Sue Harshe remembers that less is more

The Scrawl bassist created a new live score for the 1919 silent comedy ‘A Temperamental Wife,’ which she’ll perform in tandem with a film screening at the Wexner Center on Thursday, Feb. 23.
Sue Harshe
Sue HarsheCourtesy CCAD

Playing in Scrawl, Sue Harshe has always embraced a less-is-more philosophy. But when the musician started crafting her first solo live movie scores nearly 20 years ago, she needed to step back and remind herself of that ethos.

“When you’re on your own, that initial impulse is to play like crazy to fill up that space,” said Harshe, who completed her earliest scores at the invitation of Tim Lanza, who supervised the Rohauer Collection and once drafted local musicians to produce live scores for films from its archives. “Everything you’ve done in years past, that flies out the window when you’re on your own. So, you kind of have to stop and remember what you’ve done before.”

In the years since, the musician has learned to adapt the minimalism she described as an essential part of Scrawl’s DNA into her live film scores, the most recent of which, A Temperamental Wife, Harshe will premiere at the Wexner Center on Thursday, Feb. 23. (The 1919 silent comedy screens as part of the Wex’s “Cinema Revival,” which takes place Thursday through Monday, Feb. 23 through 27.)

“I still play throughout the whole thing … but now I’ve pared back, where I think it’s slower, and there’s more layering,” said Harshe, who previously scored the 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed for the She Burns Bright festival. “I know that there’s an audience that’s there to see the film, and it took me a long time to realize that you’re complementing the film, and you’re supposed to be somewhat behind the scenes.”

At the same time, Harshe said she still enjoys challenging this approach – “Sometimes it can be fun to hear a techno dance music over a part [of the film],” she said – striking a balance between driving the action and teasing out more subtle emotional shades that can draw unexpected new dimensions from the films, many of which have been in existence for decades. 

When crafting a film score, Harshe will begin by screening the film at least once before beginning work. She then breaks the picture into sections, or movements, and begins improvising, playing piano and following wherever her muse leads. “And by improv, I mean I’m improvising in my music room, where if it doesn’t work out, it’s like, okay, and then I’m starting over and over and over again,” Harshe said. “But I do take that initial musical idea and run with it.”

Indeed, much of the work that follows this initial burst of recording, which includes layering on electronic soundscapes that haunt the background of the composition, tends to be centered on preserving that initial creative spark. “I want it to sound live, to sound immediate,” said Harshe, who records the bulk of the score in advance and then plays keyboard atop it in the live setting, filling out the “missing part,” as she described it. “You want to latch onto that [first idea] … where the gut reaction to the film, or that first impulse, is hopefully still in the music.”

When Lanza first approached Harshe to craft live film scores, the idea terrified her almost to the point of physical illness, but she said yes anyways, an attitude that she said has generally served her well as an artist. “Even when I don’t want to do it, if it’s a musical project, I’ll say yes, just to see what comes of it,” said Harshe, who will also perform alongside her Scrawl bandmates this week. (The trio headlines a show at Ace of Cups on Friday, Feb. 24, as part of Lost Weekend’s 20th anniversary celebration.)

In terms of the film scores, the payoffs to that initial “yes” have been manifold. Along with the sense of creative satisfaction that comes from completing a project, Harshe said she has also enjoyed spending more time reconnecting with the piano – her first and still dearest instrument. (The musician played piano in her first band, formed in high school, which she described as “a totally stupid” punk rock/klezmer mashup.) 

Perhaps most importantly, though, Harshe said the experience has given her greater confidence, and allowed her to appreciate that musicians are able to have facets, which has helped to fend off any larger creative stasis. 

“I’ve seen musicians who score these films, and they play like they’re in their band, and that’s fine,” Harshe said. “But I’ve learned that’s not what I want, and that it’s okay to have different sounds, different facets, than what you do with other people, which seems rather simplistic and rather obvious, but it’s not."

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