by Phil Segal
Ahead of the CineSpin event on November 12th when they’ll providing an original live score to Kote Mikaberidze’s Russian silent film My Grandmother, I had the chance to talk with musicians and composers Gabriel Sarnoff and Miles Tuncel. You can check out music by Gabe and Miles here (Miles appears on track 2, “Satisfaction”). Our talk covered improvised music in the Zoom era, what makes accompanying a film particularly exciting, and what they hope people will get from the CineSpin experience.
BAMPFA SC: Why don’t we start with an introduction and go over what led you here?
Miles Tuncel: Hi, I’m Miles, I play primarily saxophones. I’ve been playing saxophones for ten plus years now, since I was in middle school, and I met Gabe in an ensemble at Berkeley-- Ben Goldberg’s class, who’s a big hero and teacher of ours. We sort of took off from that, improvising and composing together, playing a lot of different genres of music, a lot of different settings. We also played in Myra Melford’s group on campus, which is an improvisational based music class. I’d say those two classes and those two people have been huge inspirations for us in terms of how we approach composing and improvisation and playing with each other.
Gabriel Sarnoff: To go off that, I came at music starting in ninth grade. I started playing guitar, played in a pretty “hard rock” band throughout high school with some buddies, and then towards the end of high school got into playing upright bass. I was the electric bassist of this band, and then wanted to play upright base, joined the school’s small orchestra (I went to a tiny school), and that’s what got me into reading music and classical music. Then I came to Cal, studied music as one of my double majors, and met Miles in that class in our junior year, and from there kinda found myself in this corner of the music department at Berkeley, and just generally music in the Bay Area, of improvised music primarily. Ben Goldberg and Myra Melford are pretty well known in that area of music, very respected, and they’ve become mentors for us. We’re following in their footsteps but doing our own thing. We approach music I think a bit more from— at least I do, and I think Miles as well— Miles has more of a jazz background whereas I have more of a rock/folk background, but we both appreciate that other style of music, and so we come together and create a synthesis of the two and pair it with improvised music to get something really special that we think will go well with the silent film. We’re excited for this opportunity because it’s super-unique, to say the least.
BSC: How did you end up getting this opportunity to do CineSpin?
GS: I think I got an email. I’ve known about this event, I went to it two or three years ago, and I was like, “Wow, I really wanna do this! This is so cool.” So I saw the email and we sent in a song that we had made for a new jazz ensemble. We actually sent in a song that we made over Zoom, because we were doing everything over Zoom during COVID.
BSC: Were you improving over Zoom?
MT: Yeah, it was a big part of our lives for a year or so. It was a really different experience trying to play music over Zoom. It’s a difficult prospect but it led to some interesting results. We would never really have thought about playing music or composing in the ways we did before everything happened.
GS: For example, the song we sent in, we were playing along with a friend of ours, Evan, who was in this ensemble with us. He was playing bass clarinet I believe, [Miles] was playing saxophone, I was playing guitar, all over Zoom. I think it was completely free improvisation, there might have been some melodic structure that we were basing it on, but Evan was using a pedal that pitch shifted what he was playing, and that wasn’t coming across to us. He was hearing himself play completely different than we were hearing him play, and it led to a crazy sound that wouldn’t have been possible had we been playing together live without that filter between us of Zoom. So the Zoom/COVID era opened up a lot of doors for musicians doing free improv music. I think for musicians working in more rigid forms where everything has to stay in time, they were probably kind of screwed, but since we’re not based in a time signature or tempo, things are looser in free improv, it led to interesting results. We realized that you don’t have to hear everything that everyone’s playing at once to create something beautiful. You only hearing what one person in the ensemble is playing, and that person only hearing what a different person is playing, it creates really interesting results.
BSC: I’m interested in your approach to working with film because Gabe, I actually had the chance to view a talk you gave (viewable here) on representational aspects of music and how that affects composition. Could you explain a bit about that, and maybe that can lead us into how you worked with this film?
GS: Yeah, so my theories on composing and music are pretty abstract and mainly exist in my head, so they’re probably not too logical, but I guess the basic idea of how I see music, how I hear music, is as a narrative form. A good example is when you’re listening to classical music, like an orchestra playing, there’s usually a lot of people playing but only a few melodic lines going on at a time, because if you do more than four or five at a time no one’s gonna know what’s going on. I hear each of those voices as kind of characters in a story. If I’m listening to a piece of music and it’s guitar for a while, and then the bass comes in, it’s analogous to when you’re watching a movie and following a one person for a while, and then a new character walks in and joins the storyline. I think it’s a very valuable perspective, because when you’re working with music it’s very abstract. People can get caught up with doing too much and adding too many elements just because you can, especially in our digital age when you’re working on computers and have the option to add hundreds of tracks on top of each other. Some people do that, a good example being Jacob Collier, who’s a composer and musician that’s pretty well known. He’s big on that, putting three hundred vocals on one song, all on top of each other. That’s its own thing. That’s not my approach. My approach is that if you’re writing a story, you’re not going to have three hundred characters, or no one will know what’s going on. I prefer music with fewer elements, with each element more developed. That being said, the movie My Grandmother, we just watched it for the first time, and it’s a very hectic movie [laughs]. There’s a lot of… It’s more of that Jacob Collier side of things with a million different things happening. In this project, for us, one thing I was thinking about when we were watching the movie, is that we can’t match that with two people playing live. We’ll have to create something that can have a contrast to the movie. If we were doing a film score where we recorded everything and were able to compose meticulously, that would be one thing, but live we won’t be able to match the superfast cutting and rapid changes of events. For example, there’s a scene of a guy sliding down a railing on a staircase, it’s a recurring thing, and I’d love to go [imitating slide whistle] to mirror him, but I think we’re going to try and exist in a separate dimension, where we’re not necessarily mirroring everything that’s going on but the instead aiming for the contrast of the music to give meaning to the movie and the movie to give meaning to the music. That was a lot [laughing].
