Riffing on Film: Stephen Ulrich, Mamie Minch, and Russell Scholl
The archive is a thing to behold: a large room in a Bed-Stuy townhouse with floor-to-ceiling gray metal shelves stacked with a big chunk of albums, and there is also room for CDs, VHS tapes, and Blu-Ray discs by the score. Russell Scholl is a crate digger with very broad tastes and an uncanny knowledge of his material; “I’ve been collecting records since 1977, and collecting and trading video content since 1982,” he says. I first met him about 15 years ago when he presented a compilation of music on film at Barbès, the indispensable, small Park Slope club with some of the best and most adventurous programming in the city. The program was called “Do You Want to Jump Children?” after a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, and it blew my mind with its quality, depth, and feeling. It can be difficult to remember, in the present-day all-access environment of YouTube and streaming services, that getting hold of brilliant music and footage often took tremendous dedication.
“I have a strong preference for the physical product,” says Scholl. “Getting a bunch of hi-res downloads is very different—it becomes a data dump, which is pretty impersonal. The curse and blessing of having a 40,000-piece media archive is its presence. That stuff’s in my room!” Besides acting as an archivist, though, he also serves as a curator, collecting widely but separating the great from the rest through his discernment. He has employed this approach not just in the compilation programs he’s assembled, but in creative collaborations with other musicians (he’s also a player). For those, he draws from his huge storehouse of moving images to create counterpoint visual tracks. “I enjoy cutting material together on a 2004 iMac,” he says. “It’s the equivalent of using scissors and Super 8 film.”
In the past few years, he has collaborated with two superb musicians: guitarist and composer Stephen Ulrich of the two-decades-running, beloved band Big Lazy, and guitarist and singer Mamie Minch, a fine blues player with a strong taste for the likes of Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. Ulrich has long written music that is described as cinematic, and remembers the crate digging that was required in the early days to locate material that inspired him: “In order to find a soundtrack album, I’d have to sort through the bins at Footlights Records,” a long-departed music store on East 12th Street, he says. He remembers a “long tan hand,” which belonged to Barry Manilow, reaching past him there one day to grab an obscure album, but that’s another story.
At times, Scholl has provided imagery for an existing song—what could be called the music video approach, as in his wildly diverse filmette for the tune “Ramona,” from the Big Lazy 2019 album Dear Trouble. The imagery is redolent of lost newsreels, cartoons, low-tech sci-fi, surf bands, and other mid-twentieth century delights. “It’s about 40 hours of work for a three-minute piece,” he estimates. “I start with a few segments that feel right rhythmically and try to create a flow. Ideally, the piece swings even when there’s no music playing.”
The current collaboration is different, though, starting with Scholl providing a film track and leading to a live performance by Minch and Ulrich. The three have performed these film/music collaborations in the past locally and in a few upstate towns like Saranac Lake, where they have a following. On March 21, they’ll host another such evening at Barbès, as part of Ulrich’s month-long Saturday night residency at the club. What he’ll do with his collaborators at the upcoming show is closer to scoring a film: Scholl provides a visual track he’s created (he cites the pioneering artist Bruce Conner as one role model), and Ulrich and Minch take about two weeks to create music for it, which they then perform live. The more organic, acoustic-driven sound Minch uses contrasts with the precise electric guitar wizardry of Ulrich. Both of them have experience with scoring music: Minch wrote a score for the 1911 animated film Little Nemo by early cartoonist Winsor McCay, and Ulrich created the music for the HBO series Bored to Death, where he got used to “counting beats, adding a half bar so that the music lines up with the image of a door closing.”
Ulrich enjoyed the discipline of writing music for a TV series. “I liked the pressure of it,” he says, “When you’re writing for yourself, it can get precious. It’s open-ended and generally takes forever. With scoring, you have to be a good soldier. They give you pages and pages of notes, and they don’t know what they want until they get what they don’t want.” In a typical week, he would watch the footage on a Thursday, they would “spot” it (describe where the music was needed), he would compose the score over the weekend, mix it on Monday, show it to the team on Tuesday, make changes on Wednesday—and start a new assignment the next Thursday.
By contrast, in their past collaborations, “Russell gave us no direction,” says Ulrich. “He just made the film and handed it to us, and we wrote to what we saw. It’s mostly about tone. You can go with it or against it.” “That’s the fun part,” says Minch, “You’re improvising, but in a tight space. That can sometimes produce the best results.” The films Scholl creates are open-ended; “they’re narrative, but in a non-narrative context,” says Ulrich. “It’s sort of like how we describe the music of Big Lazy, which people are always calling noir and cinematic: ‘We write the music, you write the script.’”
There is an ongoing vogue for soundtracks performed live; Ulrich recalls hearing the New York Philharmonic play the sometimes lush, sometimes shrieking all-strings Bernard Hermann soundtrack for the Hitchcock film Psycho. “Everything was played perfectly,” he says, “It was almost surgical. They just nailed it.” “Our collaboration won’t be like that,” adds Minch, who has a talent for the snappy rejoinder. Ulrich professes a preference for the hand-tooled approach he takes with Minch and Scholl. “The stuff we do has a handmade, creaky, sewn-together feeling,” he says. Maybe it’s better not to have the technical part too down pat, I suggest; that kind of proficiency could make for less engaging work. “I tell myself that a lot,” Minch responds.
That leads back to an interesting question: roughly speaking, do the limitations help make the work? I’m reminded of the observation by Philip Roth from when he was editing a series of works by authors from Eastern Europe living under Communist rule. “There, nothing goes and everything matters,” he said. “Here, everything goes and nothing matters.” It is a question writer Ben Ratliff wrestles with in his book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty—now that we have access to an endless stream of music at all times, what do we do with all of it? This helps bring the role of the curator or editor into better focus; having the ability to look at and listen to the widest possible range of materials is a blessing. But it’s often those who pare it down to something we can apprehend, or turn it into something else altogether, who make it meaningful.