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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Protean Dracula

Monster Mashup Dept.: Here’s another set of program notes I wrote for the ensemble Proteus 7 when they were making CDs on the Dorian Recordings label. (Others are Bernstein Tribute and Cha-Cha Lounge.) Sessions were at the venerable Troy Music Hall, where I usually spent some time listening to takes and talking to the musicians. And here’s the result.


CREATIVE EXPRESSION NEEDS an outlet. In the case of trumpet wizard Anthony DiLorenzo, this also takes the form of writing and arranging music, painting and drawing, and now as scenarist and composer for ballet. This CD presents the small ensemble version of a suite of highlights for a full-length ballet that draws on Dracula lore.

“The complete piece will be written for full orchestra, and there’s more music tying these scenes together,” says Tony. The piece had its genesis in an overture he wrote a few years ago. “It was an orchestral piece, designed to be something else, but after I finished it I thought, ‘This sounds an awful lot like it could be about Dracula,’ and that’s also when I thought it would make a fantastic ballet. When Dorian suggested that Proteus 7 do a recording for Halloween, everybody said I should finish my Dracula piece.”

He plunged into Dracula study, an intimidating subject that has Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel at its center but spins out back into Romanian history and forward to a glut of books, plays, and movies. Mindful of the importance of the Dracula myth, he concocted a wild, appropriate story with full Grand Guignol effects.

The Count

Vlad Dracula, or Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, was the main inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel. Born in Romania in 1431, he was the son of the military governor of Transylvania. And it was his father who earned the sobriquet Dracul, Romanian for dragon, to honor his membership in the Order of the Dragon, a fraternal order supposedly dedicated to promoting Catholicism and doing away with Turks, complete with a ceremonial costume of red with a black cape. Other sources insist that young Vlad turned away from the Orthodox church to embrace Catholicism, so a muddle remains to keep historians busy.

In any event, the younger Vlad was dubbed Dracula, meaning “son of Dracul.” He became quite the torturer. According to Elizabeth Miller, Professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland, “he often ordered people to be skinned, boiled, decapitated, blinded, strangled, hanged, burned, roasted, hacked, nailed, buried alive, stabbed, etc. He also liked to cut off noses, ears, sexual organs and limbs. But his favorite method was impalement on stakes, hence the surname ‘Tepes’ which means ‘The Impaler’ in the Romanian language. Even the Turks referred to him as ‘Kaziglu Bey,’ meaning ‘The Impaler Prince.’” What’s missing from history is any indication that Vlad was a vampire.

When Stoker started work on his famous novel in 1890, he had a name for his central character: Count Wampyr. Then he discovered the name Dracula in William Wilkinson’s 19th-century Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. And that book seems to have been Stoker’s only written source of historic Dracula info, although he had a friend named Arminius Vambery, a professor from the University of Budapest who may have contributed some facts. As noted by Benjamin H. Leblanc from the University of Montreal, “the fact that Dr. Abraham Van Helsing mentions his ‘friend Arminius’ in the ... novel as the source of his knowledge on Vlad seems to support this hypothesis. It should also be kept in mind that the only real link between the historical Dracula and the modern literary myth of the vampire is in fact the 1897 novel; Stoker made use of folkloric sources, historic references and some of his own life experiences to create his composite creature.”

Dracula Proliferates

The estimable count has become considerably refined since Vlad went on his torture-filled Romanian rampage. Stoker’s novel established once and for all the characteristics of this dignified menace, luring the unsuspecting into his lair to seduce them into vampiredom. There’s a heavy underscore of eroticism to the tale, of course, and the novel also plays on the fears of urban culture with its deft tweaks of science and religion.

Putting Dracula on the screen really inspired nightmares. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 version, Nosferatu, still holds up well, although it has tough competition from the 1931 Tod Browning version, in which Bela Lugosi recreated his stage role and proved how wonderfully effective he could deliver a simple line like, “I never drink . . . wine.”

