The Sounds of Science

I've always regretted not catching Yo La Tengo's performance of The Sounds of Science three years ago at Lincoln Center. I can't remember my reasoning, but it hit home when I got the accompanying CD soundtrack (The Sounds of the Sounds of Science) a few months later and listened to it incessantly. The eight pieces are far from your typical YLT fare, commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2001 as a live score to the aquatic documentaries of Jean Painlevé. They're mostly extended jams on simple melodies - soundscapes just as much as songs, designed as background music but with enough detail and variation to hold your attention up close. With the exception of "Acera or the Witches Dance" at Prospect Park in '02, none of them seem to make it into YLT's setlists (at least when I'm in the crowd). The band played the entire set at the Rose Theater last night though, with the films playing behind them. It was very, very cool.

The films were the focus of the show, with the band playing in the dark, and I was really impressed. Painlevé's underwater documentaries span seven decades, and last night's selections dated from 1927 to 1978. All eight looked at underwater life up close - sea urchins, jellyfish, seahorses, shrimp, etc. As the program notes said, the films "cut between monochrome and vivid Technicolor, focusing on curious shapes, luminous colors, psychedelic patterns, and wobbly pulsating creatures." They worked well both artistically and scientifically; as someone who majored in biology, I especially enjoyed them.

I knew the music pretty well coming in, so I loved finally seeing each piece's inspiration; in most cases, the music matched the films quite well, and the band often looked at the screen while playing to synch up and improvise. James McNew's bassline on "How Some Jellyfish Are Born" (MP3) matched the throbs of the jellyfish on screen, likewise for his walking bassline and the darting shrimp on "Shrimp Stories." Those two were my favorites, along with "The Seahorse" and the E-Bow tones of "Sea Urchins." Watching a seahorse give birth while Ira Kaplan jams on a Farfisa works surprisingly well. My only complaint was that it was hard to look at both the band and the films; more often than not, I focused on the latter, but I wish I could have seen how YLT were making some of the sounds. ("Acera," for example, had Ira banging on his guitar with a mallet and playing it on the floor.)

But all in all, I enjoyed this quite a bit. The Rose Theater, part of Lincoln Center's new outpost in the Time Warner Center, was a nice space as well, a bit like a larger Zankel Hall. The sound was crisp, the sightlines were clear. It's not often something like this happens there, but I wouldn't hesitate to go back.

The Wicked was at the show as well, and Pitchfork gave an 8.0 to The Sounds of the Sounds of the Science back when it came out. Two more performances of the score are currently scheduled - May 28 in Tokyo and July 9 in North Adams, MA.