Other Cinema: Re-Tracked Animation, Artists’ Television Access

A couple of weeks ago I attended an evening of silent films and live music at Artists’ Television Access called “Re-Tracked Animation.” The program was part of the regular Other Cinema series that occurs at ATA most Saturdays.

As we arrived, there were old film clips (from the 1940s or earlier) playing with various soundtracks. The initial film featured a keyboard player wearing a turban (to look stereotypically “exotic”) set against something that sounded like the Chipmunks. The next short featured a more abstract grainy cartoon with figures made from simple geometry against a more electronic noise-based soundtrack – this one was quite interesting in itself. The final video, a very old Porky Pig cartoon, was played straight.

It was then time for the main features to begin. Jeremy Rourke presented several of his animated video pieces with live accompaniment on guitar, voice and percussion – specifically, singing bowls. His visuals combined found material, often with a “turn-of-the-20th-century” feel to it, with more contemporary video backgrounds and illustrations. You can see one of the videos, eyes hearing stars, in this clip below:

This one in particular featured some moments I referred to as “Monty Python meets Central Park” in that it reminded me a bit of Terry Gilliam’s animations, but the highly processed background of modern-day urban park video and abstract graphical elements give it a unique feel. Musically, the texture was sparse and worked in concert with the video rather than vying for attention away from the imagery, so the overall experience was quite captivating.

For his final piece, Rourke came on stage wearing all white and carrying an all-white guitar. It was clear that he and his instrument were going to be part of the screen for the next video, and that is indeed what happened.

The final video featured more live footage than his earlier animations, and the music was purely guitar-based.

After an intermission, the program resumed with a screening of the Brothers’ Quay In Absentia with music by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Regular readers know that Stockhausen is one of my musical heroes, so I was quite interested to see and hear this piece. The film, although done in 2000, feels like it is much older. The grainy images paint dark and dystopian visuals of ruined machinery against the main scenes of a woman in an asylum and her repetitive existence, writing notes on paper, placing them in envelopes and into a grandfather clock. The music, which is from Stockhausen’s piece “Zwei Paare”, predates the creation of the film, but they nonetheless work together well to create the overall haunting and eerie landscape.

The final set featured members of the ensemble Thomas Carnacki with Greg Scharpen, Jim Kaiser, Jesse Burson, and Gregory Hagan performing live audio tracks to two films. The first was Jan Svankmajer’s The Fall of the House of Usher, based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. The Poe story was read live by Dean Santomieri along with the music. The visuals featured an empty and abandoned looking manner home, perhaps how the House of Usher would look after the fall. It was forlorn and sad, but rich with texture. And Santomieri’s voice is always captivating in live readings.

The final piece of the evening featured the ensemble performing live to Ladislas Starewicz’ strange but delightful stop-animation film The Mascot. The film, which was created in 1933, features a cast of puppet dogs, cats, dolls, skeletons and any number of other creatures.

It is amazing to think what Starewicz was able to do in the 1920s and 1930s with his creations, without the aid of 3D computer animation or even more modern model-making done at special-effects houses. Below is a still from the original film:

The film is available on the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) in its entirety, so I will be tempted to try my own hand at an audio accompaniment for it one of these days…

Art Practical Year 3 Launch, with Music and Super-8 film

Today we look back at the launch party for Year 3 of Art Practical, an online magazine that documents and discusses Bay Area visual arts through reviews and analysis. The event took place at Fivepoints Arthouse. Upon entry, we were offered the opportunity to purchase a logo shot glass (which I did). During the evening, it was filled a few “Shotgun Shots” (Shutgun! being the title of their first issue for the year).

However, the highlight of the evening was in basement of Fivepoints, where artists/musicians Joshua Churchill and John Davis presented live experimental music set against a hand-solarized Super 8 film. It’s pretty rare these days to see actual Super 8 films, but it definitely added something to the piece. They images were purposefully grainy, and even more distorted as a result of the solarization and other treatments of the film – it reminded me of some of the effects on the Hipstamatic (see examples here and here), but on a much larger scale and with a richer depth of intensity and contrast.

