Surrounded by a handful of synthesizers and keyboards, musician Tara Busch sits on stage at the 2013 Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville, performing a carefully timed sonic backdrop full of electronic waves and eerie, choral crooning. The sounds sync perfectly with the movie rolling on a screen behind her. The sci-fi/horror flick The Silence is the end result of the music/film-making collaboration between Busch and her husband, Maf Lewis, as I Speak Machine.
Performing music live during the screening of a film is nothing new, but Busch didn't simply compose the music after Lewis had finished his film, or even the script. The married couple began work on The Silence when it was only an idea and started constructing it together every step of the way from there. I Speak Machine will bring The Silence, a story about a young scientist who is driven close to madness by the noise of everyday life, to the Neighborhood Theatre on Dec. 18 along with two of their other horror/sci-fi short film presentations — Gagglebox and Someone in the House Next Door. The Bob Moog Foundation will have an education display in the lobby, as well.
"It's really satisfying to be able to play the score live," Busch says by phone from their L.A. home. "It's different from just playing songs live because you're part of the story. I think it really makes for a more interesting experience for the audience — they can divide their attention between me and the film."
Lewis adds, "They are the same piece of art. It's not like it's a score to the film or images to music. It's as intrinsic as a piece of canvas and paint would be. Afterthoughts on films are horrendous — when you score a film to find something that fits. Music and the film should be created together because people see them together."
For I Speak Machine, the process starts simply. Busch and Lewis look at core scenes of a story synopsis. The two will exchange ideas about the music before Tara can start work on it. Lewis will then work on the script before they come back together to go over it and start the next section. Sometimes they agree in an instant; other times they argue it out until they find the best combination.
"I can get a sense of the music and write the scene a bit more," Lewis says. "When it's done, the actors will have the score in their head when they're making a scene. They'll know the tempo and feel of the music as they're filming. They have a script and as much to work off of as possible."
The finished product is a film and score that were truly created together and fit each other just as the director and composer wanted. It's been a learning process for Busch, who went to high school and spent her 20s fronting a few popular Charlotte-area bands, including Dahli Llama and Sheva. Her brother, Todd, still lives in the North Carolina area and was also a fixture of the Charlotte music scene into the late 2000s, most recently with his 2009 project Buschovski.
"Since I was there in the late '90s, people are a lot more supportive and enthusiastic about the music scene there," she says. "I still have lots of dear friends there and we go straight to 300 East when I get to town. I call it my high school hometown."
Busch has always considered herself a singer and vocalist and says the music she creates with I Speak Machine is a natural progression from those early days. She uses a lot of vocals in her compositions and allows herself even more freeing moments while the credits role after a film. The couple admits the movie and score could be presented in a traditional sense, but they prefer the live dynamic the music offers, working in spaces for the audience to watch Tara instead of what's happening on screen.
"Having been in bands for so long, I still get the gratification of being on stage and playing," she says. "I still love to stand up, play music and sing. Now, it's kind of progressed into having a visual and collaborative element. Maf and I have worked on projects for the last 15 years, so this has all been very organic."
Lewis was originally a product designer who slowly gained an interest in creating album covers and videos. Needing music to do that, he started a successful record label, Plastic Raygun, in the U.K. in the '90s, which led him down the path he's on now.
"I always thought it was weird that bands would make an album, but not have an idea for the album cover," he says with a laugh. "There are plenty of people these days who redo the scores to old silent movies. This is really about the process and something that nobody has done in this way before. It would be great for more directors and composers to collaborate like this."
Busch says it took a while to wrap her head around the collaborative process, but enjoys the challenges. Though there is little room for improvisation, a film has a far broader reach than a simple music video. The couple only worries about how their movies will be received when they're completed.
The Silence made its debut at the Mountain Oasis performance. Lewis wasn't too sure how people would react.
"There's a little bit of a shock at one point in the film and someone in the audience let out a really big scream," Lewis says. "Thank God it worked!"