Although the legend travels in very original directions in the works of Anne Rice as well as this ballet, Dracula and Vlad lately have been merging. As traced by Elizabeth Miller, the first film fusion took place in a TV movie with Jack Palance in 1974; more recently, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, took a sumptuous look at the possibilities. “Examples of the fusion in fiction are numerous,” Miller writes, “including such novels as Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman, Children of the Night by Dan Simmons, Peter Tremayne’s trilogy Dracula Lives!, Drakulya by Earl Lee,” and the trilogy for which she supplied this information, Jeanne Kalogridis’s The Diaries of the Family Dracul.

Dracula Haunts Us Still

Overheard at intermission of the Broadway production of Dracula, starring Frank Langella romping around Edward Gorey’s stark sets: A young woman sighed, “He’s so attractive!” Her annoyed companion reminded her, “He’s a monster.” “Yes, but he’s such a sexy monster!” she replied.

With the possible exceptions of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, he’s the most enduring figure in contemporary literature. And, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming, Bram Stoker is consigned to the critical trashheap of “pop” novelists, although he is redeemed in Leslie Fiedler’s anti-elitist study What Was Literature? Fiedler writes, “In non-elitist books ... typically ignored by the critics, like Dracula ... what we find is not mythology once removed but primary myth. ... If that late Victorian fantasy has become the favorite pop work of the late twentieth century, that is because like all horror porn (but somehow preeminently so) it stirs in us involuntary physiological responses which, existing prior to acculturation, can only be tempered but never quite controlled by consciously acquired codes of behavior.”

The character of Dracula the villain resonates with the hobbledehoy villain in all of us, which is no more than a desire to throw off the bonds of acculturation. Nowhere is this more evident than the realm of sex. Culture teaches us that sex is bestial; suave Dracula not only appealingly confirms that but also transubstantiates between beast and man. In his History of Sexuality, Michael Foucault charts the increasing disapproval of sexual activity during the first two hundred years of Christianity, when physicians began harping on abstinence and marriage became the only context for sex.

Theologians of old equated sexual climax with loss of control, even death, and Dracula brings life to that fear, adding the fillip of possible immortality. And we won’t even begin to get into the symbolism of blood here. He embodies a range of psycho-sexual fascinations so vast he would have sent Krafft-Ebing into a swoon. Finally, he carries the resonance of a rich folklore. He casts no reflection and shies away from sunlight and crosses. Despite feasts on his favored food, he is pallid, with no garlic in his diet. He slumbers in a coffin lined with the soil of his own grave. He is a festival of the forbidden, and he’s handsome, too.

Dracula’s Seduction

Is love ennobling in one such as Dracula, or a sign of weakness? In the DiLorenzo ballet, we meet a pack of vampires secretly jostling for the supremacy held by Dracula, countered by an innocent band of gypsies.

“It’s very programmatic,” says Tony. “It’s a love story between Dracula and Miranda, a gypsy woman from a tribe of musicians that lives near his castle. In order to get her into the castle, he invites the entire tribe to accompany his annual ball. They’re amazed because the gypsies assume that only the highest of royalty goes to the ball – and they’re dismayed because there are stories that some people don’t come back alive.”

Dracula seduces Miranda, but she ends up breaking away from the spell despite her own innocent love for the count, a move that ends in tragedy. “I looked at the folktales and came up with a story that picks it up in the middle, after Dracula’s own transformation. It’s somewhat traditional, but I incorporated a love story and brought in the gypsies to gave it a little more color, so I could write a Russian-Gypsy style of music.”

Dracula’s Ensemble

Proteus 7 is an ensemble of incredibly talented instrumentalists, led by DiLorenzo, who has written music for ABC-TV as well as trailers for over 70 movies. His concert works have been played by major symphony orchestras, with whom he’s also appeared as a trumpet soloist.

Others in the group are trumpeter Geoffrey Hardcastle, multi-instrumentalist Charles Pillow, trombonists Hans Bohn and Scott Hartman, Matthew Gaunt on tuba, and percussionist Feza Zweifel. “There are seven of us playing, sometimes eight,” says Tony, “but it sounds like there are 25 people there sometimes. That’s the illusion I wanted to present – something ominous, something larger, not just a little brass ensemble CD. And the music has something of a movie sound, but with a traditional, classic orchestration – so you won’t think, ‘Oh, I’ve heard that before.’”

