Music has the power to make or break a mood. Take a busy, traffic-filled drive to work and set it to Clair de Lune. Suddenly a hectic morning commute turns into an invisibly choreographed cityscape, people and cars flowing gracefully around one another in an active and intentionally designed universe.
The influence of an effective score is what the Walker Art Center’s annual Sounds of Silents program is all about. For a fourth year, local artists worked with the Walker to pick experimental films from their Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Each artist then composed an original score to accompany each piece, and the result is this series of short films electrified by and reinterpreted with new sound. The artists commissioned this year include Beatrix*Jar, Lady Midnight, Andrew Broder, Cody McKinney, and Dameun Strange.
Under normal circumstances, the films would premiere with their new scores at a free event on the Walker hillside, projected on a giant screen and accompanied by food trucks and drink vendors. This year, to maintain social distancing guidelines, Sound for Silents has moved online in the form a 50-minute program available to the public via YouTube tomorrow, August 20.
Part of the challenge of creating a score is the balance between making a piece that doesn’t distract from the visuals while being effective enough to elevate, creating a pairing that is more than the sum of its parts. Here’s a brief preview of what to expect from each film in the series.
Catch the premiere of Sound for Silents via YouTube live at 7 p.m. this Thursday, Aug. 20. The 50-minute video collection will be available on YouTube until 5 p.m. on Sept. 8. Films contain adult content.
Practice (2003) – directed by Mark Bradford, soundtrack by Beatrix*Jar
Mark Bradford, dressed in a Lakers uniform, just wants to make a basket. Unfortunately, he’s weighed down by a billowing hoop skirt, representing systemic barriers, bringing a cumbersomeness to what could otherwise be a graceful act. Beatrix*Jar’s soundtrack matches the circus-like element the skirt adds, a little whimsical, a little dark, ultimately building to the film’s almost triumphant end.
Gather + Listen (2014) – directed by Buki Bodunrin, soundtrack by Lady Midnight
Lady Midnight’s pairing with Gather + Listen is a moment of artistic perfection. The only animated piece of the bunch, the film features lovingly drawn disembodied hands, mouths, and feet, flashing on screen with a single beat, seemingly random at first but building to sound, rhythm, and shape. Created with the intention of demonstrating the music that unconsciously comes out of an owambe, a fabulous Nigerian party, the piece leaves you feeling joyful and full.
HEAD (1978) – directed by Tom DeBiaso, soundtrack by Andrew Broder
The concept is seemingly simple: DeBiaso has filmed Joanna Kawamura turning her head over and over and over again, zooming in and focusing on different elements of her face. Broder’s score transforms the piece, leaving space to wonder what is going on in Kawamura’s head. Why is it turning? Is looking at something? Is she safe? You come to feel challenged by Kawamura’s eye contact, as was DeBiaso’s intention.
TUNG (1966) – directed by Bruce Baillie, soundtrack by Beatrix*Jar
Baillie’s portrait of his friend Tung is dreamy and trippy and plays with color, motion, and animation. Beatrix*Jar’s music adds a kind of dissonance to the piece, shifting with the movement on screen. It feels like the hazy memory of a loved one, and makes you wonder where they ended up.
Motion Picture Genocide (1997) – directed by Robert Banks, soundtrack by Cody McKinney
A countdown repeats over and over again throughout this concentrated and ominous equivocation on race and violence in the American film industry. McKinney’s score raises your heart rate and drives the viewer to a fever pitch that, when coupled with the film, would hopefully result in action. Despite having been made more than 20 years ago, the film feels very relevant in 2020.
Stupor Mundi (1999) – directed by Rock Ross, soundtrack by Dameun Strange
Liberty, Justice, and Death personified are caught in a toxic love triangle in this silent era cinema callback. Strange’s score bolsters and fills the narrative, adding to the playful, suspenseful, and at times dark drama of this piece.
Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions (2004) – directed by Kara Walker, soundtrack by Lady Midnight
A little cheeky and deeply upsetting, Walker’s shadow puppet film depicts a reversal of the institution of slavery in America. It is intense and chilling and effective. Lady Midnight’s use of her own voice and Black spirituals as well reinterpretations of American songbook classics like “Amazing Grace” and “Yankee Doodle” grounds this alternative reality in the history we know, reminding the audience of how disturbingly familiar the violence in this piece is.