Joshua Churchill sat in front of the screen and performed the live with electric guitar and an array of electronic effects. There were echoes, distortions, some elements that sounded like looping, and synthetic sounds from the combination of effects. There was a noisiness and graininess to the music that seemed to reflect the quality of the film. The overall effect was quite beautiful and evocative, and mesmerizing.

Through small slots in the ceiling, light poured in from the main floor gallery, creating a series of light streaks that worked both in concert and contrast with the images from the film and heightened the overall presentation. Even though the space was quite crowded, I found myself completely immersed in the visuals and sounds of the piece.

The piece would have been a great event to see on its own even without the party, but I am happy it was there otherwise I might have missed it. All in all, a great evening. And now Art Practical is already on its third issue of Year 3.

Sylvano Bussotti and sfSoundGroup at SFMOMA

At the beginning of month, I attended a retrospective concert of music by the composer Sylvano Bussotti, performed by members of sfSoundGroup at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bussotti is an Italian avant-garde composer whose body of work transcends into visual media and film as well. His music itself is very visual, and his graphical scores are works of art that combine standard music notation with graphical symbols, spatial positioning on the page and text instructions that inform the musicians on how to interpret and perform the piece. They are also known for being difficult to play, but sfSoundGroup is up to the challenge.

The performance took place in the museum’s expansive atrium, which was bathed in red light, with the musicians in the center and the audience orbiting around them. The space was bounded by two pianos, mysteriously set apart.

In the few minutes before the concert began, I was able to check out a couple of the scores up close.

[Score for “Phrase a trois” by Sylvano Bussotti.]

This score is for the piece Phrase a trois for string trio (violin, viola and cello). I also was able to view the score for Geographie Francaise alongside the percussion setup:

[Score for “Geographie Francaise”, by Sylvano Bussotti, with percussion instruments. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Unlike many graphical scores, which often allow for wide interpretation of visual elements and improvisation, these seemed more designed to describe precise instructions to the performer.

Bussotti himself performed in two of the pieces. For Geographie Francaise, he played piano and incanted stark vocal lines in French, alongside featured soloist Laura Bohn and percussionist Kjell Nordeson. I quite liked this piece for its starkness, conceptual simplicity (i.e., centering around the title itself) and the disparate texture of the instrumentation: voice, piano and percussion. One does not really hear traditional rhythms or melodies, even of the early-twentieth century “atonal” sense, but rather directly on the various sound, musical and narrative concepts, more like an abstract theater piece.

[Laura Bohn and Kjell Nordeson performing “Geographie Francaise” by Sylvano Bussotti. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Bussotti also performed in In Memoriam Cathy Berberian. Here, his voice was more central to the piece, and he spoke in Italian in more expressive tones. This is not surprising, given the subject of the piece was Cathy Berberian, his longtime “friend and muse”.

[Sylvano Bussotti performance with members of sfSoundGroup. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

Different personel from sfSoundGroup were featured in different pieces, ranging from the full nine-member cohort in Autotono to a solo performance by Matt Ingalls on clarinet in one of Bussotti’s more recent pieces, Variazione Berio composed in honor of Luciano Berio who died in 2007. In the performance, Ingalls takes advantage of the portability of his instrument to move freely about the space. In doing so, he was able to employ spatial effects on the timbre of the clarinet within the music, which was filled with lots of empty space punctuated with occasional loud tones.

