We may live in the land of 10,000 bands, but it seems none could be better suited than Brute Heart to create a score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the touchstone for modern horror films. Known for conjuring haunting, otherworldly soundscapes from bass, drums, and viola—along with vocals that got the group a collective “best female vocalist” accolade this year—members Crystal Myslajek, Jackie Beckey, and Crystal Brinkman draw from a host of sources for inspiration, including art rock, orchestral music, Eastern European folk and Middle Eastern traditions. Walker magazine editor Julie Caniglia recently met up with the Minneapolis-based trio to discuss their work scoring the 1920 Robert Wiene silent film for the conclusion of 2012’s edition of Summer Music & Movies.
Once you’ve gotten acquainted with the film, how do you actually start writing music for it?
We’ve got the screenplay with notes, so now we’re gathering our musical tools. But I feel like right away all of us thought of things we’d already started composing and recording that would be a good fit for this film.
We don’t get to practice together as much as we’d like so recordings help us remember, as a kind of notebook. But even though the general tone of our music complements the film, I’ve never composed anything as long as 75 minutes. We want to have some intention and cohesiveness, find themes to interweave throughout, find common threads, so we’ll be analyzing the film and its themes more holistically, and looking into how it was inspired by what was happening in Germany at the time, but also adding our intention to bring it to life for 2012.
Are other musicians joining you for this performance?
We’ll have a cello player, and probably one or two more instrumentalists, for a wider palette. We all play multiple instruments, but you only can play so much at one time, and we only have two hands each.
We’re also thinking about a sound designer to add to amplification, analog processing, and other ambient effects.
Which aspects of the film have inspired you? How do you think your music might play off of or play into its dark imagery?
It has a lot of high contrast and angular lines and it’s really dramatic in that way, but it’s also minimal. Our music can be full, but we’re pretty minimal as a three-piece band playing instruments that don’t use chords. It’s more like two notes interacting, with percussion and vocals.
We’ve been talking about it as a work of German expressionism, using visual effects to make everything slanted and disorienting—and Jackie has noted how our music is not unlike that. We make things unexpected and kind of disorienting in trying to evoke certain emotions.
That emotional quality seems to resonate with your fans. One review of your last album was intensely impressionistic, very narrative—in -act, it sounded like the writer was relating the plot for a horror film.
There have been times when Jackie would wonder during a practice if something was too dark, and I’d say nooo, it’s fine! Also, our songs don’t correspond with a typical structure. A lot of them are like a through composition—we change time signatures, themes, instruments, and never go back to what we started with.
People describe our music as moody, of course, and “somnambulist” is also a word that’s been used, which is interesting given the film’s Cesare character. And Crystal has been really passionate about the word “hypnogogic.”
I don’t want to do anything predictable—I’d like to try to add some irony, push boundaries, or re-interpret the film, breathe new life into it—in a way that acknowledges it was made in 1919, but explores what it means in 2012. Maybe in some places it’s not as dark as we think it is? If it were to be made now, how would that change our interpretation?