F.W. Murnau’s Faust, Starring Robert Bruce

by Carey Rutherford

Robert Bruce really likes this movie. In fact, he says he’d be willing to tour with it alone, dropping all other projects, if it would pay the bills.

Old films are often classics just by default. . . and of course the silent era has it’s own particular brand of cinema. . . . it’s a different type of experience.

“I’ve been in the habit of checking out (silent films) I thought were good candidates to work with. For example, I’ve been through virtually every Greta Garbo silent film, (but) there was something missing for me. I couldn’t grab onto anything.”
And you can accept Mr. Bruce’s judgement. He has been composing music for, and performing these compositions with, silent films throughout the U.S. and Canada for nearly eight years now. Originally he had a Buster Keaton focus, but as he mentioned he’s been branching out.

And the results are a little bit amazing. To quote my Seeing Eye Buddy #4: “I’d be engrossed in the film and the feeling the music created, and then suddenly I’d go, ‘Waitaminute. That music is being played by a person!’”

It was, I’d have to admit, a little bit remarkable. Over two hours of film with the live accompaniment of a dedicated composer and silent-film enhancer.

pianist in front of audience, with old film in background
Faust, music by Robert Bruce. Image courtesy of the artist.

Robert stresses that he doesn’t intend to slip into the background with his performance, doesn’t want to just be the film’s wallpaper, nor slavishly emulate the musical era that accompanied the silent films of the 1920’s. He describes Faust as Murnau’s recognized masterpiece, in which he combined elements from other art forms in a manner rarely seen, and Robert wants to create something that is up to that standard.

Keep in mind that, when Faust was released in 1926, virtually none of the films in circulation had their own musical scores: there was simply no time for the performers in the local theatres to learn music for every film that passed through town. If you followed a movie as it toured through our province, for example, you’d hear “whatever the house musician played in Calgary, or Lethbridge, or Edmonton: you’ll have three completely different scores, because whoever’s playing in the theatre is providing the music.”

Unless you were following Faust as it toured Western Canada and the U.S. in October. If you were, you’d hear a carefully researched, composed and adapted landscape of sound environments which seem to perfectly accompany, like a good bandmate, a performance that was recorded nearly a century ago.

There was a particular, touching, moment in the music when I was drawn out of watching a movie, and was momentarily hearing a delicate song highlight the presence on-screen of a beautiful young girl, who is undoubtedly no longer of this world (85 years later). It demonstrated, for me, the power of the music that was swirling around our heads while the light and shadow played out its drama on the screen. Beautiful.

Go for the film, or go for the music, but you’ll be hard-pressed to separate them.

Posted by Hannah Rutherford

Author: Carey Rutherford

Swallowed by the mutual loves of words and music (but far too chicken-shit to perform them with a band), Carey’s writing career started slowly as a freelance writer in 2003, starved him nearly to personal bankruptcy until 2008, and changed directions while writing for FastForward, Beacon Calgary, GayCalgary, and Examiner magazines. With the death of many old-school periodicals, and the explosion of musical diversity in Calgary, the modern approach to writing about live music performance in the Calgary region presented uncluttered landscapes for the focussed passion that Carey’s conversations with musicians, drag queens, festival producers and small animals has uncapped. He was moulded by the brilliance of paper-based periodicals old and new (Life, rolling Stone, Swerve! and Adbusters etc.), and sees the info-verse as needing creative, empathetic, but clear-eyed Agents to communicate these performances.