The Album Leaf with SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence
photo by Matt Daniels
by Leigh Bezezekoff
The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) closed its curtains over the weekend but not before hosting a unique experience for both film and music lovers. Sub Pop artist The Album Leaf performed a new live score to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (a black & white silent film) for audiences on Friday at The Triple Door. Their ambient music was a perfect match to F.W. Murnau’s dreamlike film and offered up tension building crescendos and beautiful melodies for the hour and a half run time. Regarding the pairing, SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence said, “Sunrise was ahead of its time and seemed like the perfect fit for The Album Leaf to re-imagine the score.”
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans originally debuted in 1927 and won 3 Oscars including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Actress (Janet Gaynor) at the first ever Academy Award ceremony in 1929. It was chock full of before-its-time special effects, drama, suspense, romance, and a drunk pig (all the makings of a great movie), and it was actually one of the first films ever to have a soundtrack of music and sound effects recorded in the film.
The Album Leaf is used to having audiences more focused on a screen than on them. Their live performances are typically choreographed to visuals provided by Andrew Pates. I got the opportunity to speak with Jimmy LaValle and company before the first Friday night screening. We talked about how they got involved in the project and they told me that when the opportunity to provide a new live score for a film during SIFF came up, they jumped at the chance though they were admittedly nervous about undertaking such an important film. The San Diego-based band, led by LaValle (who has also worked closely with Sigur Ros), undertook the project by studying the film’s emotive elements and then worked to create music that enhanced the viewers’ emotional experience with the movie. They brought a projector into their practice space and repeatedly played the film until they identified minor and major chords for each of the main characters, and soon they developed music for key scenes. Violinist Matt Resovich likened the process to cultivating a bush-filling in places and rearranging branches until it looked right. Surprisingly, they only took three days to accomplish this, they revealed, and ended up improving a lot during the actual performance, which is something they don’t usually do. They also don’t normally delve into the range of emotions this film dealt. “We’re familiar with musical themes of love and sadness and we definitely have make-out music down,” joked LaValle, “but we had to widen our range a bit to match to the movie’s story.” The band also admitted to being challenged by the frantic murder scenes and even the comedic breaks — hard to image from a close-knit group who have toured extensively and who joke easily.
The Album Leaf hope to have a new album out by the end of the year but they all admit to challenges with busy personal lives as well as a variety of upcoming projects and performances they have scheduled. Nonetheless, LaValle has already begun working on new material.