Contag’s second silent film score for chamber orchestra following the success of The Crowd in 2013, Varieté debuted at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2016. A repeat collaboration with Wellington’s SMP Ensemble under the direction of Karlo Margetić, this feature-length film accompaniment takes the guise of both a live cinema score and a recorded soundtrack. Varieté (E.A. Dupont, 1925) is a masterpiece of Weimar-era German cinema, its story of love, jealousy and murder behind the scenes of a cabaret trapeze act slotting in neatly between expressionism and film noir.
Contag’s score for the film aims to evoke an authentic cabaret atmosphere as well as tracing the psychological dynamics of the lead characters (most notably Emil Jannings). Rather than using his music to recontextualise the film for a contemporary audience, the composer prefers to take his audience back in time to the film; in contrast to the stock music provided by silent film accompanists at the time, however, his score has the benefit of hindsight to duly emphasise the film’s lasting qualities. In terms of genre, the influence of Kurt Weill looms large, but Contag treats this as a point of departure rather than one of ongoing reference. The work’s instrumentation is informed by the live cinema context, consisting of piano, woodwind quartet, trumpet, string quintet, and percussion/xylophone. As an ensemble, this provides all the essential orchestral as well as show band colours within the restricted space of a movie theatre stage.
A studio recording of the 93-minute score appears on the Masters of Cinema rerelease of Varieté (Eureka Entertainment, 2017). The live score was co-commissioned by the New Zealand International Film Festival and Goethe-Institut Neuseeland.
“Contag’s score, never afraid to ham it up, is easily the best, dramatically and psychologically.” (Robert Tanitch)
“A stirring orchestral score.” (MIB)