Steven Severin is best known as the co-founder of Siouxsie and the Banshees. The band dissolved in 1996, and with the exception of a brief reunion in 2002, its members have gone in separate but interesting directions. Severin has developed a second career composing original music for silent films. For the last four years, he has toured the UK, Europe, and North America performing live electronic scores for films such as Germaine Dulac's surrealist The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), and, now, Carl Theodor Dreyer's minimalistic horror masterpiece, Vampyr (1932). Severin will be appearing at the Roxie on Monday night to accompany two screenings of Vampyr; his creepy, evocative score is a subtly effective complement to Dreyer's chilling visuals.
It goes without saying the combination makes for an ideal October evening's entertainment. Just before leaving his home in Edinburgh for a tour of several North American cities with Vampyr, Severin spoke with us about scoring and the evergreen appeal of silent films.
How long have you been composing scores for silent films?
At roughly the same time, I started to go to a lot of film festivals. And it was revealed to me that there was a European circuit of film festivals all dealing with fantasy, horror, thrillers, and psychological mystery films -- and I started going 'round this circuit. And I started to see quite a few short films that I really liked. Two in particular had no music in them. I got to meet the two directors, and I approached them and put some music to their two short films. I started to build up a little collection of short films that would comprise another half an hour.
So my first show consisted of The Seashell and the Clergyman, then a little intermission, and then six short films. I wasn't sure how to present it, and I wasn't sure how being onstage as an accompanist, as it were, would feel. But I enjoyed it and the response was really good. So I moved on to the second film in the series, which is Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet.
By this time, I'd got in contact with a company in England called Picturehouse. They are a chain of art house cinemas all around the country. I persuaded them that a little tour of their cinemas might be good. We got that together, and I started contacting different places in the country to kind of fill in the gaps, and it turned into a tour that's been going on and on since then.
Is it true that Vampyr was originally released without a score?
It's been available on DVD without a score. But there always was a score, and it's recently been remastered. With all the projects I've done, I tend to think that the music, unlike the films, is very much of its time. I feel that it's quite within my realm to be able to update the films. The visuals still resonate and I'm trying to, without getting in the way, present these films to a modern audience in a more modern setting. So that they can appreciate them more than if there was some sort of jarring, fairly old-fashioned orchestral score.
Plus, many of the silent scores were pastiches to begin with, blending classical music and popular tunes of that era.
Yeah. And they were written blind. The composers never saw the movies before they wrote the music. So I have an opportunity that they never had. I can work at home, at my leisure, in front of a computer, and make it come alive.
Why did you select Vampyr?
It was on my radar anyway, but I hadn't seen it for a long time. As I said, it was restored and remastered maybe three or four years ago. The difference was quite stunning. The original DVDs were pretty soporific, and I think some bits were missing. So it didn't really interest me until I saw the new restoration. It also kind of fit in to a pattern that I saw emerging where the three main films I've done -- Seashell, Blood of a Poet, and now Vampyr -- they fit a kind of subconscious triptych. In each one of them, there's a male protagonist who's in a dream world that he cannot control. I liked that idea. I didn't set out to do this, but when I saw Vampyr after doing the other two, I thought, "That's the one."
What's next on your wish list of films you'd like to score?
Next is probably a little break. I've done three and it's been full-on since I started. So I think I need to take a bit of time. Nothing's really jumping out at the moment. I was considering Hitchcock's The Lodger, but that's just been given a new score. I don't want to do the standard ones -- Nosferatu, Metropolis -- things like that. So it's finding things that no one else has done, but aren't so obscure that no one's going to bother to come and see it. But all of that aside, it's time for me to stop and re-assess after I've done with Vampyr.
Vampyr screens at the Roxie, with live accompaniment by Steven Severin, on Monday, October 15, at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Admission is $15.