Some directors make the music that appears in their films a crucial element of the whole experience.
Quentin Tarantino seems to spend as much time picking rare but period-appropriate soundtrack choices as writing his characters’ endless dialogue, and how many jokes have been made about Martin Scorsese trying to find a way to shoehorn Rolling Stones songs into Silence or The Age of Innocence? Some even go so far as to compose the music for their own films. John Carpenter’s creepy-crawling synth melody for Halloween was so crucial to that film’s power, it’s no surprise that in his retirement from filmmaking, he’s recorded two albums of Lost Themes and even gone on tour. Clint Eastwood, too, has written scores or themes for many of his films, including Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Sully.
Jim Jarmusch, though, may beat them all. The director’s movies frequently make music a crucial element of the plot, and he’s hired Tom Waits, Neil Young, The RZA, and Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke to score them in the past. His 2009 release The Limits Of Control heavily (pun very much intended) featured the music of Boris, Earth, and Sunn O))), and also introduced Bad Rabbit, a collaboration between Jarmusch and composer Carter Logan. In the years since, the duo have changed the project’s name to SQÜRL, recorded several EPs and a live album, and scored Jarmusch’s movies Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson, and The Dead Don’t Die.
SQÜRL’s music can be a storm of guitar noise and primitive, pounding drums, as on their early EPs and Live At Third Man Records, or shimmering waves of synth, as on the soundtrack to Paterson. For Only Lovers Left Alive, they collaborated with Dutch lute player Josef Van Wissem. Jarmusch says the musical concept for a given movie’s score emerges early in the writing process. “It’s in my head even as I’m starting the script, so it’s always a kind of guide for me — maybe not the specific music, but the feeling of the music is always present very early on for me.”
This Friday, Jarmusch and Logan are appearing at the Walker Art Center, doing something they’ve been doing off and on since 2015: performing live, semi-improvised scores to four short films from the 1920s by surrealist artist Man Ray: 1923’s Le retour à la raison (Return to Reason), 1926’s Emak Bakia, 1928’s L’étoile de mer (The Starfish), and 1929’s Les mystères du château de dé (The Mysteries of the Château de Dé). The duo never play exactly the same thing; they respond to each other and to the films. “We have a map and we rehearse to it and we kind of know what the plan is, and…the films don’t change, but our relationship to them does,” says Logan. “We see different things at different times; our relationship in space changes, and different images every night, at least to me, pop out and say something and elicit a response, musically.”
There’s also a new SQÜRL album out this month, Some Music For Robby Müller. It’s the soundtrack to a documentary about the noted cinematographer who shot movies for Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Lars Von Trier and others, and who died in 2018. They’ve got some other projects in the works, too, including something Jarmusch describes as “an instrumental sequence of pieces of music that are each named for a month of the year,” and which may appear as a multi-disc set, or on cassette, or in some other format down the road.
Films by Man Ray, Music by SQÜRL
Where: Walker Art Center
When: 7 p.m. Fri. Feb. 7
Tickets: $20/$25; more info here