[Matt Ingalls performs “Variazione Berio” by Sylvano Bussotti. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

The sparseness of the music and performer’s motion did in fact remind me a bit of Berio’s Sequenzas, and also made me think of the parallels between the theatricality of Berio’s music as compared to Bussotti’s. They were contemporaries in Italian avant-garde music – and as another link, Cathy Berberian was Berio’s wife in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The concert concluded with a performance of Tableaux vivants avant La Passion selon Sade (1964) for two prepared pianos. This was probably my favorite of the evening (along with Geographie Francaise). The pianos that were separated up to now were joined together in the center of the space. The two pianists (Christopher Jones and Ann Yi) playing cooperatively on a single piano, operating both the keyboard and elements within the instrument’s body. Their bodies often crossed paths and intertwined as they attempted to perform their respective parts – the motion seemed both chaotic and intimate at the same time. As the piece progressed, they spread out to both pianos – and in the final movement, they close their scores and attempt to play from memory. Throughout, the music was filled with intense, and sometimes violent energy especially when playing the interior of the piano. I contrast this to they very calm and contemplative nature of John Cage’s better known prepared-piano pieces. It fun to watch, and provided for a dramatic finish to the concert.

The concert was preceded by a screening of Bussotti’s 1967 silent Rara that included live piano accompaniment by Bussotti himself. The music, which was based on live interpretation of a graphical score in which he moved about at will, did not strictly follow the events and actions on the screen, but rather provided more of a backdrop and a counterpoint to images that would have otherwise been rather jarring to watch to watch in silence. [However, the music as performed did have a narrative structure of it’s own, moving between very abstract discrete tones and more idiomatic and even tonal sections.] The film itself consisted mostly of “film portraits” of figures from the Italian avant-garde – mostly images of men (though Cathy Berberian is also featured) in a variety of sexual and emotionally uncomfortable poses, including countless shots of tear-streaked male faces. As such, the film did not really hold my attention, although I did like the abstract imagery and close-ups of the musical score, as well as the play on the letters of the title R-A-R-A itself, that were used alongside the more homoerotic portraits. And certainly it was was interesting to see the composer and filmmaker respond musically to his own work after so many years.

Additional credit goes to Luciano Chessa, who organized the evening’s events. We had previously encountered him last year when he organized the event Metal Machine Manifesto, Music for 16 Intonarumori.

Outsound Music Summit: Blurred Lines

Last night was the first full concert of the Outsound Music Summit. “Blurred Lines” focused on the combination of music and visual media, i.e. film and video.  The pieces were more of a collaboration between film and music rather than one serving the other per se, although in each case the music making and film/video making were done independently .

The first half of the concert featured films by Martha Colburn with live piano improvisation by “local Bay Area pianist impresario” Thollem McDonas. Colburn’s films employ stop animation with original artwork and found images, as well as found footage. The overall look reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s animations (e.g., from Monty Python), though the material was generally much darker. Several of the films dealt with death and violence, particularly in U.S. history and current events. Destiny Manifesto in particular juxtaposed images of western settlers in conflict with Native Americans alongside contemporary looking soldiers and scenes that could have been from the Middle East or Central Asia. Images of people being killed and dismembered abound in these films. Other films, such as Meet Me in Witchita with its images inspired by the Wizard of Oz, but here again things turned dark with Osama Bin Laden’s head superimposed on the Wicked Witch and then being killed and collapsing in a mess of bloody body parts. There were lighter images in some of the films, such as figures that seemed influenced by South Asian shadow puppets and even abstract graphic squares reminiscent of a disco dance floor.

[click image to enlarge]

McDonas’ piano veered between more classical or film-score inspired music and more percussive prepared piano. The music did not follow each film structurally per se (i.e., in the manner of a film score), but did evolve over time and present a particular character in each film. Initially, it started off lighter with fast runs and anxious chords, later on being more percussive and employing prepared piano or plucked strings. As the set progressed, the piano music became dense and darker, with large clusters of fast patterns and arpeggios in lower registers, every so often punctuated by more percussive and plucked elements. Overall the music had an aggressive feel which both showed of McDonas’ piano skills and fit with the violent nature of the films.

