Where the Wild Things Are: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Live at MASS MoCA
By Robert Burke Warren
When Ronen Givony, director of New York City’s Wordless Music Orchestra, saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, a mythic tale of devotion and loss that was nominated for four Academy Awards this year, he knew the majestic, Cajun-inflected, occasionally edgy score belonged onstage, fleshed out by a large ensemble. Unbeknownst to him, Beasts director/co-writer and, yes, co-composer Benh Zeitlin, an erstwhile rocker, yearned to perform before an audience as he had in his teens. On Saturday, August 10, at 8:30 p.m., MASS MoCA grants each man his wish. The Wordless Music Orchestra, with Zeitlin and co-composer Dan Romer sitting in, brings the Beasts of the Southern Wild soundtrack to the venerable North Adams institution, executing the music in real time as the movie plays.
“It’ll be really special,” Zeitlin says. (He is pictured here to the right of Romer in a photo courtesy of BlackBook magazine.) “We’ve done one or two stripped-down shows, but this is the first time we’ve done the whole thing with a full orchestra.” Amazingly, Zeitlin and Romer composed and recorded almost the entire soundtrack in Dan Romer’s Brooklyn basement, painstakingly layering one instrument at a time, and using only a couple of other musicians. “At MASS MoCA,” he says, “we’ll have three violas and an actual celesta!” (And about twenty more musicians, including brass, woodwinds, and percussionists.)
The only other occasion when Zeitlin has heard the music played by a full orchestra was at the White House last February. When Michelle Obama, a big fan, presented the film to students from Washington D.C. and Louisiana as part of Black History Month, she invited Zeitlin, Romer, and Beasts stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry to the screening. “The White House military band played part of the score as we walked in,” Zeitlin says, still amazed. “Hearing someone else play it was really incredible.”
Soon after, offers to play the Beasts music started coming down the pike, and Zeitlin, a guitarist and songwriter since high school, saw an opportunity to get back onstage and realize a dream. “I started off as a musician but never got to live that life, to play music live. But playing live is one of my favorite things in the world to do. I’ve wanted to do this from my very first film. One of the things that frustrates me about film is that it’s not a live experience, so I love the idea of accompanying Beasts. Dan and I always wondered: how do we get that ephemeral, euphoric thing that happens at a concert, how do you hybridize those things?”
The young, omnivorous Wordless Music Orchestra (performing at the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur at right) is well-versed in taking on unusual projects, making a name for itself as the adventurous ensemble that, according to its website, “pairs artists from the sound worlds of so-called classical, electronic, and rock music.” For instance, they’ve performed Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s lauded orchestral work Popcorn Superhet Receiver and John Cale’s classic concept album Paris 1919. But Beasts of the Southern Wild particularly excites director Ronen Givony. Upon seeing the film, he says, “It was one of those rare experiences where you just know within the first five minutes that you’re about to encounter an extraordinary work of art. By the end of that first viewing, I was emotionally and physically spent, transported, and exhilarated. Later, I was raving about it to a friend, and it turned out that she happened to have an email address for one of the film’s producers. I wrote to him immediately, not even knowing what it was that I wanted to do, just that I had to do something. And somehow, six months later, here we are.”
MASS MoCA curator Rachel Chanoff, a champion of the film since its early days, helped put the show together. She’d seen the project in its infancy, as a story idea culled from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, at both the Writers Lab and then the Directors Lab at Sundance, where she also works. She’s been amazed at its trajectory. “In the early days,” she says, “I thought, ‘How are they going to turn this beautiful phantasmagoria into a film?’ To watch them do it has been astonishing. We want to honor all of that.”
In addition to the Wordless Music Orchestra, Louis Bichot, the fiddler/vocalist for Pillette, Louisiana’s Lost Bayou Ramblers, will be coming to MASS MoCA to contribute his keening voice and jubilant fiddling, both integral to the score. “There’s no way to replicate a Cajun fiddler,” Zeitlin says, laughing. “We recorded his parts in Louisiana, and he’ll be joining us onstage at MASS MoCA.
“It’s a massive operation,” Zeitlin says. “We couldn’t have pulled this off ourselves. MASS MoCA has given us a wonderful gift.”
Live Score to Beasts of the Southern Wild
Saturday, August 10, 8:30 p.m.
Courtyard C or Hunter Center
$15 advance / $19 day of