Merrill Garbus and Tune-Yards are developing a live score for four Buster Keaton short films as part of the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival. The performance, which will take place at the Castro Theatre on April 23rd, will include a mélange of original Tune-Yards compositions – some unchanged, some chopped-up or stretched out – as well as songs written by Bay Area guitarist Ava Mendoza.
All together, the films – One Week, The Cook, The Haunted House and Good Night, Nurse! – call for about 80 minutes of music. Garbus tells Rolling Stone she's excited for the opportunity to push her creative boundaries after months of rigorous touring in support of Tune-Yards' second album, WhoKill.
"We've been playing the same songs for sometimes three years," she says. "I feel like I'm hitting my walls. I'm going to have to break through this to get somewhere else."
Breaking artistic barriers is still new territory for Garbus, who in just the past year saw the loopy, multi-layered WhoKill appear on several prominent "best album" lists, including NPR's, Rolling Stone's and Pitchfork's; the album also topped the comprehensive Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll. Tune-Yards also performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in early 2011; and later this month, the band will face a sold-out crowd at both weekends of Coachella.
"It made it a little bit more psychically easy, knowing we were going to be laughing during the creation of this whole thing," Garbus says.
Garbus and Mendoza began rehearsing for the Keaton show last month, just a few days after Tune-Yards returned from a European tour. To prepare, they watched the films continuously (about ten times each, at last count) and took detailed notes. According to Mendoza, the biggest challenge thus far has been figuring out when the film's action should take precedence over the music, and vice versa.
"They're live scores, so I think it's important sometimes for the music just to be itself and maybe overwhelm the film," Mendoza says. "But definitely not all the time."
In deciding which films to score, Garbus and Mendoza agreed that Buster Keaton's comedy – a whirligig of slapstick, fast cuts and repeating comedic themes – fits well with Tune-Yards' sometimes cacophonous arrangements. After discussing a few other options with the San Francisco Film Society's staff, Garbus settled on Keaton and began to construct "an unobtrusive bed of sound" for his onscreen antics.
"What's been good about this for me is that it's been humbling," she says. "Buster Keaton was a brilliant artist. It's hard to even try to grasp for an understanding of that brilliance."
When Tune-Yards takes the stage with Mendoza later this month, it will become one of several bands that have imbued classic films with a modern sound as part of SFIFF's festivities. Previous acts include Deerhoof, who performed a soundtrack for Harry Smith's 1962 film Heaven and Earth Magic; Black Francis (a.k.a. Pixies frontman Frank Black), who scored The Golem, a 1920 film about a man-made beast in a Jewish ghetto; and Stephin Merritt, who re-imagined the music for the 1916 classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This year, in addition to Tune-Yards, Yo La Tengo will perform alongside a documentary titled, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller.
Two weeks before the performance, both Garbus and Mendoza were pleased with the progress of their collaborative score.
"What's been fun about this is that we have puzzle pieces to work with," Garbus says. "What we've been creating – the original creation part – is sort of the in-between, how Ava's songs and my songs intersect with each other."
"It's going to be a performance absolutely worth being there for," she adds.