In celebration of the 20th anniversary of The Andy Warhol Museum, Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films premiered in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Music Hall on Friday October 17th, 2014. The project was produced for the Warhol by staff members: Ben Harrison, Curator of Performing Arts, Geralyn Huxley, Curator of Film and Video, and Greg Pierce, Assistant Curator of Film and Video. Jointly commissioned by The Andy Warhol Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films featured live performances by five composers selected by guest music curator Dean Wareham who included himself, Tom Verlaine, Martin Rev, Eleanor Friedberger, and Bradford Cox. These musicians composed and performed music in conjunction with fifteen previously unreleased Warhol short films from the 1960’s that have been digitally restored by MPC/Technicolor.
The novelty of seeing never before released material accompanied by live music was an intriguing juxtaposition that functioned like an homage to Warhol’s involvement with the Velvet Underground at the Factory. These new musical pairings reflect the Museum’s mission to keep Warhol’s brand relevant by extending the dialogue and creating a bridge with contemporary composers. Many of the films included appearances by the usual suspects, friends, colleagues and other well known acquaintances of Warhol: Edie Sedgwick, International Velvet, Robert Indiana, John Giorno, Donovan, Mario Montez, Nico and Marcel Duchamp, to name a few. All of the films, both black and white and color were between four and four and a half minutes in length, which fit neatly into the convention of a traditional song length. Some were screen tests, others were excerpts from longer pieces, and still others were just shorts. While not exactly groundbreaking in terms of material, the production followed many of the idiosyncratic conventions that we have become accustomed to in other Warhol films: long extended shots, close-ups of faces, limited action, and in-camera, choppy editing. It was fun, however, to see Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other beat culture heavy weights horsing around on a couch; Nico with Antoine happily eating bananas in front of Warhol’s cover for the debut album of the Velvet Underground and Nico; watching Marisol in her Mod clothing interact with her sculptures; and Duchamp hamming it up for the camera while smoking a cigar with the Italian model Benedetta Barzini.
Although I had visions of Tom Verlaine coming out rocking with a full band playing songs reminiscent of Television it was obvious that Verlaine’s intent was to make sure that the films took center stage. So it was Verlaine and his guitar. He played with restraint, which did not overpower the imagery but supported it. On some level, I wish Verlaine would have been more assertive, but considering the nature of the imagery—the naked poet John Giorno washing dishes in his kitchen, John Washing (1963), and Jill Johnston dancing with a long rifle, Jill (1963)—the quiet, intricate lyrical playing provided a perfect accompaniment to the films and because of this, one could sense Verlaine’s respect for Warhol.
Following Verlaine, with what couldn’t have been a more polar opposite approach, was the irreverent Martin Rev who seemed to be the most obvious fit for the project. I felt like he could have been in one of Warhol’s previously unreleased films with his frizzy hair, wraparound red sunglasses and leather pants. Watching him rake his arms across the Korg synthesizer creating the loud throbbing pulse perfectly in sync with the Abercrombie and Fitch-like Superboy drinking the bottle of Coca Cola was pure spectacle.
Eleanor Friedberger and Dean Wareham, the next two performers, both accompanied by the same backing band, essentially stayed within their musical comfort zone by electing to take what they know and apply it to the films. Perhaps the experience of a live musical performance overshadowed the films, though I doubt this was the intention of the two musicians. Yet at this point during the performance, I succumbed to watching mostly the bands, visually compelling in their own right. Here we had accomplished, thoughtful musicians known for crafting engaging, lush music who were now responding to films that were not necessarily meant to be seen by the public nor were they ever intended specifically as finished works of art. But because we know the work is by Warhol, no matter the content or the level of sophistication, it would be assumed that he should have top billing or at least equal billing. So Friedberger and Wareham in essence created narratives that were mostly nonexistent within the films. It was as if they had written the novels and Warhol’s films were their covers, which in a weird way makes sense. Friedberger’s “All Known Things” provided the ghostly setting and plotline for Edie Sedgwick primping in Screen Test: Edie Sedgwick (1965) with her repetitive hauntingly sung refrain of ‘beauty stands alone.’ And Warehams’s “Walk into the Sea” sung to the melody of “Catch a Falling Star” somehow worked with Kiss the Boot (1966) where Gerard Malanga lay, slowly writhing on the floor, coquettishly kissing and fondling the boot of Mary Woronov.
The other musician who viewed his role in the relationship of music to film as one of accompaniment, and whose compositions reflected exactly that, was Bradford Cox, who humorously stepped on stage in cap and gown. His looped and ethereal compositions, with a seemingly vague connection to his work with Deerhunter, were clearly engaged with the visuals, supporting and complementing these in a thoughtful way without compromising the imagery but also not becoming subservient in the process. Cox’s ethereal trance like compositions helped to reinforce the repetitive nature of the films and functioned more like soundscapes as opposed to songs, a strategy that worked especially well as Mario Montez and Richard Schmidt sensually shared a hamburger doused in ketchup in Mario Montez and Boy (1965).
One of the most compelling parts of Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films was how the musicians saw their role in conjunction with the moving pictures. Given the casual nature of these films and the historical and cultural differential in time, these factors complicated the musicians’ responses and their resulting compositions (which made the arrangement all the more interesting). It also affected how the musicians perceived their respective roles in tandem with the imagery and of course with regard to their maker—Warhol. Both Verlaine and Cox chose to make purely instrumental work and by eschewing lyrics, their work seemed to support the visual without overwhelming it and while still maintaining enough of a presence to stand-alone as well. For Friedlander and Wareham, the lyrical narratives for the most part tended to shape and or steer our perception of the films, as if adding a dialogue. Rev, on the other hand, seemed to intentionally jockey for the power position in the relationship between music and film; and he seemed to have no regrets in doing so. Obviously, in the commercial world of music, the video comes after the song. It is the filmmaker’s job to create the visuals for the music. Because of his work scoring for a film, Wareham has had some experience with this particular format (where music comes after the visual); Rev has too but for the other musicians this was a new experience. Working with footage from a dead art icon certainly provided its challenges and I was impressed with the range of responses to Warhol’s work.
There is a certain amount of naiveté in the films, an amateurish quality even, and a playfulness that is endearing; one can’t help but feel a certain amount of nostalgia for the time period. Warhol’s films essentially feel like we are watching home movies, videos that today would be posted on YouTube or Facebook except that instead of seeing family members and friends we see well known artists, writers, actors, and musicians. The casual production makes the people feel approachable and relatable as if they were our friends and family. Perhaps in the not too distant future after I tell my grandchildren that I was at Three Rivers stadium when Franco made the Immaculate Reception, and I saw Bruce Springsteen at the Decade when he got on stage with the band Red Hot and Blue and sang Devil with the Blue Dress On, I will let them know that I was there for the premiere of Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films at the opulent Carnegie Music Hall.
Scott Turri hails from suburban Philadelphia but now calls Pittsburgh home, where he divides his labor amongst: making art, writing, and educating. View more articles by Scott Turri.