Composer Aphrodite Raickopoulou: New soundtrack for "Faust" silent movie – "I could not have done otherwise than to attempt it"

28. September 2012 - 10:05 Uhr

In 1926, director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau created "Faust", one of the greatest masterpieces of the silent movie era. Last February, a new soundtrack had its worldwide premier in London. Live to the movie, the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch, performed the music by the young Greek born composer Aphrodite Raickopoulou. Allocated at special sections within the film, pianist Gabriela Montero performed spontaneous improvisations.

"Wonderful", "just fantastic" and "left with tears in my eyes", the audience commented on the music. The sweepingly symphonic composition "amplified the dramatic turbulence of Murnau’s movie with a passion that would surely have impressed the director himself", said "The Arts Desk". Not least, the "Faust" live screening with hosted by actor Hugh Grant was featured on the "Sunday Times Annual Critical List 2012 " as one of the 7 best concerts in the season.

Aphrodite Raickopoulou

Aphrodite Raickopoulou studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she currently resides. Besides recording for BBC Radio, she wrote a Symphonic Suite for Luciano Pavarotti’s Red Cross Gala in 2005. As a pianist, amongst others, she has performed with José Carreras. In conversation with the Berlin-based news magazine musik heute, the composer spoke about the creation of her "Faust" Soundtrack. (für die deutsche Version hier klicken)

musik heute: Was "Faust" your first silent movie score?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: Yes, but I can definitely say that it will not be the last!

musik heute: When did you get to know the "Faust" movie on the first place?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: It was one morning at an HMV store in London’s Oxford street. I really cannot explain this, but after only two minutes or so of searching in the silent film section, I stumbled on it, completely by chance. I had read Goethe’s "Faust" so many times but could not believe that a silent film was made, based upon this story which is, unarguably, one of the greatest stories ever told. Then, as I was checking through the credits, I saw it had the artistic stamp of genius director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.

I quickly grabbed it, secretly thinking "This is It". And it was! I rushed back home and could not wait to play the DVD. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to witness next. Every single frame was executed with sheer perfection. As the film progressed, my heart was beating faster, I just knew I was falling in love with it.. By the end of the film, I could hardly control my tears..

musik heute: How did you hit on the idea to compose a new soundtrack for this movie?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: Because It touched my heart so much, I could not have done otherwise than to attempt to write a new score for it. After that very first viewing, I would talk obsessively about it. I literally could not believe the beauty that was unfolding in front of my very eyes. Such was the power of the images, the pace and atmosphere, I was transfixed and transported from one Universe into another: The visual world of F.W. Murnau’s magic, of wonder and of unparalleled imagination. With a heart starting to beat faster and with childlike enthusiasm, I thought "but how could this ever be possible?"

musik heute: Did you hear the score by Werner Richard Heymann before or any of the "Faust" settings by Wagner, Schumann or Gounod?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: I have listened and loved absolutely everything, and how could I not? These are profound works from the great masters and a young composer today can only be in complete awe of these magnificent creative minds, trying constantly to draw inspiration from them. My own very personal attempt was simply, a very humble effort that came directly from the heart.

musik heute: How did you approach the composition?


Aphrodite Raickopoulou: My approach was solely based on my gut feeling and therefore was totally instinctual. As an artist, once you hit that golden moment when your mind, body and soul are aligned in harmony, you feel the experience of total creative happiness. This state of mind comes to fruition only after extremely hard work and focus beforehand. It is not and should never be a given, otherwise one does not appreciate and respect the process. In reality, it is a rigorous training of the mind. The harder I focused on my subject, the more it would develop.

And then, I would try even harder until it came to the point that I could literally "see", from the very first scene of the film until the very last, exactly how the score would sound like down to its last note. This process is very much a meditative one. You breathe and dream and feed your soul with your subject and then it may become yours. Your heart will always tell you whether you are in the right place or not and I believe that you have to listen to it with a very open mind..

musik heute: Where did you get inspirations from?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: "Faust" is one of the greatest fables ever told, a moral, philosophical examination of the self and its lower aspect. Faust is an attractive story with a paradox, a real, powerful and visionary tale that carries the universal message : "Love Is and will forever triumph over All …"

Our hero, Faust, forces and tries in vain to attain knowledge that belongs to higher realms, he gives in to temptation and greed, sacrificing human virtue in the name of momentous gratification. He therefore fails, because he is driven by a false expression of the ego, only to be ultimately redeemed in glorious victory. But this is a path that I strongly believe, each and every one of us has walked on at some point in our lives, however unconsciously or unwillingly.