The second half of the program featured the 2009 60×60 international compilation. This is a set of 60 one-minute compositions that were selected and ordered into a continuous hour-long performance. For this program, each piece was set to a one-minute video) by Patrick Liddel. I had actually heard the 2009 60×60 compilation before (without the videos) at the Long Night’s Moon Concert last December, and recognized several of the pieces from that performance. Many of the videos were abstract graphics, such as the pixelated images that accompanied the opening pieces by Halsey Burgund and Matthew Dotson, or the abstract kaleidoscopic images set to Polly Moller’s “Abdominal Cyclist Ultra”. Others had more representational images. #16 by Jane Wang featured toy piano and was set to footage of a toy piano being played.

[click image to enlarge]

Some were less directly representational and more evocative of the music, such as the scenes from 1950s television commercials set to Gregory Yasinitsky’s jazz piece. Although it was far more abstract, I would put the constantly moving gray rectangles against Patrica Walsh’s electronica dance music in the same category.

Among my favorite of the combined video+music pieces were Brian Lindgren’s music set to a slowly moving film of a woman in a black dress in front of a brick wall; and Enrico Francioni’s sounds featuring strong resonance and feedback that were set to a beautiful film of forward motion in a dark industrial hallway. Also of note were Jay Batzner’s music (which reminded me of Xenakis) set to geometric views of industrial girders, perhaps power lines; and the intricate grid (along with spiders) set to Anton Killin’s metallic sounds.

Overall, with 60 sets of constantly changing visuals and music, and my attempt to take at least few notes on each, the experience became one of sensory overload. Looking back on the notes, it is interesting in looking at my previous review of the 2009 60×60 mix how different pieces stood out more in the mix without the visuals while others seemed more prominent in the music+visuals mix.

Storm Moon Concert

A little over a week ago, I attend the lastest in the Full Moon Concert series, the Storm Moon, at the Luggage Store Gallery. The Storm Moon concert was all about electric guitars, and featured two very different guitarists with their own interpretations of “gathering and releasing the storm.”

The first set featured guitarist Joshua Churchill in collaboration with filmmaker Paul Clipson. The music began with recorded samples, with changes in pitch and speed. The music in these samples formed a drone of minor chords, against which Churchill sprinkled metallic tones from the edge of the guitar. The overall effect was quite ethereal. With this sound as a backdrop, Clipson’s film began. The film was actually a Super 8mm film (i.e., not a video), which brings with it a certain image quality and style of editing that was does not often see in contemporary live music+visual performances. It started with simple geometric patters of light and shapes, notably rectangles and parallelograms that suggested office windows or overhead lighting. Against these emerging patterns, the music moved to guitar loops and longer tones set against the earlier metallic sounds. This gradually gave way to full chords and drones. Both the movie and the music become more intense, but the building blocks of guitar tones and shapes and light remained.

At one point, the film became entirely patterns of red and green, as the music continued to grow in intensity and fullness. There were sounds reminiscent of wave motion and some trills, but there remained overall a droning quality and a minor tonality. This gave way to beating patterns and a “loud wall of sound.”  As the film progressed, I began to notice more familiar objects and patterns, such as looking through a chain-link fence. As distinct images of urban lights and street scenes emerged, the music became louder, faster and nosier. I was then able to recognize familiar images from New York, the Chrysler Building and some of the bridges. At this point the music came to a loud and noisy climax after which the softer harmonies re-emerged and both the music and movie gradually came to a close.

