CLASSICAL: A soul-searching soundtrack

Geoff Smith's devilish live score enlivens Murnau's 1926 film Faust
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The Independent Culture
WHAT BETTER accompaniment to F W Murnau's classic 1926 film version of Faust than the disturbing and beautiful sound of the hammered dulcimer. The ancient percussion instrument, with more than 100 strings, is struck by small, wooden hammers, sticks or mallets, and creates the perfect unsettling and otherworldly mood.

The world premiere of Geoff Smith's live soundtrack to Faust - the story of the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for youth - takes place at the Barbican in London, before touring the UK. "The Devil in Murnau's Faust makes Hannibal Lecter look mild," says the composer, who will perform it using three prototype hammered dulcimers, along with his quiet haunting vocals and Philippe Barnes on flutes.

Naturally, Smith has watched Faust obsessively while composing the 115- minute score. He is able to use a wide palette of sound with the instrument, particularly since his invention of the microtonal fluid tuning mechanism. "This microtonal dulcimer allows bespoke tuning layouts - but all three dulcimers are different," he says. "I need them all to express the emotions of the film creatively, with absolute precision." He last composed and performed the live soundtrack on dulcimers for another classic horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

This version of Goethe's legend of Faust, filmed a minimum of 15 times during the silent era, remains the definitive big-screen version of the tale. Although perhaps less known in the UK than his earlier film Nosferatu, Murnau's Faust is ranked among the greatest of the silent masterpieces.

Smith will stand in the centre of the three trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimers - each dulcimer about 4ft by 2ft in size - for the performance. There is a diatonic dulcimer - "customised with an extended bass section"; a chromatic dulcimer "with every semi-tone and octave like a piano and repeating notes"; and his microtonal fluid tuning dulcimer - "where I can raise or lower the tone of each note by precise microtonal intervals".

"But fluid tuning can be stressful," he says. "Unlike the acoustic piano, in which the notes always remain in their defined positions, here everything is changing. But the payback is that it is extremely creative. You must embrace the feeling of insecurity that you get - it is a different way of working."

What is his favourite scene in the film? "When Faust summons the Devil to earth, they end up in Faust's laboratory-cum-study, where Faust agrees to sign a pact with the Devil. The Devil sticks a quill pen into Faust's vein in his wrist to draw blood in order to sign the pact. There are ghoulish special effects. The Devil, engulfed in flames, dances triumphantly.

"The feeling - the tension and the palpable sense of evil that comes from the performance - I can do justice to because I can relate to the detail using the three dulcimers."

`Faust' soundtrack premiere, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7519) 20 February, then touring, 24 Feb to 19 April (