By Anthony Stoeckert
Regulars at the Princeton Garden Theatre have likely noticed Adam Sterr playing his viola outside the theater on occasion. As Halloween approaches, Sterr will be playing inside the theater, as his music will be accompanying a horror film classic.
On Oct. 30, the Garden will present a screening of “Carnival of Souls,” the 1962 horror movie written and directed by Herk Harvey. Sterr will accompany the film with a live performance of a score he created, played on viola.
Sterr is a Milwaukee native whose career as an artist began as a ballet dancer. He danced professionally with Milwaukee Ballet for 10 years, while also studying viola at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music
“At the time, that was just a hobby, a side hobby that helped enhance my work as a dancer,” Sterr says of music.
A back injury led to his retiring from professional full-time dancing. He continued to dance and and play music as a freelance performer. Sterr was working with Portland Ballet in Maine when he met Allison Bonin, who has since become a partner. She works in costuming and was offered a job as wardrobe assistant with American Repertory Ballet in Princeton.
“That’s what brought both of us here,” Sterr says. “When I moved here, I started busking out in front of the Garden. It’s something I enjoy doing; I enjoy performing out in public and I thought it would be a nice addition to the city.”
Sterr teaches at the Princeton Ballet School and also works on his music, recently releasing an album he describes as avant-garde, and which involves him playing all the parts using multi-tracks.
“When I finished the album, I was thinking, What do I want to do next? What do I want to do with this music? Because there aren’t a lot of performing opportunities with avant-garde music, it’s really kind of a niche music,” Sterr says. “And until you kind of make your name, there’s not a lot of opportunity to perform the music.
“I was always interested in trying to re-score a film because I enjoy doing collaborative projects, working with other artists. In this case, instead of working with another artist, I’m working with another piece of art, as it were, that’s already been created.”
He wanted to use the music he’s made and rearrange it for a film score. “Carnival of Souls” was a good fit because it’s in the public domain. The movie, released in 1962, is about a woman named Mary who after experiencing a car accident moves to a different city where she has trouble fitting in, and finds herself at an empty carnival.
It’s also a good Sterr worked with a digital copy of the movie, removing sound from all scenes that didn’t have dialogue, so that he can replace the film’s organ score. He then had to re-insert some effects, such as footsteps and a door closing, so that his score works seamlessly with the film.
Sterr has performed his score accompanying “Carnival of Souls” at fringe festivals, starting in July at Providence, and also in Rochester, New York, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. After the Princeton performance, he’ll play it in Baltimore.
He started busking outside the Garden almost immediately after he and Bonin moved to Princeton in July of 2016.
“While I was waiting for things to get up and started with my teaching at the ballet, I decided, ‘No time like the present, just get out there and start playing,'” Sterr says. “And there was a strong and immediate response, so I felt like, this is something I’m going to continue doing given how much people seem to be enjoying it.”
Sterr’s score also involves the use of looping pedals, with which a musician can hit the pedal, and record a phrase and repeat the phrase when hitting the pedal. He also uses a digital delay peddle for reverb and a multi-octave pedal that allows him to play outside the viola’s natural range. That helps enhance the score at times because the movie’s character plays the organ and using that octave pedal can create an organ-like sound.
“It allows you to essentially multi-track as an individual musician,” Sterr says. “I use that to help build atmospheric music for the film. When you’re playing a string instrument, it’s not playing a piano or organ, which you can use to create a lot of different textures. On a string instrument, more often than not, [you’re playing] just a through line, a melody, you’re not playing the harmony line or the chords unless you have multi-tracks or other musicians to play those parts. One of the challenges for me was I wanted to play this solo; I wanted to play it by myself but I didn’t want to to limit it to one person playing viola.”
“Carnival of Souls,” featuring a score performed live by Adam Sterr, will be screened at the Princeton Garden Theatre, 160 Nassau St., Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $13.50; www.thegardentheatre.com; 609-279-1999.
By Anthony Stoeckert