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Stewart Morgan

Collateral Damage: Experimental music on film

January 2015

Films on experimental music need to nuance the relationship between sound and image in order to communicate emotion and provide a true cinematic rendering of their subjects, says Stewart Morgan

In her Views From The Office column in the Rewind section of The Wire 371, Frances Morgan made some interesting comments about music and film – in particular, the fact that films on experimental musicians still generally adhere to a traditional documentary format. This is an accurate observation and raises some important considerations.

To what degree should a film about experimental music be, itself, formally experimental? And how far to take this? (Must a truly effective documentary on surrealism be surreal, for instance?)

Since film is a classical form (perhaps even a language), in order to be really free of its formal conventions, would it be necessary to leave the realm of what is accepted as cinema, and move perhaps into the different dialect of expanded cinema or even further into installations/artists’ films/art gallery territory (such as Helen Petts’s very effective video installations on Lol Coxhill)? And at what point might a film maker's stylistic interventions (I won't say gymnastics) overtake to the degree that they begin to obscure the subject of the film? Watch Shirley Clarke's 1984 film Ornette: Made In America (pictured above) and judge for yourself.

Unorthodox and outstanding music has long inspired film makers to push cinematic conventions, while remaining within the boundaries of cinematic form. Tellingly, many of the formally pioneering (music) films have been jazz documentaries – there is a traceable lineage through the history of cinema. It is no coincidence that these experimental films have covered some of the most experimental or marginal music (jazz and improvised music), and also the music then most associated with expression of the emotions and musical freedom.

From the earliest days of sound cinema there were animators like Norman McLaren and Oskar Fischinger editing their abstract colour films to fit with jazz 78s. In the late 1940s Harry Smith projected painted film strips on the walls of jazz clubs while Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and friends improvised along with them. As cinema began to become technically more accessible and portable from the early 60s we started to see jazz film makers such as John Jeremy and Dick Fontaine emerge in the UK. In 1971 Jeremy independently made Jazz Is Our Religion, which has been described as a 'total jazz film' and was a virtuoso feat of film editing that retained full documentary credentials. Its major distinction was in being made up almost entirely of refilmed jazz stills taken by Val Wilmer, highly manipulated in the editing, with poetry readings by Ted Joans and interviews with jazz musicians about their lives and music on the soundtrack. Unfortunately almost no one knows this landmark film that briefly played in cinemas and slipped out of sight.

More recently there have been fruitful attempts at cinematic experimentation in films on experimental musicians, such as Step Across The Border (Humbert/Penzl, Germany), which followed Fred Frith around the globe in 1990, and The Magus, the gripping and utterly cinematic story of Swedish jazzman Jan Johansson, masterfully handled by Danish director Anders Ostergaard in 1999. Luke Fowler's 2006 Cornelius Cardew/Scratch Orchestra film Pilgrimage From Scattered Points looked like a fresh take on documentary and played in art galleries.

As a relatively cumbersome and blunt medium film would appear not at all compatible with the immediate and intuitive art of music making. Making any film 'sing' like music – that is to say, making a film that communicates effectively to its audience through the emotions – requires an intimate understanding and integration of a host of film techniques, notably film editing – a slow and mysterious craft apparently far removed from the spontaneity and universal accessibility of music (yet at the same time reliant on timing, rhythm, surprise and other elements common to jazz and improvised music). In fact jazz and improvised music both share a lot with film making: just as the good musical improvisor does not merely step up and play 'anything', but constantly makes conscious choices from virtually boundless material, so good film making is not a question of shooting 'anything' or cutting 'anywhere'; you must choose to shoot something and to cut somewhere. These are crucial aesthetic decisions, they just take place more slowly in film making than in music.

It is regrettable how often the availability and accessibility of digital film making tools results in film makers taking liberties with the grammar of film in a self-indulgent way. Imagining that they are being radical by flash-cutting or jump-cutting, they flail speculatively, lacking sensitivity towards the mechanisms at work. It’s a bit like the free jazz pretenders who thought they could get away with blowing hard down a saxophone without learning their instrument inside out like the best free players in fact had: audiences must be vigilant and discriminating. In Claire Denis’s 1990 film about Jacques Rivette, the French director of Celine And Julie Go Boating paraphrases Kleist: "The only way back to Eden is via the long route, through knowledge."

I'd prefer that cinematic music documentaries aim not to represent what Frances Morgan rightly described as “that ineffable and elusive subject – music” too directly. In particular, attempts at literal representations of music in film – sustained ‘Mickey Mousing’, as it is also known – wear thin and become predictable very quickly. Since the effects of sound and image in the cinema are reciprocal, with each colouring our perception of the other, the inter-relationship becomes a thrillingly nuanced area for responsible experimentation and juxtaposition. Responsible that is to the film's subject, its raison d'etre.

Music films should provide an apposite cinematic context in which the emotions that allow us to find meaning and significance in music may be freely felt by the audience. The aim of communicating through the emotions by crafted deployment of audio-visual techniques should be the aim of all self-respecting film makers, documentary or otherwise. This I think will result in lasting and meaningful cinematic renderings of any subject, including music and musicians.

Stewart Morgan is a UK film maker. His 2013 documentary Eddie Prévost’s Blood is available as a DVD released by Matchless


Thanks for the mention Stuart and its good to see the Wire is interested in this subject. But Solo Soprano (my Lol Coxhill film) is one of my least abstract works as it was made more as a tribute to Lol, including archive footage from a documentary made by someone else in the 70's. As an artist film-maker, I have been exploring abstraction and improvisation in my work with musicians for years mainly during my 5 year collaboration with John Russell's Mopomoso concerts. This gave me the freedom to get in really close to the musicians during improvisations. I found I could explore - through shallow depth of field, focus and de-focus, extreme close-up images - of the light on the edge of a cymbol or a finger tip on a fretboard,the shadow on the floor, etc - the visual equivalents to the abstraction in the music - rhythm, texture, line, negative space, etc. Most successfully with percussions Akio Suzuki and Roger Turner, John Russell himself on guitar and voice artists Ute Wassermann and Phil Minton. Some of this work is online but nowadays I prefer to show it in art galleries and festivals, projected large with great sound. DVD's and online viewing are not the same. But its often hard to get musicians and music writers to go to galleries! And art curators in the UK - if they listen to music at all - seem to only like pop music. (When I studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths as a mature student in the 90's my tutor had never heard of Morton Feldman who was a massive influence on my paintings, but he advised me to listen to Brian Eno!). In mainland Europe and the US there is more of a crossover between the visual art world and the experimental music world. In 2013 I had a solo exhibition in Norway co-promoted/curated by NyMusikk and the Trondelag Centre for Contemporary Art. Such collaborations are rare in this country. It would be great to get more art world curators interested in experimental music and get more music promoters into art galleries and get some kind of dialogue going!

In March I am taking part in an exhibition "Drawing Towards Sound" at the Stephen Laurence Gallery in Greenwich, which I think may touch on this subject. It features music and visual art work by many people who cover this crossover area of abstraction and experimentalism including Alvin Curran and Anton Lukosevieze. It is curated by David Ryan who is a visual artist, musician, improviser and writer on both areas and their intersection.

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