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Water Music 

Yo La Tengo's live musical score does glorious justice to the underwater, scientific films of French documentarian Jean Painlev

Waving, luminescent sea urchin spines, their venom sacs hued and segmented much like a stained glass window, the pedicals "delicately crafted, reminding one of serpent's heads." So goes the images and narration to French scientist and cinematic pioneer Jean Painlevé's Oursins (Sea Urchins), an ultra-close, richly colored examination of the common sea urchin. But, as filmed by Painleve, this 1954 short is anything but common.

Recognizing the almost surreal tone, humor and abstract beauty of these films, shot between 1929 and 1978, Yo La Tengo, themselves pioneers in the alternative-music world, seem the perfect band to write an original score for this selection of Painlevé's works.

The program, titled "The Sounds of Science," debuted April 2001, at San Francisco's Castro Theatre as part of their International Film Festival. The group's semi-improvisational, sonic soundscapes proved to be an inspired choice to accompany such subjects as The Love Life of the Octopus, a "tentacled ballet" where the "coupling can last for hours ... for days."

As part of this year's DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, Yo La Tengo will again perform the score to the 90-minute, eight-film program, culminating in the collection's only non-underwater piece, Liquid Crystal. Let's just say the acid-enhanced liquid light shows of the Fillmore Theatre circa '66 have got nothing on Painlevé's microscopic look at the molecular structures of these crystals as they bloom in explosive, kaleidoscopic Technicolors.

The Indy spoke to Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan recently via telephone and got his take on music, film and the wonders of the deep.

The Independent: So, the first time you guys did this was at the San Francisco International Film Fest?

Ira Kaplan, Yo La Tengo: Yes. They've done this a lot. Actually Superchunk are doing one. I think that it's something they do annually--I know Tom Verlaine did it. So they approached us about being the people to do it last year and we said we'd definitely be interested, and then it became the question of what film or films to work with.

So you were given a choice?

Yes. First there were some other things that were being batted around and then somebody there had the idea of the pairing. We weren't familiar with them [Painlevé's films] but they sent us a videotape and we kinda jumped at it.

What especially did you like?

Well, just the way they look is so amazing. They're so beautiful and otherworldly.

I've heard you compare the Painlevé shorts to another film, Microcosmos. What's that all about?

It's this time lapse, nature film--lots of bug stuff in it. And it's all super close up; it's things you'd never imagine that you'd get that close to, and they just look so beautiful--really colorful.

So did you get copies of all Painlevé's works and then pick your favorites?

We had 12 or something films of his and we settled on doing strictly the ones about underwater stuff. I'm not really sure Liquid Crystal qualifies, but we wanted to do it anyway. That was pretty easy--to whittle it down to eight films for a 90-minute program.

Ninety minutes of original music? How long did that take you guys? Did you have the films playing and write along?

We have lots of stuff on tape already, and then when we knew we were going to be doing this we started jamming with a notion towards having to address this.

Taping the jams, creating "themes"?

Yeah. I think we had four or five CDs of practices and we were listening and thinking about the films, and where they might work together. We sketched out a rough correlation and then brought in a VCR and started playing those same pieces while the films were on ... of course, they changed quite a bit in the process of doing that.

Did you try to have builds--like, where the male seahorse squirts out a bunch of babies--for the "dramatic" sequences?

[Laughs]. Not too much. It's not particularly literal. One thing that I think makes the match work pretty well is that the films have their own very personal pace to them [laughs], and I think things unfold in a way that the music hopefully unfolds and that they comment on each other.

Having played together for so long, are the performances somewhat improvisational?

It's very improvisational. Some of the eight scores we think of almost as medleys. There's a couple where there's two distinct parts we recognize.

Do these different pieces have names?

Nah, we just use the names from the movies. Very little of it is that similar from one [show] to the next, but I don't think you'd have any trouble recognizing which is which. We actually recorded all this stuff in a studio, and I think if you heard the recording before you saw the movie you would recognize it [the song] as the same one.

Are you going to ultimately release this?

If all goes well, we'll have it with us in Durham. We're actually putting it out ourselves, [Egon Records].

Will it have a little booklet or anything about the film?

It's got a couple stills from the film--a little information, but not much. In fact, if we were smarter, we would have at least recommended the book, Science As Fiction; we should have mentioned that. The program has been billed as "The Sounds Of Science," so we called the record The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science. But we're only selling it through our Web site which is, uh, semi-constructed. Yeah, there's a flurry of activity ... [deadpans]

You've mentioned the humor in Painlevé's work ...

Well, there's that scene where the he dresses up the guy as Groucho Marx. And there's another one--the seahorses--where it ends up by superimposing the horse race over them. The guy just seems to really love fish [laughs]. It's hard ... I think our education [experiences] .... you hear about something like this and it's very hard to let go of the idea that this is going to be a film strip of some sort.

Like a slow day back in school?

Yeah, and you'll feel just as much like you're taking your medicine as you did that day in school. And to see these movies--and see that there's nothing like that--is just so exciting.

How would you compare Painlevé to Jacques Cousteau?

For one thing, the Painlevé movies weren't shot on location but in controlled environments. I think Cousteau was more of a scientist who was out to explain things and Painlevé was attracted to just what it looked like. But again, that's just sort of a guess.

DoubleTake is screening all kinds of music films this year. With you being a music scholar of sorts, have you got any favorite music documentaries or, similarly, film scores?

We were just listening to the Z soundtrack the other night. It was actually a successful movie of the late '60s, but kind of a forgotten one. The film--it's just the letter "Z"--is a political thriller by the filmmaker Costa-Gravas. It takes place in Greece and it's got this pretty rockin' Greek score [laughs].

Any documentaries?

Driver 23 [a 1998 low budget documentary about a delivery driver/would-be rock star and his "progressive metal" band, Dark Horse].

When you perform, are you able to watch the film--do you sort of feed off it as you're playing?

We're able to look at it. Georgia will play sideways, so she can look at the screen if she wants to and look at us when she wants to.

So it's very organic?

Definitely. I'm excited that we're doing it again. It's definitely different from anything we've done before but I don't think it's a tremendous stretch.

So, is it psychedelic?

[Laughs] It's pretty psychedelic. EndBlock

Yo La Tengo will perform with the films of Jean Painlevé Thursday, April 4, at 10:30 p.m. in the Carolina Theatre's Fletcher Hall. Tickets for the performance are $15. Call 660-3699 for information.

More by Angie Carlson

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