This interplay of sound, light and image was followed by a solo performance by Peter Kolovos. We had heard his very dextrous and energetic style of performance during his set at last year’s Outsound Music Summit; he brought the same energy and technique to channel the peak of the storm moon’s energies on this particular evening. He began with short blips, scrapes and squeaks. The overall effect was staccato and percussive – quite the opposite of the previous set – and it was quite loud. Even as the notes grew longer, they remained percussive. Kolovos not only moved fast on the guitar itself, but also with his effects, quickly switching between effects such as heavy delays and distortions even within single notes. Gradually, the texture began to include sounds with longer duration, such as feedback and overdriven delay patterns. There were even some harmonic chords in there, though I quite liked his inharmonic sounds on the guitar, with or without effects. As the tones grew longer, the music felt even louder, feeling it more in my entire body than as sound. Then all of sudden, it became software, with percussion and a tone that reminded me more of analog synthesizers. Gradually things became louder again – in one section I heard what seemed like a standard rock chord progression – and then drew to a quick and decisive close.

Berkeley, Pacific Film Archive, Le Bonheur

I actually don’t get back to the Berkeley campus or its surroundings very often, and when I do, it’s usually on the north side where my graduate-school life centered: the computer-science or computer-music centers, the winding roads of the hills, or the “gourmet ghetto.” It’s pretty rare that I find myself on Telegraph Avenue or along the south side of campus, as I did this time. It seemed like very little has changed, many of the shops, restaurants and institutions along the street are still there, many of the buildings look the same. But it did seem a bit cleaner.

While in Berkeley, I saw a screening of Agnès Varda’s film Le Bonheur at the Pacific Film Archive.

It basically a film about a young family living a Paris suburb and leading a life that seems so overly perfect that something bad clearly is going to happen. In this case, it is the husband and father François beginning an affair with another woman. As the affair progresses, the film, whose its rich colors and classical soundtrack do seem to resonate “happiness”, very gradually begins to feel a bit unsettling, and eventually a bit creepy.

Even as it is a film about a particular set of circumstances and events that happen to a family, it is also very much a film about colors. Each scene seems to focus on a specific color. The initial scene of the family on a picnic in the countryside is all yellow, and the family’s (somewhat small and cramped) apartment is blue. In each of these scenes, everything matches the primary color, from the flowers to the background light to the clothing worn by the family. This is particularly apparent with yellow and blue dresses of Therese, the wife and mother (and coincidentally, a dressmaker). She reprises these colors throughout the film, they seem to represent the “happy” aspect of the family. By contrast The scenes with mistress Émilie, particularly those in her apartment, are stark white, with only sparse adornment such as movie posters on the wall. The colors also change with the seasons over the course of the film, from yellow in spring to bright green in summer, to muted orange and brown in the autumn.

Before the film, I did take a quick trip through the Berkeley Art Museum. Although they did have interesting exhibitions – Mario García Torres’ multimedia installation focusing on ruined buildings on a Greek Island that once housed modernist performances and installations, and an eclectic assortment from the permanent collection – it was in some ways overshadowed by the building itself, with its large space and oddly angled concrete balconies.

Perhaps the thing that makes visiting Berkeley most different now is that I am living in San Francisco, so the trip is now going from a large city to a medium-sized college town and then back at night. It’s not good or bad per se, it’s just different, and coming home to the city at the end of the day (instead of the trip in the middle) has become quite familiar, and comforting.

Code 46 / "With All Her Heart"

Our friend jellypizza posted this wonderful video of Taboo from 1997, peeking out from inside a drawer.

I haven't embedded the video, but I do encourage readers to go see it (you can click on the photo or the “related link” below). In a way, it is also a posthumous “CatSynth Video” for Taboo, featuring the very ambiet/electronic/synthetic track “Mother” from the soundtrack of the award-winning film Code 46. (The soundtrack is also available at iTunes .) I really thought it added something to the video, giving what was already a very sweet moment a unique quality. Of course, one would expect music from a soundtrack to work well with video, but it's still interesting how well it worked given the stark contrast to the actual film.

