This Thursday, Aug. 15, the Walker Art Center is hosting its third annual Sound for Silents: a screening of five short films, accompanied by a live score by Minneapolis funk, soul, and hip-hop collective Astralblak. The evening will begin at 7 p.m. with DJ sets from The Current’s Sanni Brown and Sean McPherson.
At 8:30, Astralblak will perform an original score, co-commissioned by the Walker’s Moving Image and Performing Arts programs, to accompany five short films from the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection.
“When we first got commissioned to do this project we were all really excited because scoring is something that we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Astralblak’s Greg Grease. In 2017, the band performed a live score for the 1902 French fantasy film Le Voyage dans la Lune at Stillwater’s Square Lake Film & Music Festival. It was their first foray into film scoring, but Sound for Silents marks the band’s first opportunity to choose their own films, and be involved in the process from the beginning.
The Walker invited Astralblak to choose a handful of films from their Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, and the band settled on five films from Sondra Perry, Amir George, and Maya Deren. Perry and George are both contemporary American filmmakers, while Deren helped pioneer American avant-garde filmmaking in the ’40s and ’50s after immigrating to the U.S. from Ukraine.
“We were looking for filmmakers of color,” said Grease, “and also we just like experimental sounds — our music is a little bit of a space vibe. We were looking at the videos that were presented to us, and thinking about which things aligned with what we were doing.”
One of the films that Astralblak chose is Amir George’s Shades of Shadows, which the filmmaker created by pasting together found footage. “His was a very collage piece, where it was a lot of found footage and archival footage, and a lot of layering of film,” said Grease. “It reminded us of how we make our music.”
While all three filmmakers come from different backgrounds, their work carries common themes, such as representations of people of color, technology, dance, and movement. In Perry’s Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II, two bodies dance in a white room, while they blend into the space’s blankness. Deren’s Meditation on Violence portrays a Chinese boxer in a ritualistic dance. “I think the dance and movement lends to our music, so I feel like that was a natural choice,” Grease said.
Once they chose their films, Astralblak set about creating a score, and began by silencing the sound on the original films. “We didn’t want to be influenced by the original sound that was on the film,” said Grease. “We tried our best to interpret the art that was already on there in ways that the film was presented, rather than trying to insert our own narrative to it.”
In some ways, writing a score felt like showing up to any Astralblak rehearsal; the band members each brought their own ideas to the table, and began curating a common vibe. But unlike writing a song, Grease described scoring as a “linear” and “abstract” process.
“It was much more linear; much more looking at the film and creating ideas in a forward-moving motion rather than [focusing on] song structure and format,” he said. “So that was a really fun process, being able to create sounds and feelings along a timeline, rather than being constricted to our standards of music and time.”
Astralblak will be performing the score live at the Walker on Thursday evening. Astralblak are veterans of creating captivating live performances, but Grease said that this one posed a few new technical challenges, like creating new instrument setups to achieve the right textures and sounds.
“Our live performance traditionally is much more crowd-focused. For this, we’re all going to be staring at a screen to make sure we’re in sync with the film. It’s going to be definitely a different thing than what people are used to seeing from us.”
After the performance, Grease says that he is looking forward to rewatching the films with their original sound, to compare notes. “After we’re all finished I’m going to go back and watch them with their own sound and compare and be like, ‘Woah!’”
He said that Sound for Silents will also influence how Astralblak makes music in the future.
“We have this saying that we always like to challenge ourselves to level up — whenever we do a new project we try to challenge ourselves. That’s originally how a lot of what we do came into play — by being like, ‘I don’t ever really perform by playing the keyboard and singing all my verses,’ and then everybody in the band will be like, ‘Well, it’s time to level up!’ It’s like making each other better. This project has been a big leveling up for us. It’s definitely going to change the way that we make music and perform.”
For more information about this year’s Sound for Silents, visit the Walker’s website.
Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.