This poignant fable is given to us in the form of a spiritual guide that is constantly trying to remind us of the flaws of human nature and its travel through the ages. The "Faust" fable is forever present and strikes an undeniably strong chord with the political and moral situations that affect our society today. We are all imperfect, this is the reality. But the beauty of life itself, also lies on the imperfections and the choices we make. It is a journey with all its consequences, carrying through the body of our thoughts and actions, for they lead us to our ultimate destination.

musik heute: How did you hit on the idea to insert improvisations into the soundtrack?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: I had allocated and timed special sections within the score for the performance of spontaneous improvisations for solo piano. This came purely from an aesthetic point of view and the wish to recreate this charming, retro feeling that cinema playhouses had back in the old times. I imagined just what it would be like, travelling in a romantic time warp to the black and white atmosphere of the 1920’s.

The sound of the keyboard can only create the form of a lonely, lovely song that unfolds spontaneously right there in front of you. Full of complexity, power and an emotion that is truly unique.

musik heute: How long did you work on the music?


Aphrodite Raickopoulou: What I did first, and that was two years ago in Scotland, was to write a symphonic poem of the main themes. Then, life with its surprises, occurred and I had to stop writing for a long period of time. I remember, my friend and producer Carmen Zgouras ringing me on the day of my birthday last May, excited and thrilled about the confirmed date of the performance of "Faust" which would be at the very end of the following February. She said "let’s go for it!" and so we did. Ninety percent of the whole orchestral score had to be completed, more or less within 4 months, without any assistants and with a very small budget, but nevertheless with the help of my overheated laptop, that was at any given moment going to explode! It has been an amazing journey of great challenges, clumsily swimming in the rough seas of setbacks, trying to cry with the laughter and smile with the tears.

musik heute: What did the Murnau Foundation say when you asked their permission to write a new soundtrack for the movie "Faust"

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: They were wonderful and very helpful about it. Mark Grunthal, Head of Sales for Transit Film was also very supportive of this screening. This project has been a great labour of love. Both the Murnau Foundation and Transit Film were aware that this was the case. It was handled by them with the greatest sensitivity, for which I am forever grateful..

musik heute: At least since "The Artist", silent movies are talked of again. How did you discover them?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: There has been a great comeback of this lost art form and understandably so, for there are many silent gems for audiences to enjoy. It is a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic journey full of pure sentiment. It was such an amazing coincidence that "Faust" was staged only a month after the general release of "The Artist". This was a most auspicious omen.

Many years ago I watched Eisenstein’s "Alexander Nevsky" with Sergei Prokofiev’s majestic score, conducted by the legendary Carl Davis. I cannot find the right words to describe appropriately how I felt, other than to say that I was completely and utterly blown away. It was a masterpiece. Like Opera on film, with the orchestra on fire! Every inch of my soul was moved there and then; this was an event that I will never forget.

musik heute: In what way is the work for a composition for a silent movie different from the one for a talkie?


Aphrodite Raickopoulou: When you are composing for a silent film, you have to write so much music! A silent film carries such a strongly evident theatrical element with the concoction of pantomime and ballet. Every frame dances with you and you’d better keep up with the pace of this dance because the more you feel it, the better it becomes!

It is all about the artistic input towards the atmosphere and the kind of music that attempts to feel right in underlying this expression. You try your very best to live inside the director’s mind, respecting his/her vision and therefore you become a psychological undercurrent, pretty much like a spy, because the director’s wishes always come first! This may sound like a psychoanalytical approach, but it is very true as art stems from the urgent need for expression of the soul that is crying to be unearthed from the deep well of the artist’s subconscious.

When you respect the director’s vision, whether a silent or a talkie, you can do no wrong, as true artistic blessing will come from feeling deeply and respecting this vision.

musik heute: First you received a training as a pianist, how did you come to composition?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: Since I was very little, about 6 years of age, I touched the piano. What amazed me was the creation of its magical sound, a puzzle that commanded putting these sounds together in order to create harmony. I would spend endless hours back then, trying to compose simple songs, with the secret, and always humble wish to create something beautiful. For me it was an enigmatic intellectual exercise, a marriage of structure and emotion, which excited me, fed my soul with a love and a passion that came straight from my heart.

