In The Nursery: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Pop Up Cinema, Portobello Film Festival, London - 17 September 2011

"A rare UK performance of their memorable 1996 score"

[In The Nursery live]

Included within the annual Portobello Film Festival programme of entirely free screenings, this was a rare UK performance by In The Nursery of their 1996 score to Robert Wiene’s expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Only the second time I’d seen the film with the ITN score and first time was when the album was released so although I was familiar with the score, having listened many times since, I’d not seen it in the live screening context since then. I’d always had a soft spot for the score having been slightly cautious about how it would work with one of my all-time favourite films. But, like almost all of ITN’s Optical Music series of new soundtracks to old silent films, the combination of their audio with the black and white video is well-matched.

It’s worth setting the scene for those not present this evening. The Pop Up Cinema is an open-air multimedia space sitting directly beneath the A40 Westway elevated road in north-west central London that acts as a cinema. It feels rather like a concrete war bunker – albeit one decked out with chairs, a screen and some decorative lighting so as to be more inviting that it would otherwise be. Around 80 seats are available and all were taken up for tonight’s performance. One of the event representatives introduced the screening (noting as he did so that In The Nursery had appeared at the festival before in the same context – last with an even rarer performance of their brilliant score to the silent Japanese film A Page of Madness).

For those new to ITN live score performances their relatively minimalist set-up built around an Apple laptop, a couple of keyboards and live guitar and bass might have differed from their expectations. Having been fortunate enough to have seen most of the ITN Optical Music performances, I can say that the configuration of the live equipment varies according to what instrumentation is used in the studio. Nevertheless, the core approach of relying on a laptop backing track rather than attempt to recreate live all the recorded elements (almost certainly for cost reasons) remains the same.

[In The Nursery live]Moreover, this is definitely one of those screenings where the music is primarily being performed as a score to the film screening – as opposed to a live band performance which happens to be accompanied by an almost incidental screening of the film. (For a rather contrasting approach see Faust’s tour of their score to another slient German expressionist horror film Nosferatu back in 2000). And, as usual, ITN’s Humberstone twin brothers were positioned discretely left of screen, in the shadows, meaning if your preference was to block them out of your consciousness of even being present, focusing purely on the film, then you could easily do that. This series of scores is nothing to do with ego, rather about doing justice to the celluloid inspiration, creating a worthy blending of the audible and visual.

The source for this screening was a DVD which used a slightly shabby print with English inter-titles, though length-wise it appeared to be close to the original full runtime of around 71 minutes (unlike the circa 51 minute print used for Cult With No Name’s 2009 score). This immediately gave rise to the thought that it is entirely possible that ITN would not necessarily be familiar with the cut of the print used at such events, which you can imagine makes matching track lengths written for one version of the film something of a live logistical challenge (if not nightmare) when performing for another. At times there was some hastily improvised cutting and fading of tracks to match the visuals appearing on screen. This is significant as at several points during their score the band takes visual cues from the film and getting these to match seamlessly with the visuals was clearly not straightforward at times. A total (though thankfully brief) complete loss of sound at one point towards the end was unfortunate but the two quickly brought things back on track with the minimum of fuss and in plenty of time for the building crescendo that their score makes in the final reels. 

In The Nursery’s score to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains one of their most memorable soundtracks and I’ll be delighted to get the chance to see it performed live again many times yet to come. 7/10

Rob Dyer