Joining the ensemble on this recording is Rob Schwimmer, who specializes in unusual instruments and presents three of the most unusual. The theremin – an electronic device invented in 1919 by Leon Theremin – is known from its frequent horror-movie use. It sounds like a metallic whistle, and the player controls it with hand movements near two antennae, one of which controls pitch, the other volume.

The waterphone is a metallic instrument, a hollow silver ball with water inside and metal spokes on the outside that are played with a bow. “It gives an eerie, watery effect that has been used in a lot of films,” says Tony. “It has no specific pitch but produces a lot of random pitches and overtones.”

That roaring you’ll hear comes from the daxaphone, which  is made from pieces of wood carved into different shapes. “They’re very beautifully carved,” Tony explains, “and they’re also bowed. There’s a little microphone pickup on it for amplification, and it sounds like a monster. It’s a horrific roar, so eerie it’ll make you jump off your seat. In fact, [producer] Heather [Zweifel] won’t listen to the tracks that uses it because it scares her to death.” The daxaphone comes in towards the end of the CD, on the tracks titled “Bats Take Flight” and “Trapped with No Escape.”

Dracula: Track by Track

Act One

1: The Castle

Liek the legend itself, DiLorenzo’s Dracula is draped in mystery, beginning with the ominous chords set up the first scene, played to a closed curtain. Soon the trumpets sound a heroic chord, the curtain rises, and we see the castle in the background. Slyly, menacingly, Dracula’s theme marches in, and we’ll hear variations of it later in the piece. We study the castle with a sense of foreboding: it represents majesty, of course, but we can tell from the music that there’s a creepy twist to that majesty ahead. That wavery electronic sound is the theramin, “which represents the castle,” says Tony, “with its menacing feeling of weirdness. I used that instrument for color throughout the piece.”

2: Vampires Race Home

Racing to beat the sunrise, a half-dozen vampires jostle to get back to the castle in a movement that uses flutter tongue effects and trombone glissandi to add to the sense of excitement. This also sets up the hierarchy of vampires, with Dracula at the head of the group. We meet his henchmen and his castle guards, all in the colorful costumes that still convey a sense of menace. There’s a grandiose splendor about them as they race toward the castle. Listen for a variation on Dracula’s theme in a gypsy-esque turn

3: Dance of the Gypsies

We’re still in the woods, still looking up at the mountain of the castle, but now we’re in a gypsy camp. A jaunty, minor-key romp with off-beat tambourine introduces the gypsies, but with ominous brass punctuation. Here is Sándor, father of the lovely Miranda, and we also meet Laszlo, whom Sándor has chosen to be Miranda’s husband. Unfortunately, she’s not in love with him at all. They grew up together, and they were best friends – but that’s all. There’s a challenge between Sándor and Laszlo, and the sequence starts with their dance, with all of the gypsies soon joining them.

4: Waltz of the Dead

What goes on in that great, looming castle? The gyspies have heard frightening stories, but they try to laugh them off to the tune of this eerie waltz. With its crooning theramin enhancement, this is something you dance while looking over your shoulder. Little brass punctuations and sardonic trumpet commentary add to its ominousness.

5: Castle Guards & Dracula’s Passion

At last: we’re in the castle itself, which is introduced to us by the Castle Guards, who perform a stately dance in bright red costumes. A ponderous sequence in low brass starts this with busy percussion behind it, then segues into a more thoughtful accompaniment as a scene change brings us to a solo dance. It’s Dracula, dignified and self-possessed. He sees Miranda in a vision. He knows she’s out there, knows she’s near. He wants her.

6: Dracula’s Deceptive Plan

A slow movement in multiple meters featuring muted trombones. As the music slinks through changes of tone and color, we realize just how crafty Dracula can be. We see him thinking, we see how he works. Other creatures around him may be more menacing, but he’s more frightful because of what he doesn’t at first reveal. He wonders how to get Miranda to the castle. He doesn’t want to venture out on his own into the forest, so he tries to reach her with telepathy. Is it working? He’s not sure, so he sends his henchmen in the form of bats.

