Even if you've got some solid cred -- even if you're Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips -- some tasks can be a bit intimidating. Like being asked to write music for Andy Warhol's famous "screen tests."
"It's kind of a scary idea," Wareham says. "It's like colorizing great black-and-white movies."
Wareham and Phillips, famously of Luna and now performing together as Dean & Britta, were commissioned by The Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to create a soundtrack for 13 of the short films for this month's Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. The screen tests are stark pieces, most simply head shots of the subjects, filmed for about two-and-a-half minutes; using Warhol's preferred method of slow playback, they last about four minutes each. Warhol made about 500 of the shorts between 1964 and 1966; more than 200 survive in the museum's archives.
"We wanted to work with this collection because, first, they're exhaustive -- we have a lot to work with," says Ben Harrison, the Warhol's associate curator for performance, who came up with the idea with film curator Geralyn Huxley. "And second, four minutes sounds like pop-song length to me." Harrison was asked to be an associate curator for this year's Festival of Firsts, working with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and he jumped at the chance to incorporate the Dean & Britta performance.
Wareham and Phillips were given an array of screen tests to choose from; they narrowed the field to 13 for the performance, titled 13 Most Beautiful ... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, a reference to Warhol's 13 Most Beautiful Boys and 13 Most Beautiful Women, two series to which some of the screen tests belong.
Beyond choosing which people to represent in the project, in some instances, Wareham and Phillips had to choose between different films of the same person. "Lou Reed was a difficult choice to make," Phillips notes. "There are two films; he looks like a baby in one, and in the other he's got shades on and looks like a total badass. It was really hard to choose between them."
"For a while we had two screens set up and we'd watch both at once; they'd almost be looking at each other and it looked like a Warhol Brady Bunch," Wareham recalls with a laugh.
Wareham and Phillips took a holistic approach to composing for the films; while the visual aspects of each short was chief in their minds as they wrote, they thoroughly researched the individual subjects, ranging from Warhol intimate Paul America to Lou Reed and Dennis Hopper. When dealing with such intimate, personal pieces, one's bound to feel a certain responsibility to the individuals in them.
"A lot of people at the center of the Factory ended up dead," Wareham notes. "Some of them had no particular talent other than doing drugs and talking about crazy stuff. Sometimes it's interesting to focus on them instead of famous people."
"If you know that Freddie Herko jumped out a window not long after his piece was filmed, that might change the way you look at it," he says. Phillips adds, "It's very beautiful, but very dark."
Dean & Britta have contributed to soundtracks before, most notably for The Squid And the Whale, Noah Baumbach's 2005 Oscar nominee. Scoring the Warhol films was vastly different, though -- not least because they'll be playing the songs live.
"With a [longer] film it's dialogue, montage, you're trying to be less upfront" in the addition of music, Phillips says.
"These are of a length where they suggest a song," adds Wareham.
And so what Dean & Britta will provide are 13 songs, of four minutes each. Most are new compositions, with a few covers thrown in -- a Bob Dylan song and a lesser-known Velvet Underground tune for the Lou Reed film -- and at least one reworking of a Luna tune. While there are no immediate plans to make an album of just these songs, they say they're sure to re-use at least some of the songs in future releases. (And a DVD is in the works, tentatively set for a February release.)
The world premiere of 13 Most Beautiful occurs here on Oct. 24 and 25; the performance will hit the road next year, taking the films and band to such venues as the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus and Lincoln Center in New York City.
Dean & Britta perform "13 Most Beautiful ... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests." 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 24 and Sat., Oct. 25. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $25. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org