberts, a Pittsburgh native who now lives in Spring Hill, is known around the world for his composing, performing and arranging skills. His credits include The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (in 1990, backing Leon Redbone); arranging for Winton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; and arranging and performing music for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s film “The Aviator.”

Starting in 2014, Roberts also teamed with the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society for “Silents, Please,” a series of silent films with live music that began at Hollywood’s Dormont Theater.

This year, after finally watching “Nosferatu” in its entirety, he was ensorcelled — so much so that he's being paid only for his performance, Hunter said, not his composing work.

“It’s a beautiful film,” he said. “It is such a masterpiece, this film, and there are lots of emotional levels within it.”

“Nosferatu” is set in 1838, when a German real-estate agent named Huttert travels to Transylvania to do a deal for the mysterious Orlok … who then turns up in Germany.

For music in the German scenes, Roberts drew upon the bright, melodic style of 19th-century composer Robert Schumann. Scenes in Transylvania were scored to tunes inspired by Romanian traditional music.

“The beautiful thing about ‘Nosferatu’ is … it’s not all terrifying,” said Roberts. “There’s moments of hope, there’s moments of mystery, there’s moments of tragedy, there’s moments of loss, and what I’ve tried to do with this score is capture each one of those moments as best as I can.”

“Nosferatu” stars Max Schreck as the iconic vampire. It was one of several important films by Murnau, including “The Last Laugh” and “Sunrise.”

“Nosferatu” was born into legal controversy. The studio that made its was sued by Stoker’s estate, which claimed the film violated copyright protections on the 1897 novel, and most prints were destroyed. Also lost was the film’s music score. That’s right – many films of the silent era came complete with original scores, meant to be performed live in theaters. (Roberts’ inspirations in this line of work include Charlie Chaplin, who often scored his own films.)

It’s a bit of cultural heritage the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society means to continue resurrecting. After “Nosferatu,” look for a centennial screening of Robert Flaherty’s classic documentary “Nanook of the North,” in June, also with live accompaniment. And this fall, Hunter said, he plans to proceed with plans for the inaugural Pittsburgh Silent Film Festival.

“Nosferatu” screens 8 p.m. Fri., March 4, and 8:30 p.m. Sat., March 5. The March 4 screening is sold out. More information is here.

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