Meet the Man Behind Some of Your Favorite Film Scores

David Torn plays Friday at the Walnut Room.
David Torn plays Friday at the Walnut Room.
Wes Orshoski/ECM Records

Guitarist David Torn has scored a number of films, including Traffic, The Order and Lars and the Real Girl, and has played on dozens of film scores, so it’s not surprising that much of the material on only sky, his brand-new solo album on ECM, has a cinematic quality.

Torn recorded some of the album’s atmospheric and textural improvisations in his home studio and recorded others at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. He says that the opening track of the album, “At Least There Was Nothing,” reminded him of some of the music he did for Traffic. “I had this feeling in the room,” he says. “I could say it was a big feeling — like sort of nostalgic, but beyond nostalgic. Sort of resigned, but not hopeless. [It’s] this big feeling, and I keep hearing it as the music as I start to manipulate what I had done. I just stayed with the feeling very consistently all the way through.

“There was just this mood, and I just didn’t want to push anything,” he continues. “I didn’t want to aggressively do anything. I just wanted something that sounded good to me to kind of sit there and have little movements in it. Since I’m not part of an academic school of music in any way, I allow myself to just let the music lead me instead of me leading it.”

Torn says that on his current tour, in support of only sky, he isn’t necessarily trying to re-create the record, since the entire thing was improvised, but he’s using the same approaches that he used on the disc, and almost all of the same instruments. “The main thing I’m trying to re-create, I have to say, is the moods...the way I got into the moods, and the atmospheres that I used for the recording of the record,” he says. “And there were really two very different ways to approach those improvs — one totally open way and one a little less open, with one or two restrictions. That’s what I’m doing live, so that is really challenging.

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“The idea was to play the way I play when I play alone, when nobody’s around — what I do, how I move around things, how I explore texture and atmosphere for myself or for, like, studio things that I’m doing, where there is that openness to try to create something different. It’s interesting to call trying to be natural a challenge, but it is actually a challenge.”

Playing solo versus performing with other musicians presents its own set of hurdles. When playing with others, Torn explains, one musician could drop out for a few minutes, wait for an idea and then re-enter the music when he’s feeling it. But when he’s by himself, it’s up to him to carve out that space.

“I’m creating the space and also coloring the space in as many ways as I can, because I tend to think sort of orchestrationally as well as compositionally,” he says. “Even in improvising, these things come forward. It is in some ways easier solo and in other ways much harder. I have to create accidents for myself to respond to often.”

One of the pathways to creating accidents that he’s developed is recording something that he can’t hear while he’s playing; he’s been doing this for close to four decades, and he used the technique on only sky.

“That’s the process I’m bringing to all these gigs,” Torn says. “I would say that being in a crowd makes you feel as if you should find more focus, and maybe — I think that the feeling you get when you’re doing this is that.

“I’m not looking to fulfill the ideas or any stereotype that even I might have about free improvisation — I’m not trying to fulfill that,” he concludes. “I’m trying to say something with these improvs; it’s a really interesting challenge. And, yes, this is the process of making the record. And this is the process that I want people to share in.”

David Torn, with Paul Riola’s Dragonetti Ensemble, 8 p.m. Friday, May 22, Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut Street, 303­295­1868, $15­$20.


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