New Day Rising
My Education sheds some light on a silent classic
All five members of My Education – guitarists Brian Purington and Chris Hackstie, bassist Scott Telles, violist James Alexander, and drummer Chris Stelly – plus keyboardist/cellist Henna Chou are crammed into Alexander's North Austin garage, where pedals cover the floor. Ideas are being batted around as to what sound effect should accompany a scene in the silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
"No, I think maybe it needs to be a slide whistle."
"What about some vibraslap?"
"Or a wah, wah, wah, waaah."
"We don't want it to be cheesy."
After a few rounds of jokes and other assorted sounds, all eyes focus on a computer screen, the opening credits to Sunrise start rolling, and My Education gets serious fast. With the first sad notes from Alexander's viola, his garage becomes a gauzy black-and-white landscape from a century ago.
Sunrise, German director F.W. Murnau's 1927 film, followed up Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926) and was his first for an American studio, Fox. Shot on location in Hollywood, it won three Oscars in 1929 – first year of the awards show – including one for Unique and Artistic Production, the only time that honor was bestowed. Murnau had brought German expressionism to American shores.
Creating a good film score comes from aural cues, watching the actors' faces darken and brighten, drawing attention with a cymbal crash or minor note. The two main characters, listed only as the Man and the Wife, unravel the film's tension, compounded by a seductress known as the Woman From the City, who tries to lead the Man astray and convince him to murder his wife. The tempo quickens when the mistress, dressed in black, enters the room and falls soft again when the Wife cries into their young child's pillow. The transition between the Man and Woman's rural isolation and the city's swirling temptation is a dramatic one.
My Education's swelling instrumentals seem tailor-made for this kind of project. The group's first foray into scoring silent films was an animé called Angel's Egg in 2003, but bassist Telles' other band, ST 37, has done Metropolis and Destiny, both by German director Fritz Lang. After the Alamo Drafthouse asked them to do another score in 2007, Alexander and Telles made a list of films they'd like to do, and Sunrise kept popping to the top.
"It worked for what we wanted to do," explains Alexander. "We didn't want a lot of jump cuts. The movie's a lot of tracking shots, which is perfect for long-form songs."
"It still has a lot of aspects of German expressionism, even though it was his first American film," adds Telles. "There are a lot of weird shadow shots, spinning shots, a lot of elongated perspectives. It's a really beautiful film, as well as being a universal archetype, so it was pretty easy to put our music to it."
The majority of My Education's score for the film is new music, with a few songs that had already been written added in. Alexander wrote the main theme, which reappears throughout, then various members came up with different parts or melodies, the same collaborative process that's fueled most of My Education's layered, winding instrumental noise rock oeuvre in Austin over the past decade. After an initial screening at the Alamo, the performance gained momentum and started bringing out ghosts. In 2008, they played Sunrise at the Silent Movie Theatre in L.A., and it sold out. People were sitting in the aisles.
"They hadn't shown the movie in 15-20 years, because the manager had been murdered the last time they showed it," Telles says. "The would-be robber stabbed him during a showing of Sunrise. ... They told us this right before we played."
The seven-song soundtrack for Sunrise, out this week on Portland, Ore.-based Strange Attractors Audio House, follows up 2008's Bad Vibrations and is the band's fifth overall release since forming in 1999. It doesn't have as many loud/quiet/loud squalls or blasts of feedback as the band's previous work, though it still has volume.
"We worked really hard to make sure the album stands on its own as well as with the film," Telles says. "It's more orchestrated and string-oriented, more acoustic instruments."
"It was more improv on themes," Purington explains. "But we took those themes and made songs out of them, so now when we go back, it's more familiar, and arranging them for the record made them better."
"Best case scenario, we'd become so familiar with the score that we didn't have to check our notes, and we could just be mesmerized by the film," says Hackstie.
The math of taking something like this on the road is a bit fuzzier, but the one-off shows they've done have elicited unique responses, as in St. Louis, when the opening band told them they wanted to do a live score to Nosferatu called Noiseferatu. It was terrible.
Stelly: "I walked up to the band after, to be polite, and said: 'That was interesting. How long have you been working on that?' And they said, 'Huh?'"
My Education is obviously proud of the forethought they've put into their production, having turned an 83-year-old film into a new cultural experience people can participate in.
"Our music and that movie don't belong in the same universe together necessarily," admits Alexander, "but we're updating the themes of love lost. Murnau took them halfway there, and we kicked the field goal."
Stelly: "It's an exhausting experience. You have to constantly know what's next."
Alexander: "That's why we couldn't ever do a whole tour of this."
Chou: "Well, you'd probably have to drink less."
Telles: "We can't drink; we never stop playing!"
Purington: "And if you have to go to the bathroom, man, forget it."
A week later, the group, with Chou, Sarah Norris on vibraphone, and Travis Weller on violin, plays the CD release for Sunrise at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz to a sold-out house. Their silver tones swirl from scene to scene until you almost forget it's a silent film. During the loudest part of the 96-minute set – a scene in which the Man and the Wife face gale force winds while crossing a lake – there's still a sense of restraint and elegance. It's the German way. The band, dressed in all black, lurks in the shadows.
My Education opens for Eluvium at the Parish, Saturday, May 8. An encore performance of Sunrise takes place Monday, May 17, at the Alamo South Lamar.