Beautiful music for beautiful people

by Ryan Snyder

Anne Buchanan’s face is almost perfectly square, accented by plump lips and long, swept brown hair. She holds it stock still, but not in a tense way at all, so that it’s almost as if you’re looking into a still frame. Sure enough, that idea is defeated the moment a tear rolls out of her unblinking eye. Her visage is stunning, and it’s one you get to know well over the course of her four-and-a-half-minute screen test. The scene is set to an equally beautiful score; lustrous synths build up slowly until you can almost envision the sounds swirling around her head. The celluloid is one of hundreds of “screen tests” by pop art luminary Andy Warhol; the music, ex-Luna band mates and current partners in life Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips.

The two entities had never met and had hardly any connection until the Andy Warhol Museum engaged the dream-pop outfit Luna for a performance at their small Pittsburgh theater. A few years later, Wareham and Phillips found themselves with a commission to score a project that came to be known as 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, which was then adapted into a live multimedia performance that will come to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art on Friday, March 30. YES! Weekly caught up with Dean Wareham to talk about it.

YES! Weekly: What was your first Warhol experience?

Dean Wareham: I remember when I was in college I had a Warhol self-portrait on my wall. I think in a lot of ways, it’s almost impossible for us in the modern world to avoid Warhol. I feel by and large that, like Edward Hopper, he’s a very well-liked American artist in some circles and then there are those who hate him. I think the paintings are pretty much considered classics.

Y!W: You haven’t performed this show often, so are there those who come just because they’re Luna fans that get a little taken aback by the almost static imagery that accompanies the music?

DW: Some people are coming because they’re fans of Warhol too, so we definitely have some blue-haired ladies out there who I don’t think are coming to see us but happen to be members of the museum. I think the show’s pretty enjoyable, I think it really works. Often when people attempt multimedia shows of this nature, it’s deadly dull, but this is a good length, the films are beautiful and no one ever gets to see them on a big screen like this. Just to see them blown up, it’s kind of captivating. The music kind of pulls you through them and we tell stories about each character.

Y!W: Did you subject yourself to a screen test of your own while writing the music?

DW: Not while we were writing it. We did it at Cornell University while we were first organizing it. We were like, “Okay, party at my house now. We’re all going to make screen tests.” It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a hard thing to sit through. It’s a little uncomfortable to sit and have your photo taken to begin with, but to sit for three minutes and stare at a camera. What Warhol did, was he’d bring you into a room, sit you against a white wall or a black wall, put one bright light on you and tell you to stare at a camera for three minutes. Fairly often he would just leave the room. It’s a psychological test. How long can I do this for? You usually see the subject sit down with one image of themselves that they’re gonna project. They decide they’re going to be tough and silent, but then there’s only so long you can only maintain one face.

Y!W: Anne Buchanan did a pretty tremendous job of that.

DW: She cried? Hers is amazing because Warhol’s instructions, at least in the first year were just stare, do not move. She looked at the camera and doesn’t even blink, which is just impossible to do. That tear rolls down her cheek, but she still doesn’t blink. Right near the end you can see that flicker of a smile as she can hear the film running out.

Y!W: Were there drafts of the music where you considered the classical approach to scoring the sometimes extremely subtle dramatic shifts in these versus just approaching them as 13 different pieces?

DW: We took a song of ours and talked about taking all the lyrics out of it. It had kind of a sad progression in the music and still worked when put up against the imagery. Scoring a film is really all about trial and error, no matter who you are. I just watched this movie about Phillip Glass, and he’s scored dozens of movies, and here he’s scoring a Woody Allen movie. He’s written this big piece of music and Woody’s like, “Well, it’s a nice piece. We’ll play it against the scene and I’ll let you know if it works or if it totally ruins the scene.”

Y!W: Musically, I heard a lot of Modern Lovers influences. Where else were you trying to come from?

DW: We kept it minimal. I guess in a way it’s 13 different films with 13 different moods. One time a little rockabilly song seemed to work, where on another we took influence from Mozart’s Requiem, just because of this one film of Freddy Herko who later committed suicide to that piece. Maybe the one playing against the Dennis Hopper piece was the one you referenced. “Pablo Picasso” itself sounds like something the Velvet Underground might have done.

Y!W: There’s definitely a really cool kind of aloofness to that piece that works with Dennis.

DW: He was hard to score and he’s one person again who, you watch his film, and he’s obviously the only trained actor who didn’t mind having the camera on him. He’s doing something right out of acting class, thinking about something deep in his past and it’s making him real sad and real serious. Then, something happens, I think somebody says something to him, or maybe it’s the music because he just kind of nods his head and starts giggling. It’s fun.

Y!W: Velvet Underground was almost an obvious choice for the Lou Reed piece, but what made you choose that song? It’s not one many have heard.

DW: We were looking at his face and were like, “How the hell are we going to write a song for Lou Reed.” And then the song called “I’m Not A Young Man Anymore,” which they performed live, but never released — really it was a half-finished song — popped up on the internet as a bootleg from 1966, which was the exact year that the screen test was done. We thought, well, this is kind of perfect. Each Velvet Underground member had several made because it’s what they projected on themselves while they were performing. Maybe his is a cheat because it’s impossible to look vulnerable while wearing wraparound shades.

Y!W: I’m just waiting for that piece to reappear in pop culture in some commercial form.

DW: Exactly. Coca-Cola company.

Y!W: So what did you do in your screen test?

DW: I never even saw my own screen test. I thought it was silly and got the hell out of there.

Y!W: I guess it’s like hearing your own voice.

DW: Hearing your own voice is very unpleasant. I don’t mind hearing myself sing, but no one likes hearing themselves speak. Maybe Alec Baldwin does. He’s got a nice voice; he’s worked on it.

Dean & Britta will perform 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests at SECCA in Winston-Salem on Friday, March 30.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan