6 March 2013

What even is a 'shine tart', other than the best name for a band so far this year?

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A special guest post from You Are Here artist and holder of the newly minted “Best All-Rounder” title, Luke McGrath, giving us some background on his involvement with one of the most exciting events at this year’s festival, Hit Him In The Comic Cuts.

Handsome Luke

Last year I smashed and grabbed my way through as many YAH events as I could. I broke a chair at Horseface Ethel And Her Marvelous Pigs In Satin, got sunburnt at The Beach, and drank my weight in green tea at the Gunpowder Temple Of Heaven. I tiptoed through a Ghost Encoun-Tour of Petrie Plaza, heckled Matty Ellis as he dominated Prison Rules B-Ball, and wore a diamond emblazoned neckerchief to So You Think You Can Hipster. I vowed to see even more, hear even more, and do even more this year.

To that end, I’m helping with six events at YAH 2013. Split between my twin loves of music and film, only one combines the two – Hit Him In The Comic Cuts.

For Hit Him In The Comic Cuts, the National Film & Sound Archive has given three artists access to a stack of 20s and 30s films – each of us is to create a 20 minute ‘response’. I’ve chosen to compose and perform a soundtrack to 1922 silent film Sunshine Sally.

Image courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive

It’s been a challenge – I’ve always written songs on the fly, and never to accompanying visuals. But before I could get to the music, I had to edit the movie. The surviving footage runs an hour, and the ending is lost. Redacting its scenes into a coherent 20 minutes meant a restructure of the narrative and several new intertitles.

I wrote 20 musical pieces, picking the 12 I felt best suited the mood of each scene. I didn’t want to write a period pastiche, full of barrelhouse piano and overworked musical cues – instead, the score is jangly r’n’b, with nods to Jorge Ben and Cat Stevens, whose work on Harold And Maude inspired the two tracks with vocals.

To pull it off, I knew I needed a crack ensemble. Adding points for difficulty, I wanted to work with musicians I had never performed with. Talent borrows and genius steals, so I thieved five of the best from Canberra’s favourite groups, including Fun Machine, Nyash!, Second Sun, The Big Score, and Quagmire.

We’ve now synchronised the entire score to the film. I composed the music to match individual scenes – playing them sequentially, with the full force of the band, is dizzying – there are five songs in the first three minutes. It’s like Girl Talk composing for film. The pace relaxes towards the middle and lets the band stretch out, but that first third is a wild ride – I can’t wait to see what an audience makes of it.

Right now we’re finessing the material – principally this means finding light and shade in the arrangements. After putting up with my own minimalist demos for so long it’s hard to resist wanting EVERYONE to play on EVERYTHING. Thankfully the other guys have kept me in line – my favourite piece (at the moment) has been stripped to just piano and vocals, rendering it more heartbreaking for its intimacy.

Earlier this week I got to watch my Sunshine Sally edit on the ARC cinema screen. It was humbling, and rammed home the enormity and span of the project – what an honour to take a film from 85 years ago and re-imagine it; to score it with modern instruments, many of which didn’t exist at the time (the electric guitar was still four years away); and then, to present it in the surrounds of the National Film & Sound Archive.

Image courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive

The band’s billed as ‘SHINE TARTS’ – it’s an ocker term from the movie, meaning a ‘good sort’ or ‘top chick’. It seems to suit our group – woozy sax, soulful vocals, thick piano stabs. Copious cowbell. The best bit? I’ve given all the hard parts to the other musicians, so on the night I can just stand there, guitar in hand, and let the music wash over me.

8pm – 10pm Tuesday 19 March
National Film and Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton
Tickets are FREE (I think we already covered this) but you can book a spot by calling the NFSA on 6248 2000

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