Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin to Score 1928 Russian Silent Film Live

November 29th, 2011 | Marc Weidenbaum | No Comments | Categories: Blog, Events, Tikva Records

  • Steve Berlin is the lone Jew in Los Lobos. He’s the Philadelphia-born Jewish kid who moved to Los Angeles and became an integral part of the city’s punk scene. By his telling, faith and music have rarely if ever overlapped for him. But a new venture into film scoring seems, to him, to have finally, perhaps, provided just such a juncture.

    The film dates from 1928. It’s a silent picture, titled His Excellency, by Russian director Grigori Roshal (its Russian title is Yevo Prevoshoditelstvo, and it has also been known as Seeds of Freedom). His Excellency is part of the holdings at the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, which made it available for this project. Berlin participated in this interview just in advance of the scheduled December 2 debut performance of his score in San Francisco as part of the Tikva Records pop-up store. His handpicked crew includes musicians who’ve played with Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, and Bill Frisell, among others. Berlin lives in Portland, Oregon, and spoke from Denver, where was working on a record with the band Leftover Salmon.

    Tikva Records: To begin with, how did you settle upon this particular movie?

    Steve Berlin: Really, the whole genesis of the whole project is from an idea that David Katznelson had. He had told me about his pop-up store for going back a couple of years, and he always wanted me to be involved in it. So, the idea I would do this live score sort of came from him. He suggested several different movies we got from the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis, and of the handful that I saw, I thought this one would lend itself well to idea of extemporaneous improvisation.

    Tikva: How are you preparing for the improvisation, in terms of setting up musical themes, and so forth?

    Berlin: What I am in the process of doing is breaking it down. My thought process is to develop a relatively minimal number of themes we could then adapt to given situations in the movie. The character of His Excellency is this horrible jailer, the chief in this village, an ogre of a man. I am developing a theme for him, and a theme for the villagers, and another one for this sequence that takes place in a synagogue. So far I have four or five different themes that we’ll share with the players, and, hopefully, we’ll riff on those as the intensity of the activity on the screen merits.

    Tikva: Do you have any plans for sound effects, for footsteps or the like, that relate directly to the action on the screen?

    Berlin: No, I think we’re just going to focus on the music. Really, to do that effectively you’d need a hard fast cue sheet, down to the second. I want to make it as easy and simple as possible for everybody playing.

    Tikva: Could you introduce the members of the band?

    Berlin: We’ve got Scott Amendola on drums. He’s amazing, played with Bill Frisell, among others. Ralph Carney, from Tom Waits’ group. Eric Drew Feldman, from Captain Beefheart, among others. And then a cellist named Crystal Pascucci. And guitarist Karl Alfonso Evangelista.

    Tikva: You’ve said in the past that your role in Los Lobos is about “orchestration.” Does that experience inform this project?

    Berlin: Only in the sense that I sort of cast the band. It isn’t as specific as orchestration if I’m just picking the players, but in my head anyway [I knew] the way I want the band to sound: I didn’t know if we needed a bass player, per se, and I liked the idea of two saxes, or sax and clarinet, of being able to interweave those textures into the movie. So it does, to a small extent, [resemble orchestration] but by no means anything really close to when I make records with Lobos or anybody else.

    Tikva: This pop-up project to some extent is about assimilation. Your experience as an East Coast Jew who made a career with a Los Angeles Latino rock band, that is a unique path. Is that something you’ve reflected on throughout the process?

    Berlin: Honestly, I don’t. It’d be rare almost to the point of never that I think in terms of that. I think, as a musician, we’re all kind of speaking similar if not the same language most of the time. I never think about the differences, but always about the similarities, and where we sort of intersect and how we could amplify each other’s work. It’s not something that occurs to me. Again, my sense is that as this project happens, I am looking forward to seeing where it goes. David has said Brandeis is excited about me doing it, and they’d like to see it go on. Connecting to my own Jewishness is something I reflect on quite a bit, but very rarely in this milieu. My musical life and my religious life are usually not very connected. I am going to leave myself open to the possibility that this might be a way to connect those two sides of me.

    Tikva: So, that connection isn’t something you have strived for. Then, is it a distance you have have been aware of?

    Berlin: Yeah, I don’t think of it in terms of striving to do that. Frankly, it’s not something that happens a lot. When I’m working with Lobos or working with somebody else, where I am in my faith is not really germane to anything I’m doing at that moment. This project will be that moment, that moment when those things connect. That’s what I’m looking forward to: how and where and what happens from this connection.

    Tikva: What was it about His Excellency that appealed to you?

    Berlin: I think, and I could be wrong, but my thought process is: Since we’re not going to be able to get together beforehand, I thought something that is dark overall would limit, in a good way, the choices. In other words, if the movie is dark overall, it limits the choices that we make musically. Pretty much everything can be dark, varying flavors of minor key, and until the end there’s not a lot of positive news for anyone in the movie. So, keeping it in that one color gives us the opportunity to explore inside that space — it’ll be pretty much minor key for the first four fifths of the movie, and in my experience with scoring films myself, the toughest thing is to go from dark to light, and light to dark. It’s always a very delicate balance when you try to convey hope, for instance. You can go wrong in a million different ways, whereas when something is dark and mysterious, it gives you a lot of leeway. If it’s all dark, you can play around with it more. If you try to convey happiness, joy, hope, there’s a million ways you can screw it up.

    Tikva: The improvisatory approach seems appropriate to silent film. They are only called “silent” films in retrospect. They were raucous in their day: the audience talked, the musician had to be heard over the sound of the film projector, sometimes there was no sheet music and they’d have to improvise. In a way, it’s part of the era. Are you a fan of silent films?

    Berlin: I would say this would be [laughs] my first in a long time of even sitting down and watching one. I can’t say I am a fan, per se, but I’m certainly not not a fan. Not having really experienced one in a while, watching this one and getting ready for it, I’ve been enjoying it and realizing I should probe deeper. A lot of this stuff is just beautiful. This film in particular, it’s a really old print, but it’s absolutely beautiful.

    Tikva: You’re playing in an intimate venue — is that informing how you’re composing or performing?

    Berlin: I will tell you when I get there. It’s one more conundrum I look forward to solving. Obviously it’s not Madison Square Garden, or anything like it. If we even need to be amplified at all, we’ll see. It could be entirely acoustic, which would be nice, too.

    Tikva: Could you run through the work you’ve done in film before?

    Berlin: My band has scored a couple of them — one called Feeling Minnesota with Keanu Reeves, one called The Wrong Man, and a couple for Robert Rodriguez: Desperado, and a little bit of Spy Kids, two or three scenes, but it was scored by someone else. We also gave him thematic ideas that he then adapted to different parts of the movie — sort of what I’m doing with this movie: a bunch of themes that he cut and adapted, and re-scored, voiced by his actual composer.

    Tikva: Are your parents still alive? Is this His Excellency project a point of pride for them?

    Berlin: My mom is. Yes, a profound point of pride. Well, you know, my mom celebrates everything I do, not just stuff like this, but when I told her about it, she got really excited. It’s kind of a big deal, and she’s — it’s funny: She reminded me that when I was looking for college, when I was a little kid, she was trying to get me to go to Brandeis. So, yeah, she’s very proud of my involvement in this.

    Join us on December 2, when Steve Berlin leads a live band in scoring the 1928 Russian film His Excellency.

    More on His Excellency at the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis at jewishfilm.org. Live concert photo of Steve Berlin by Marcel Houweling, via a Creative Commons license (from flickr.com).

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