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The temperature hovered around 100 degrees, and fireworks boomed in the distance when the members of Brute Heart took a stab at their first murder.
Huddled in the low-lit basement of bassist/keyboardist Crystal Myslajek's century-old house in south Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood -- the rough, old, white stone walls like something out of a tomb -- they all watched as a shadowy figure with a dagger appeared over the bed where a lovelorn young man named Alan lay asleep. Earlier that night, Alan had been told by a prophetic zombie that he would die before dawn. And yet the dude still went to bed.
"It's only 15 minutes in, so we probably don't want to get too heavy at that point," Myslajek said as she paused the DVD projector.
Viola player Jackie Beckey deadpanned, "Yes, let's lighten up on the murder scene."
So went the unwittingly bizarre banter during an otherwise conventional band rehearsal the week before July 4th, shortly after Brute Heart began its headlong dive into a summer job working for Walker Art Center, where the band will play live accompaniment Monday night to the 1920 German proto-horror film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
Some of the other curious lines heard over the next month in Myslajek's basement: "Our homework for Friday is to go over the asylum parts again," and, referring to the zombified character, "We need something a little freakier to go with the somnambulist."
An experimental chamber-rock ensemble way more likely to be heard at 7th Street Entry than Cineplex 20, Brute Heart was hired by the Walker this spring to score the final film in its Summer Movies & Music series. The movie in question is dark and mysterious but loaded with arty, Expressionistic flourishes, moments of fun melodrama and sociopolitical undertones. All of which could be said of the band, too.
Brute Heart will finally reveal the results of its two-month project Monday night at the Walker's grassy Open Field. Back in late June, though, that moment seemed far off.
"When you look at it as 75 minutes of music to create, then it gets pretty daunting," Myslajek said then. Added Beckey, "You feel like you could spend a year working on something like this."
Preparations started in May, after the Walker -- which did something similar last year when it commissioned another local band, Dark Dark Dark, to score the Fritz Lang movie "Spies" -- approached the group and asked them to watch "Caligari" (only Beckey had seen it). After they signed on, the members proceeded to watch the film eight times. Then they went scene by scene, sometimes working by themselves and bringing parts to rehearsals, and sometimes improvising when they were all together -- "they" including the movie, which was constantly in front of them on a sheet hanging against the basement wall.
"We actually started working on the ending of the movie first, which was sort of the most important part," drummer Crystal Brinkman said, careful not to give away the final twist.
"From the start, we've had no shortage of ideas," Myslajek continued. "A lot of our work has been whittling down those ideas and creating something cohesive."
But not too cohesive. The film jumps from one wild scene to the next. What's more, the band members believed that their mission was to create music that didn't distract from the movie's greatness but would lend itself to an inspired live performance.
"We're trying not to do stereotypical movie-scoring kind of stuff," Beckey explained. "We figure the reason they asked us to do it was to create something different. They want us to still be Brute Heart."
Beckey and Myslajek were neighbors who started making music together in 2007. Their first work was for a BareBones Puppet Theater show (not far removed from their current gig). Along with Brinkman, they have released two Brute Heart albums and earned local buzz for their unconventional sound.
Last year's record, "Lonely Hunter," offered traces of everything from Stereolab and Joy Division to Grace Slick, Nico-era Velvet Underground and other string-laden rock bands such as the Dirty Three. The three women's voices often combine to create haunting, siren-like layers over a rocky bed of nervy, fragmented instrumentation. The trio has since added two auxiliary members, cellist Jonathan Kaiser and electronics/synthesizer dabbler John Marks, both of whom played active roles in this project.
For the band, which doesn't use sheet music, the project was certainly a professional challenge but also seemed well suited to their cinema-like aesthetic.
"We've been able to use a lot of techniques and ideas we've had in the past -- even including some pieces we had already worked on -- but this casts everything in a pretty different light," Myslajek said.
As the members researched the film and read into its symbolic imagery, they also developed a greater personal appreciation for it.
A psycho-dramatic movie that would influence many horror filmmakers, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was made in Berlin after World War I. Certain facets foreshadow what was to come in Germany, namely the diabolical Dr. Caligari's masterful control over a zombie life form. Some of the film's participants wound up in Hollywood a decade later as Hitler's regime took over, including actors Conrad Veidt and Hans von Twardowski -- a Jew and a gay man, respectively.
"It was sort of in this window of great creative expression in Germany that would soon be closed," Brinkman marveled of the movie. "All the Jews, minorities and gays all of a sudden had to leave, taking their creativity with them."
Three weeks after the murder-scene rehearsal, the temperatures had settled down, along with the stress level as Brute Heart gathered again in Myslajek's basement.
"We played the whole thing all the way through for the first time at our last rehearsal," Beckey happily reported.
Each musician came equipped with a printout of notes that broke the movie down scene by scene, with descriptions of the music. By that time they had developed their own shorthand lingo.
"That sounds a little too slasher," Myslajek commented on one troublesome part.
Marks' echoey, staticky electronic effects had been woven more deeply into the score -- coming from a synthesizer stripped of its shell and retooled for greater manipulation. As if the movie weren't freaky enough.
Much of their effort was aimed at scaling back the music rather than building it up. After Myslajek played a lonely piano line to one haunting scene, Kaiser interjected, "I think there needs to be more of a lull there. Let the music breathe a little."
While the movie score will be a one-night-only affair -- not counting a dress rehearsal Sunday night inside the Walker -- the band expects the experience will leave a lasting impression on them.
"I feel like I want to start writing a new song tonight," Beckey said in the thick of rehearsals. Her bandmates all laughed. Clearly, there was more pressing work to be done.
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