Slant of Light, the 2014 album that introduced the musical collaboration of multi-instrumentalist Jeff Zeigler and harpist Mary Lattimore to the world, carried with it a rather cinematic tone, its four extended instrumental evoking stark scenes of passion, startling beauty, and haunting drama. It seemed, then, somehow natural that the pair’s next project together would be a film score.
Asked by the annual Marfa Ballroom event to score a silent film, Lattimore chose Philippe Garrel’s devastating 1968 experimental short Le Révélateur—which tracks a family as they escape an unseen conflict—and chose her friend Zeigler to work with her on it. And what they came up with matches the unsettling feelings and moments of devastating loveliness on screen with quietly plucked melodies and an especially stirring use of melodica. Their initial performance proved so successful that the pair have been performing it around the U.S. and made a recording of their semi-improvised score for Thrill Jockey Records, which is being released on July 22nd.
I was able to spend some time on the phone with Lattimore and Zeigler as they sat in a traffic jam in the middle of a recent run of performances to talk about their score and the importance of getting the approval of Garrel for this project.
What was your process going into a project like this? How did you tackle the idea of scoring a film like Le Révélateur?
JZ: We weren’t totally sure right off the bat, and we just started rolling through the film and improvising to it. From there we came up with parts and sort of formed a theme off that. A lot of times, Mary would come up with a harp part and I’d build off that from section to section. Did we initially try to do that for the whole thing at once?
ML: I can’t remember. We definitely wrote themes and little notes depending on the action that was happening in the film.
JZ: Initially we were approaching it more as a whole rather than individual scenes, and it started to make more sense to separate it out a bit.
How familiar were you with the film before you started this?
JZ: Not very. Mary had been asked to score a silent film for a Ballroom Marfa thing that they do every year. And she asked me so we both decided to do it. A friend of hers Herb Shellenberger used to do a lot of film curation in Philly; Mary had asked him for suggestions and that was one that jumped out at him. It seemed like a really, really good match. We weren’t really familiar with Garrel’s work before that.
How was that for you, Jeff? Were you playing primarily synthesizer or were you messing around with other instrumentation?
JZ: Yeah. There was a lot of guitar in there, but it doesn’t sound like guitar. A lot of it is melodica, too, which has a really empty, lonely sound that seemed to work for that film. To keep the atmosphere and not really take over the same frequency range as the harp.
ML: That’s why I really wanted to include Jeff because I knew he was good at a lot of instruments, and it seemed cool to add those textures rather than just harp throughout that thing for an hour. Add a cornucopia of sounds.
JZ: From doing it the one time, we realized, “Oh, this really works,” and just kept growing it from there.
The film is almost horror-like in its composition. Was that something you took into account when composing this?
JZ: If anything just trying to go with that flow. There are scenes that, live, it comes off as a little more nightmarish, where it really locks into the dark, Lynch-like scenes that are more on the aggressive side or the tone is a bit more eerie. I think we tried to match that tone to some extent, which maybe feels more subdued on the record. I also think we tried to tap into the desolate openness of a lot of it as well to have that contrast.
How has it been performing this work live as much as you have?
ML: It’s really fun! We’ve done it a bunch of times now. We’ve gotten really familiar with the film. We know it very, very well by now and all the characters, we feel really attached to the little boy. [laughs] It’s cool because the upcoming LP, the record itself just has selections from the score, but it’s also going to come with a digital version where you can watch pieces of it that have been cued up with the music. We timed it so you can play it while you watch it.
JZ: The film is an hour and five minutes, and the LP had to be cut down to about 44 minutes from that.
Was it important to you to get the approval that you did from the director before doing this?
ML: It seemed important to us to get his approval. For the Marfa thing, it was just a one-off experiment and we didn’t reach out to him. But after that when we figured out that it worked and wanted to play it at some different places, that’s when we reached out to someone that was represented Philippe Garrel and we got permission from him. Bettina from Thrill Jockey reached out to his manager to get permission to use the stills for the LP. It was important because he made the film intentionally silent so we wanted to make sure that we weren’t compromising his vision for it.
Would you have put a stop to this if he had not given his approval?
ML: Yeah! We would have done something else!
How much has the score that you came up with changed since the first time you did it in Marfa?
ML: It’s all themes but improvised within those themes. So, it’s different every time, but it basically has the themes that go with the actions of the characters.
JZ: There are definitely melodies that you’ll hear every time we perform it. True to what we do otherwise, it gets stretched out and changed and morphed every time so it’s never the same.
JZ: It’s been kind of a slow going process. We recorded this well over a year ago. It’s only been going at a faster pace over the last few months in preparation of getting this out. There was nothing specific about it other than us finally feeling like we had enough free time to focus on it for a little bit and get it finished up.
Do you have plans to do more work like this with other films?
ML: Yeah, I’d love to. I love doing this kind of thing. I think if we were asked to work on another project we’d definitely be into that. Right now we sort of hope to be able to screen this one in some other cities. We’ve never played it in New York so we’re doing that for the record release, and maybe somewhere in Europe if someone’s interested in hosting us there.
JZ: I think the goal for now is just spread this and continue to play it out more over broader areas. We worked before doing other scoring stuff to some extent. So it’s definitely something we’re both into pursuing for other films.