Words by: Ryan Dembinsky | Images by: Greg Notch
Justin Vernon & Steve Kimock :: 01.21.10 :: Merkin Concert Hall :: New York, NY
A day trip out to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria would provide the ideal prerequisite for the New York Guitar Festival's Silent Films/Live Guitars series. The delightful multimedia museum hosts a particularly relevant hands-on exhibit, whereby visitors pony up to computer editing stations where they are given the opportunity to experiment with well known movie scenes by selecting between various musical selections to set the feeling for the scene.
| Justin Vernon :: 01.21 :: NY Guitar Fest|
The lesson comes across, clear as day, that while the scene remains the same, by applying soundtracks from vastly different musical genres, the tone and overall feel of the scene changes dramatically. Interestingly, what each amateur music supervisor quickly discovers is that there really exists no right or wrong in selecting the music for movies. To an extent, it can be said that a chase scene, for example, requires a composition with some degree of tension and up-tempo driving beat, but this can be as effectively conveyed via bluegrass or percussion and sparse keyboards as with gritty, hard-charging rock.
To that end, the New York Guitar Festival presents brilliant programming whereby they invite prominent guitarists to compose entirely original, custom scores to accompany timeless silent films. In essence, this makes for an interesting study in how different musicians - and different minds in general - interpret the feelings that a film evokes.
This particular week of the month-long series at Merkin Concert Hall played host to two virtual polar opposites in Steve Kimock (accompanied by his son John Morgan Kimock on drums) and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (accompanied by Chris Rosenau, his longtime mentor and bandmate from Volcano Choir). As expected, both duets took wildly different approaches to their scores, but interestingly, both refrained almost entirely from playing the cartoonish, reactionary, sound effect-laden type of playing - a la Batman - that we might expect given the slapstick nature of the subject matter, with Kimock accompanying Buster Keaton's Cops and Vernon holding court for Charlie Chaplin's One A.M. and Easy Street.
To begin the performance, John Schaefer from WNYC's Soundcheck introduced Steve and John Morgan Kimock, followed by a brief Q&A session with Steve, whereby he elaborated on his approach to the piece. As expected, Kimock professed that he and John Morgan planned to take a more improvisational approach to the subject matter, having pre-composed some general themes and segments but coming at it largely without a net.
| Steve & John Morgan Kimock :: 01.21 :: NY Guitar Fest|
The most convincing parts of the Kimock segment came via the bookend music that began and ended the film, where John Morgan played a simple melodica melody alongside a Wes Montgomery-esque jazz piece by Steve that resulted in a mood-setting French jazz theme. For the rest of the roughly 20 minute film, Steve stuck with a chord-based jazz guitar feel, altering his tempos and offering the occasional departure based on plot events, but for the most part John Morgan took care of the action, offering comical crashes, thuds, and thumps to reflect Buster Keaton's mishaps.
By contrast, Justin Vernon and Chris Rosenau explained that they composed and wrote out their piece, collaborating for over a year on their particular scores. Musically, they took a wholly different route, opening up the first of their two films with Rosenau employing an EBow - a guitarist plaything that utilizes vibrations to emulate the bow of a stringed instrument - to create a snake-charming Middle Eastern theme to set the tone. From there, they kept their heads down and created sonic lasagna, layering heaps of effects, harmonics, looping violin plucks, and sweeping ambient chord progressions. Beautiful.
The Vernon and Rosenau performance came across particularly astonishing given the nature of the narrative found in Charlie Chaplin films. One A.M., for example, highlights as Vernon joked, "Something we are both intimately familiar with," namely struggling to make it to bed after an evening of inebriation. The plotline essentially consists of Chaplin falling down the stairs repeatedly and bumbling endlessly with a Murphy bed. Clearly, the natural temptation would be to cater to these mishaps by including playful trills and comical wah-wahs to acknowledge Chaplin's repeated failures at achieving the most basic of tasks. Instead, the pair composed a beautiful song that could easily find a home on a Built to Spill or Pavement album. One chase scene did cater entirely to the action, delivering a wonderfully tense and action-packed segment that proclaimed, "You better run, man!"
| Rosenau & Vernon :: 01.21 :: NY Guitar Fest|
Despite his reclusive nature since his rapid ascent to indie royalty, Justin Vernon came across as the nicest of guys, offering sincere thanks to everyone who came out to see this unique event. The pair clearly took a lot of enjoyment from working on such a fresh project, noting "how crazy we must have looked when anyone walked in to see us sitting right up in front of the TV with all of our guitar gear watching silent movies."
Hopefully for Bon Iver fans, material of this ilk makes its way into the catalog - or perhaps that Bon Iver fans seek out some Volcano Choir - as folks who know Vernon more for his strum-oriented folk guitar playing will be amazed by his technical proficiency, specifically his skill with a pedal board.
The joy of the New York Guitar Festival came only in part from seeing two of today's preeminent musicians in an intimate setting, but more so from taking the opportunity to think about the ways people convey different emotions with music, and ultimately thinking about how you yourself would approach it. This New York Guitar Festival program marks one of the truly fresh ideas in live music today, and frankly, it's addictive. The post-show conversations with friends that come from seeing music in this context earn the price of admission alone. Visitors one week will no doubt want to return the following week, and the following week, and the week after that.
More information on the New York Guitar Festival, including the remaining schedule, can be found at newyorkguitarfestival.org.
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