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Published: 2002/08/24
by Chris Gardner

The Sounds of the Sounds of Science – Yo La Tengo

Egon 07

So, here's the story: Jean Painleve was born the son of a French Prime
Minister. He directed over 200 brief, underwater scientific documentaries
in his 87 years. The silent, primarily black and white, films won high
praise from surrealists and the avant-garde, but they failed to bowl over
his fellow scientists. His films of mating octopi and jellyfish and
seahorse births were hailed as sensual, erotic, and even funny — words
associated with scientific documentary film. He attacked his work with the
belief that, "Science is fiction" and, by all accounts, he proved his point.

In April of 2001, Hoboken's three favorite indie rockers, Yo La Tengo, took the stage at the San
Francisco film festival, playing an improvised score to eight of Painleve's
films showing behind the band. The evening spawned a recording session and
a series of subsequent recreations.

The result is dreamlike without being dreamy. It is evocative in its
restraint. "Sea Urchins" drones airily behind a measured beat, barely
announcing itself as though not to disturb the scene. When the bassline
falls around the 4:30 minute mark, the last hints of tension breathe past
the lips with a half-intoned "wow" that resolves itself in silence before
easing back into quiet motion. "Hyas and Stenorhynchus" is similarly rooted
by a melodic bass line, freeing the guitar and drums to accent
arythmically atop the sedated keyboard's drone. This is the music of
half-sleep, where demi-dreams wend their way into reality, blurring the

"Shrimp Stories" stirs the disc to wakefulness. Rumbling toms and a rushing
bass line swirl with urgency. It is the first intrusive moment of the disc
and further underscores the periphery ambience that permeates the first two
tracks. In context, this relatively tame, if bottom heavy, groove feels
a swinging hammer, a wrecking ball looking for a target.

"Liquid Crystals" responds most purely to the film. The album on a whole is
not a true reaction to the films. Rather, it is a conscious effort to
create a spontaneous soundtrack directly and immediately influenced by the
film. "Liquid Crystals" is direct response. The sounds are immediate
responses to the films. There is no attempt at rhythm, melody, cohesion, or
any of the other trappings of music. This is sound – noise – response – direct interaction with the source material. On an album whose premise is
inherently collaborative, this is the only track where the film truly drives
the soundtrack.

"The Love Life of the Octopus" swims around two pendulous notes. The guitar
screeches and wails impulsively above the quickstep notes that hold a steady
pulse for over seven minutes before giving way to the tamed guitar that
brings the
piece into more cogent space. The bass slowly quickens the pace as the
longest track winds to a close. "Acera or the Witches Dance" rides a sheen
of cymbals up on its heels and maintains. The stretch of the song offers
variations around this wash of cymbals, and "The Sea Horse", and album's
closer, offers even less – a cyclic and redundant set of notes on the
keyboard with a spare sprinkling of accents – nothing more. It returns the
disc to its dreamlike beginnings and soundlessly closes the door.

In most hands, this experiment would be a train wreck. The danger is doing
too much, and Yo La Tengo responded by doing as little as possible. There
are stretches of this disc that bring Mark Rothko's work to mind. There is
a serene beauty in the simplicity. "Sea Horse" is a wisp of a song. As so
many have said of Rothko's work, a child could have done it. Rothko once
said, when asked why he no longer named his pieces, "Silence is so
accurate". "The Sounds of the Sounds of Science" follows the precept. Each
sound is a breach of the silence, and the band seems intimately aware of the
intrusion they make with each note and beat. It is this reverence for
silence that makes "Sea Horse" so effective and "Shrimp Stories" so

All music demands context. Some music only makes sense amid the clinking of
beer bottles, some before a throng of thousands, some above the tapping of
church shoes on a wooden floor. This music spills out of the void. It
sneaks out of silence, whispers, rumbles, chimes, and wails at you, and
slinks back to the silence it reveres.

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