IU Cinema’s Social Media Specialist Caitlyn Stevens had the chance to interview Ryan Norris, founder of experimental music organization Coupler, about the experience of composing and performing the commissioned original score for the 1925 silent film Our Heavenly Bodies. In this exchange, Norris talks about his love of movies, the juxtaposition of sound and image, and what he hopes this project will evoke in audiences.
Q: How did you get involved with this project?
A: Nashville’s arthouse cinema, Belcourt Theatre, initially commissioned our score. They do a series called Science on Screen and Zack Hall, a filmmaker that works there, asked if we’d be interested in contributing. He was a fan of our music and knew he wanted us to participate and so was looking around for offbeat sci-fi and stumbled onto some stills from the film. If I’m remembering correctly he did a mockup of the entire thing with some our older recordings. We did two sold-out performances in Nashville and based on the success of those I thought it would be a fun event to take on the road so we started a conversation about that with Toby Leonard, Belcourt’s program director. He passed along contacts he had at theaters around the country and off we went.
Q: Let’s talk about the process of composing the score: were there elements of the film that particularly inspired you? What was the most challenging aspect? The most rewarding?
A: There’s some remarkable imagery in this film. But honestly, I know that images and sound lend themselves to each other naturally so I just threw on some new material I’d been writing while watching the film and it worked. I made a rough sketch of where I thought the pieces could fall and then showed that to Rollum [Haas] and Rodrigo [Avendaño]. We started playing to the film and it all just gelled. That said, we improvise a lot when we perform so although the show is always similar from night to night it’s evolved considerably since we started. In fact, I kind of ignored the chapters (I think there are seven) because I thought paying too much attention to them would work against what we do naturally. I guess the reward is that none of it was too challenging. It’s just been fun.
Q: What has been your favorite part of performing alongside Our Heavenly Bodies? How is it different from other live performances you do?
A: I’ve loved movies since I was a kid and am a bit of an armchair cinephile so I’ve always wanted to score for film. This is hopefully just a first step for us. I’d like to continue doing live performances with films but would also love for us to do proper film scores that people would hear without us being in the pit. As far as how it’s different, well, we’ve mostly done this outside of clubs which is what we all came up playing in. It’s mostly been cinemas, universities, art museums, etc. I did a bit of that with Lambchop so it’s nice to bring Coupler into that context.
Q: What do you think Coupler brings to this project that other groups could not? In other words, why are you the right group for the job?
A: There’s sometimes a tendency with silent films to want to accompany them with music that’s meant to sound period-specific. I think that’s a trap. It’s fine if you want to go that route, but this film was pretty far ahead of its time from my perspective and I like the idea that we’re spanning almost an entire century between when the film was made and the music we’re making for it. Maybe that’s something I picked up from Bill Morrison’s films, the way he juxtaposes this gorgeous, old archival footage with music that’s much more modern and adventurous. It works.
Q: What do you hope audiences gain from this experience?
A: What I hope we’re able to do, in this context and others, is create for the audience an experience that is immersive and that they are able to lose themselves in. If we can pull that off then we’ve succeeded. I think we do a pretty good job.
Our Heavenly Bodies will be shown at the IU Cinema on Thursday, February 22 with live accompaniment by experimental music organization Coupler. The screening is part of the Underground Film Series and the Science on Screen initiative.
Caitlyn Stevens graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Arts with emphases in Women & Gender Studies and Film Studies in 2015. A passionate cinephile and art house cinema enthusiast, Caitlyn is now pursuing a masters of arts in Arts Administration at Indiana University.