I trained as a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Some years before I commenced my studies at the Academy, I lost a very dear friend of mine. The emotional response that was triggered by this loss was an intense, a very painful experience. Art is created from the deep well of feelings that reside within us. I feel very lucky indeed that it was possible for me to express my feelings through a simple song I wrote for her. I could also feel deep down that there was something there, something that urgently needed to come out.

It took years of extremely hard study and self examination, but the passion was so great that there simply was no another way for me to other than to find the guts and express myself. I was hooked, and very soon this spark of creativity turned into a flame and I started to compose. I fell in love with the process and this love grows daily for reasons that I cannot explain in a rational way, just as real love should be, one can never ask why, one knows that it is there.

musik heute: What do you think as a pianist when you play music by another composer? Or when someone else plays your composition?

Hugh Grant moderiert

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: A composer lays his/hers soul bare on the manuscript paper, spending endless hours, days, months, sometimes even years, of composing, orchestrating, editing, revising, even deleting and starting all over again in order to put millions of notes down on paper. The patience and hard work that this entails takes a very strong and determined character, for every note is the composer’s blood, literally laid on paper and I have huge respect for this. There are so many ways that an artist can paint the moon, the sky, the sea, the mountains. If it is real and honest, it will always work out beautifully, even if artistically viewed from a different perspective.

musik heute: Who influences you or is a role model?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: My mentor, Robin Page, a genius conductor and musician, a philosopher of the heart and of the spirit. It touches my heart whenever I recall with the greatest fondness, memories of the time spent with him and his wonderful wife, Elizabeth Andrews, in Scotland. We used to call this a "creative holiday" where I would write without a single stop, only with the occasional visits in their beautiful garden for a break! Both of them are very special people to me, I value their friendship and support like pure gold.

My friend, the wonderfully talented producer, Carmen Zgouras who will always think of the unthinkable and achieve the impossible. Singlehandedly she staged our "Faust" live screening. Carmen fought against all the odds possible, turning this staging into the great success that it has achieved. Since day one she carried an unquestionable belief towards this very challenging project. And so did our advisor and consultant, Jeremy Scholl. Both of them have been the indispensable force towards the materialisation of "Faust".

My Mother Anastasia’s humility has been throughout all the years my source of inspiration, her unconditional love, her courage to unite our family through difficult times has been my inner navigator and my pillar of strength.

My father, along with my wonderful two brothers, Vassili and Dennis, whom I love very much. My beautiful friend, Stella and her family, for they have shown me what having true courage means.

musik heute: As a composer, when and how did you hit on the topic "movie"?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: Another vivid memory that I recall as a young teenager, was the screening of the film "Stanno Tutti Bene", a Giuseppe Tornatore film starring Marcello Mastroianni at a rep cinema, this was years after its release. There was this unforgettable scene where you could see rays of daylight shining through nature of incomparable beauty. Blasco Giurato, the director of photography, depicted with such romanticism and simplicity this object of beauty that there was such a pure expression of love, of longing, of hope. And he made nature speak to you through his photography with a silent sentiment, such a truly great artist. Then, an oboe solo came out of nowhere, by the legendary Ennio Morriconne. I was so stunned, as if a miracle took place there and then. Art that comes directly through the heart creates miracles. This experience had a profound impact on me.

musik heute: How do you work at composing, with paper and pencil or computer?

Aphrodite Raickopoulou: I always work with paper and pencil first, putting down my thoughts and ideas. I play around them on the piano but they get infinitely better when I think about them in my mind, they become much more structured this way. This work ethic has been passed on to me by my mentor, Robin Page who would always say "keep away from the piano!" whilst writing orchestral music. It is all about part writing, allocating the voices like a large choir, thinking orchestrally. It is a rigorous and challenging process, but with great rewards. Once I have slightly overcome this battle, I work on Sibelius 6 software, obsessively trying to put millions of flying dots in the right order..

(Questions by Wieland Aschinger.)

Samples of the "Faust" Soundtrack by Aphrodite Raickopoulou:

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