7: Bats Take Flight & Trapped with No Escape

It starts with staccato drums offstage that get louder and louder until they’re joined by onstage drums. Trumpets and woodwinds join with flutter tongues and trills. The crepuscular henchmen fly through the forest to find Miranda, but they’re discovered by Laszlo, who confronts them. A lone gypsy versus so many vampires doesn’t stand a chance, but he struggles valiantly until he’s slowly overcome. And there’s another variation of that Dracula theme, as the omniscient leader takes in the situation and calls back his henchmen. There will be another plan, another foray, but, as the curtain descends, the gypsies know nothing of danger ahead.

Act Two

1: The Messenger

Muted trumpets open the scene with music that seems somehow familar, but it’s a travesty of anything we’ve heard before, harkening back as it pushes us farther into the realm of the vampire. We’re still in the forest. Dracula has sent his messenger to the gypsy tribe to invite them to a fabulous ball. The mood changes as the colorfully costumed messenger spins into the scene with his own peculiar majesty. The gypsies accept the invitation and start their journey

2: Gypsy Caravan

It’s a picturesque entourage heading over the mountain to the castle, but the music tempts us to remember how ominous this journey may be. Muted trumpets lull us into a false sense of self-assurance, with gypsy rhythms breaking through. There’s the sense of a slow, horse-drawn journey.

3: The Guests Arrive

As Tony explains, “The gypsies are walking through the gardens, these really crazy Tim Burton-esque gardens, where the bushes are dark and you can’t really tell what’s in them. It’s more ghoulish than scary, and creates a lot of mystery.” What could be a pleasant, easygoing theme in the low brass is undermined by the nervous chattering of muted instruments in the background.

4: Parade of the Ghouls

Here’s the movement that deserves its own showcase on any orchestra’s Hallowe’en playlist. The gypsies enter the party and meet the costumed vampires, whose ghoulish garb ironically gives the illusion of less danger. It’s a surprisingly fun section, light and bouncy. Check out the off-beat punctuation that suggests that something not very nice is about to happen.

5: The Grand Waltz

A touch of old Russia in this sharp-edged waltz, punctuating the gruesome action that’s suddenly underway. As the vampires partner the gypsies in the dance, they go to their sanguinary work. Each vampire bites his partner on the neck and drags the victim away. At the finish, Miranda, oblivious to the carnage around her, is swept away by Dracula. She is intrigued by this silent man who persuades her into his chambers.

6: Seduction

To a watercolor of gentle chords, sweetly underscored by the marimba, Dracula seduces his new-found love. And Miranda is falling in love with him, although she still doesn’t know who he is at this point. He’s someone of power, handsome, very convincing, and thus very overwhelming to a simple little gypsy girl. He’s everything she’s not, and so she’s falling for him.

7: Run for Your Life

Meanwhile, throughout the castle, the gypsies are being slaughtered. Too late, they realize that the grand ball was a grand deception. It’s a bloodbath. And Miranda suddenly realizes who she’s chambered with. Does it matter at this point? Love, fueled by new-found lust, is overwhelming her. She’s about to kiss him, and he’s about to bite her on the neck, when she sees Laszlo’s scarf in Dracula’s lair.

8: Finale

She knows she’s trapped. She also knows that, horrible as Dracula is, she’s in love with him. But the scarf has brought out her anger, and she doesn’t want to give in to him. She has only one escape: she kills herself. At the same time, the other vampires have begun to realize what’s going on – they know Dracula is in love with her, which angers them. It’s not the vampire’s way. Power is important, it’s vital to these ghouls, so they decide to mutiny. When they enter the room and see Miranda’s suicide in progress, the music changes, growing quieter, more ominous. The vampires move in on Dracula. Then the chords start building again with an added chime, as the they completely surround him. When they move apart, he’s gone. Completely devoured. The carnage is over, at least for now, but new tales will be woven into the legend told around gypsy camps for years to come.

– Dorian Recordings xCD-90283, 14 June 2000

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