State of the Arts
Tom Verlaine: Music for Film

The Boston Phoenix February 15, 2001

As leader of the '70s NYC art-punk band Television, Tom Verlaine sang with a voice whose timbre could charitably be described as strident. Lucky for him, he's a preternaturally gifted guitarist who's able to communicate emotion and mood via sinewy, inventive guitar leads. Lucky for us, when Verlaine swings by the Museum of Fine Arts on February 16 to perform live scores for a program of early 20th century avant-guard silent short films, there will be no singing - but lot's of effects- abetted fretwork.

For the program, Verlaine and session man Jimmy Ripp - the only guitar player Verlaine has worked with since Television - will perform Verlaine's scores along with the films, which range from the French Cubist painter Fernand Leger's 1924 "Ballet Mechanique" to a 1943 traffic-safety film from Denmark directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer. The music, Verlaine says over the phone from his New York City apartment. "is not written out note for note, [but] it is scored in that we both know what we're going to do." He adds: "I guess I do more improvising than Jim does - he's sort of the guide at this point, because I sometimes improvise over things that I've asked him to play."

"I write a lot of more instrumental music than I do vocal music," Verlaine says. "It's because I come out of a background of playing piano and then playing sax for a number of years. I kind of got into rock backwards. A lot of guys go into rock and then get sick of it and then go into something else. I came the other way, so I've always just had a lot more stuff lying around."

Verlaine also scored thec 1994 indie "Love and a 45", as well as some German shorts in the late '80s where the director's request was, "I want the music to never stop." Asked if that work informed his approach here, Verlaine hesitates. "I guess in the sense that the music was nonstop and that that it had to fit certain scenes---or I thought it should. I mean, I think there are other people doing this today who basically jam with the film in the background. I don't know how interesting that is for a crowd to see."

Indeed, Verlaine worked meticulously to match appropriately evocative scores to each piece. Of Man Ray's impressionistic shorts "Star of the Sea" and "Emak-Bakia", Verlaine says, "Those are the most scored from section to section, because, [Ray] changes quite a bit in and out of a kind of sadness to a kind of humor." Of James Sibley Watson's adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher": "That one's the most abstract, eerie one, for sure. Also the one where guitars are in a way emulating violins or strange organs and stuff. That one has a lot more effects. More toward the odd spectrum, I guess." And of Dreyer's Danish traffic-safety feature "They Caught the Ferry", which transcends its utility and becomes a stirring meditation on mortality, he says that the score is "nostalgic," but also "the one with the most rock, in a way - at least the second half of it."

Verlaine likes the idea of matching innovative guitar textures with films that, though they're old, haven't lost their dynamic appeal with the passing of decades. "People were experimenting for the first time with what the camera can do," he says of the period. "With all the digital technology and stuff going on now, some of the effects in these films are still pretty cool. Y'know, they're beautiful . . . funny . . . really interesting." Just add music.