BSC: Miles, do you share Gabe’s theories of music or do you take a different approach to thinking about it?
MT: I’d say that reflected my sort of way of approaching music pretty well in terms of storytelling and character. I think the music to me that is the most interesting, and I guess this expands to all art, is where it’s not something perfect, where you can hear the artist struggling to achieve something. It’s not perfect, but it’s what they have, and they’re putting all they have into it. I think in terms of scoring things, that’s where our experience in improvised music pairs well with scoring a movie, because in improvised music you can have so many kinds of interactions between people: between the performers, a conductor, the audience, so there’s a great fit between interacting with a movie and improvised music performers.
BSC: How does that play out for you? The film is something rigid, locked in, it’ll be the same every time. Is it freeing for you to improvise against because you always have that baseline, locked in thing to return to no matter how far out you go, or do you find that restrictive, that you can’t go out as far?
MT: I think that can be freeing, and that’s something important in music, to have some kind of structure that the listener can lock onto and say, “Oh, I know what’s going on here.” So I think it’s a good baseline to build off. And there’s all kinds of baselines in music that you can build off and take form from, so I think this is just another one of those structures to add music to.
GS: If I can add, I’m taking one on one lessons with the clarinetist Ben Goldberg we mentioned earlier, who teaches improvised music at Cal, and in these one on one lessons we’re basically working on melodic improvisation over chord changes. So the music we’ve done with Ben and Myra in the past, and what we’re going to do for this movie, for the most part, is the opposite of what traditional jazz is. There, you have a sheet of chords, and for four bars it’s a C Major, and then it’s a G, and then yadda yadda yadda. In our kind of free jazz improvised music, we’re only following our ear with no predetermined chord structures, which leads to a huge realm of possibilities. But, in these lessons I’m doing the opposite, I’m working on going through these chord changes and creating a mental map that you can use to anchor what you’re playing. What I think is cool about this movie project is that the movie takes on the same role as the chord sheet in a jazz standard, and we can use that to anchor our playing. In the course of the next few weeks we’re really just going to learn this movie as if it were chord changes. It’s going to be impossible to memorize every single action in the movie, but generally we’ll know, “Oh, this is going to happen next.” If we have that really under our fingertips so we don’t have to think about it, that’s when it frees you up while you’re playing. The biggest thing is that we’re improvising and we won’t be talking, so we have to have something— usually it’s our ear— keeping us together. If we both know what’s coming next in the movie, though, that’s going to create wild possibilities. We’ll both know a crazy scene is coming up, and that will influence our playing, and so we’ll… I don’t know! I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I think it’s so unique. So my answer is that I don’t think it’s limiting. Quite the contrary.
BSC: If I could bring us back a bit to your talk, you mention there that normally the audience doesn’t have direct access to the images or feelings the composer means the music to represent. Here, we in the audience are going to be looking at the image you’re trying to represent at the same time you’re looking at it and trying to represent it. What effects do you think this will have, will it be more challenging for you, does it take away something by limiting possible interpretations?
GS: I was thinking about this. We watched it last night, actually, and we were just brainstorming. I was thinking about what I mentioned earlier, that we can’t match everything in the movie as two people playing live, it has to be a freer connection between the two, but since the audience will be seeing the movie and us simultaneously they’ll create connections we weren’t even imagining. That’s my plan.
GS: I think the audience’s brains will play a big role in creating the meaning behind the music, in an abstract sense.
BSC: So everyone will get their own experience of it. It’ll be totally open in that way.
BSC: So to prepare for this, is there any music or anything else you’ve been drawing on? Have you been listening to film scores, or jazz/improv, or looking for inspiration anywhere in particular?
MT: Yeah, I think we’re always playing what we’re listening to. I’ve been listening to a lot of Wayne Shorter recently, he’s one of my favorite saxophone players. There’s this record that’s fairly recent, in the last ten years, called Without a Net, that I think is very good at representing a story. I think that record is some of the saxophone playing that I’m always striving to match in terms of storytelling and being a character and having your own voice.
GS: Definitely we should be listening to more film scores. To speak for you [points at Miles], he’s been listening to a lot of… I’m not sure where it’s from, but this flute music.
MT: Oh yeah, it’ s a Turkish ney, it’s a kind of flute.
GS: Miles influences me a lot because he shows me a lot of world music with instruments I’ve never heard of. A lot of times in the US, and Western popular music, songs are pretty rigid and three to four minutes, so it’s nice to hear something a bit more fluid. Film scores are like that as well. A film score is probably where people living here, like students at Berkeley for example, get most of their long fluid music. It reaches them through movies. I definitely think I’m inspired by the music Miles has shown me, as well as finding a way to merge some of the other work I’m doing right now. I’m creating folk songs, or like Bob Dylan-y singer-songwriter-y songs, wondering if there’s a way to bring stuff like that, maybe some singing, to the film score table, but we’re still parsing together everything.
BSC: Do you think film scoring is something you’ll want to explore more after this?
GS: Definitely. As a musician— I just graduated Cal and now I’m trying to pursue music full time— a career in film scoring is one of the more stable careers for a musician to have, if you can make it in that area, so that’s really appealing to me. I think as an artform, I still haven’t explored it enough. That’s why I’m really excited for this project. I see this as an artform that no one’s really doing, pairing this kind of improvised music with silent films. If it goes well— I think it’ll go well— I’d like to do more of that specifically moreso than just film scoring in the traditional sense.