CurtainUp Report

By Kathryn Osenlund
August 19, 2016

At the Crossroads: Music for Faust
2016 New York International Fringe Festival

When I breezed through the FringeNYC booklet and saw a title that referred to the Crossroads and music and Faust I didn’t read the blurb under the title and just assumed the show must be about Robert Johnson at the Mississippi crossroads making his legendary Faustian bargain. So it was a surprise when the show turned out to be F.W. Murnau’s horror film, Faust, featuring the addition of new music by Modern Robot.

This is performance art of a very different kind. Two musicians sit with their backs to the audience, facing a screen that’s hung way too high for comfortable viewing. They never speak or even turn around until the work is over. Ben Singer (guitar) and Spencer Cohen (drums) accompany Murnau’s silent film with music that Spencer (Modern Robot) composed specifically to match the movie second by second.

The brilliance of this esoteric art lies in the intimate intersection of the new music and the venerable images on the screen. At times sweet and benign, at times driven and relentless, the music accompanies the German Expressionist aesthetic of distorted perspectives, powerful clashing of light and dark, and long, convoluted shadows. Faust, uber dramatic and subjective, has trick photography that Murnau made up as he went along, and the antique dramatic acting can at times be unintentionally funny to modern eyes.

Singer and Cohen approach the sound with precision and lots of spirit. They seem to particularly enjoy the celebrated flight scene, where the music gets beautifully percussive and melodic. Lights, positioned by the screen, are also part of the performance. The color of the light changes with the scenes, for instance from red and orange when there’s fire, to white, mimicking the movie lights on snow. The 1926 movie had its own piano score, which was widely admired, but were he alive, experimentalist Murnau very likely would approve what this new score does, as it alters the dimension of his work. At Venue #5. 55 minutes.