So many topics were covered in GP’s September 2009 feature interview with Bill Frisell that we couldn’t fit everything into the magazine. Here, Frisell discusses his upcoming Films of Buster Keaton, Music By Bill Frisell DVD.
A DVD of the three Buster Keaton films you scored will soon be available.
I’m so happy that its finally coming out that way, because that’s what we intended it to be in the beginning. We recorded the music completely synced up to the films, so when it came out only as a CD it was a little strange. The music was really generated by what was going on onscreen, even to the point of almost sound effects—what the drums were doing in particular. So much of the time Joey [Baron] would be following the action of the film. Just to listen to it as music was cool, but it was frustrating that there was a problem with the film distributor or something, and it got caught up until now.
Was it just done like they used to do on the scoring stages back in the ’20s, where you were playing along with the image?
Yeah, we had these little TV monitors, and for me it was kind of a haphazard. That was the first time I had ever tried to put music to an image, so I didn’t really have the slightest idea what I was doing. We had performed the music before we recorded it. The first time we did it was at Saint Anns in Brooklyn, a big church that they had performances in. They were the people that had asked me to do the project in the first place. So we did it there. And we may have done a European tour before recording.
Was there a score or were you just improvising?
It was written out, in a way. There were these little themes. I remember the night before the concert, staying up all night with these piles of music, throwing stuff all over the place. It was a gigantic task for Kermit [Driscoll, bassist] and Joey to deal with all these pages of written music, and then I had written out sort of verbal instructions, like “When he falls off the house, then you play number three, until he walks in the door, and then switch to number 17.” So we had all this music on the stage, as well as trying to follow all these verbal instructions, while watching really closely. The tension level on the first gig was really high, because there’s so much detail in the films.
There seem to be either total strokes of genius, or happy accidents, where the music syncs with the image almost supernaturally.
There were definitely a lot of accidents [laughs]. There is the written music, but then there are also these big open spaces of improvisation, but we knew we had to get to a specific point that we were aiming for when something would happen. Part of it is really tightly synced up, and is dictated by the structure of the film, but then at the same time within that there’s all this room for us to mess with. And the better we learned it, the better we got. We did a whole tour in Europe where we played it every night, and then it was like the film became another member of the band or something. I haven’t played much with Kermit or Joey in the last ten years or more, but I played along with some of these films again last fall with Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, who I’ve been playing with more recently, so it still has a kind of life.