Yo La Tengo goes under the sea
Yo La Tengo fans have learned to expect the unexpected from the New Jersey-based indie-rock trio. Whether reveling in guitar noise or serving up sumptuous pop melodies, singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan, singer-drummer Georgia Hubley (Kaplan's wife), and bassist James McNew remain a malleable enterprise.
On Tuesday the band will revisit one of its more intriguing sonic detours when it provides live instrumental accompaniment to "The Sounds of Science," a series of underwater documentaries shot by French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Painleve.
The band has periodically performed with the film since the San Francisco Film Festival in 2001 and even released an aptly named soundtrack, "The Sounds of the Sounds of Science" the following year. (Yo La Tengo also performed it at the Somerville Theatre that same year.) The "Sounds of Science" performance and screening is part of the third annual three-day Muddy River Environmental Film Series, which begins tomorrow night at Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Yo La Tengo's presentation will follow an introduction by Fabien Cousteau, a filmmaker and BU graduate who happens to be the grandson of the famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. We caught up with Kaplan by phone about reprising the performance. He promises the band will return for a proper gig later this fall.
Q. Prior to the San Francisco event were you aware of Painleve?
A. No, not at all. They contacted us and asked us kind of generally if we would like to play live to films for their festival, and when we said we'd love to, then we kind of put our heads together to come up with just what the program should be. Basically that amounted to them throwing suggestions at us until one seemed to really be perfect.
Q. Why was this one perfect?
A. I think we were attracted to the . . . how to describe this right? I mean, the movies are not exactly narrative, they're sort of narrative, but they're not story related. There is narration and the narrator does tell you lots of important information about fish, but that wasn't the thrust of the movies. The thrust of the movies [is] more visual, and it just seemed kind of open-ended in a really intriguing way.
Q. Even though you've done this several times, does it remain a challenge to play live to the film?
A. There's challenging aspects to it. It's not like the image you might have of the conductor watching the screen and cuing things at the exact moment that something happens on the screen. Hopefully, if it's working, there's just kind of a natural give and take between the films and the music we're doing, and I think they just kind of work together in a clear yet not easily articulated way.
Q. It's fluid? No pun intended.
A. Yeah, but I think in a certain sense there is a pun intended because I think there is something that is kind of similar in mood and feel to what we're doing in the films so they can't help but interact well. But one of the things that makes it fun to keep doing is that the pieces are not written completely out, there's a lot of room for change. I think if we listened to a recording of the San Francisco performance, we might even be startled how much they've changed over the years.
Q. For those unfamiliar with Painleve, what is so compelling about his work? Some called it scandalous.
A. I'm not an expert at all, but there's a couple things. For me I've always found it almost impossible to describe the films because every word I use that's descriptive as opposed to some superlative ends up making it sound bad. You just feel like - except for the fact that it's film day in science class so at least we don't have to listen to the teacher - it just has that sort of drudge sound to it, but [the movies are] so funny and just exuberant. As far as scandalous, they are very caught up with reproductive aspects, so perhaps that had something to do with it. I also have always wondered how solid some of the information is. I've always suspected that some of the information might be, say, familiar to Wikipedia readers.