I had not heard of Code 46 before JellyPizza's recommendation, but did get a chance to see it last week. The ambient music is a backdrop to a tale in the near future where technology is more advanced but still very recognizeable. In the film, the world seems to be separated into a very high-tech “inside” world that includes major developed cities (e.g., in Asia, Europe, North America, etc.) and “outside.” People carry genetic IDs and bio-tech permits to travel. Additionally, the goverment or governments of the “inside” have genetically driven limits on who can and cannot have children together. This is all meant to sound very sinister, I'm sure, but I think the folks in this near-future world might have a point on the reproduction/population issue. And the world painted by the visuals and the music seems very inviting, both futuristic and very familiar at the same time. There is also an interesting take on fusion among “inside” languages (e.g., English, Chinese, Spanish).

Check out the soundtrack or the movie if you have a chance, and then re-watch Taboo's video.

New features for CatSynth

We've been busy working on new features for CatSynth, making it not just a blog but a full featured site. And two of those new features are being rolled out this week:

CatSynth has a rather eclectic readership, cat bloggers, musicians, photographers, and more. There is already a community forming through regular readers and their comments, and the next step is to bring this community to the new CatSynth Forum. We have space to discuss our core topics of “cats, synthesizers, music, art, opinion” and other frequent themes, such as highway and travel. We encourage all our readers and commenters to join.

We are also opening up the new CatSynth Store, which features not only our CD and downloadable music, but also the music, film, books featured on CatSynth, and we'll soon have a “gear” site from CafePress.

There will be more features and integration coming to CatSynth and my other sites. Please let us know what you think, either leave a comment here or on the forums!

Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), Part 1

Two weeks ago, on July 30, we lost not one but two of our great modern filmmakers. I had just finished watching L'Eclisse by Michelangelo Antioni a day or so earlier, and was preparing to write about it when I read the news about Ingmar Bergman. I immediately put my Antonioni article aside to remember Bergman through one of my favorite films “Persona.” And upon publishing it, I learn that Antonioni, too, passed away on the same day. Of course, life happens, and it is only two weeks later that I am finally getting around to completing the first of two articles remembering the work of Antonioni through his early 1960s “trilogy” of masterpieces: L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse.

Perhaps an interesting place to start is with this reflection on Antonioni by Ryan Walker Knight at The House Next Door:

For a long time I thought I didn?t get Antonioni. I rejected what I saw?a cool, detached intellectualism?as stuffy pretentiousness. I knew something was happening in L?avventura but I couldn?t articulate my anxious distaste. Also, I was bored. So I let it sit, somewhere behind something else in the recesses I don?t dip into every day and went on enjoying Godard…

Indeed it was shortly after seeing a few of Godard's early 1960's films that I saw L'Avventura for the first time – a phenomenon may be fairly common in the age of Netflix, as suggested by the blog 64 and Broadway, Barcelona. I recall watching Monica Vitti's performance as Claudia and then writing, “I have collected so many examples of mid-century European womanhood, what am I going to do with them?”

Of course, the appeal of L'Avventura was not just Monica Vitti's angst-ridden beauty, but it “cool, detached intellectualism”, mixture of confusion and boredom, the total “WTF” nature of the storyline, and all in the context of Antonioni's incredibly crisp, clean and geometric imagery.

The interesting thing about the settings in L'Avventura is that they are in contrast to the modern characters, the ancient volcanic islands in the first part of the film, the old “Roman” estates/mansions and the crumbly villages and town squares of Sicily. In the later films, the settings would be more modern as well. The stark contrast of old and new worked in L'Avventura, but so did the modern urban/industrial settings of La Notte and L'Eclisse. This paper by Yuri Sengalli (University of Toronti) compares and contrasts the settings in Antonioni's “tetrology” of films (Red Desert is sometimes considered the “fourth” in the series):

The four films reveal Antonioni's mastery and firm control over every detail of the visual arrangement of his images: the representation of and the relation between 'inside and outside', which is to say between a protagonist's intimate state and the dehumanized setting, is a matter of striking prominence with this director. In fact, the interiorization of the contemporary landscape and, likewise, the exteriorization of a character's inner life is the key issue of the works themselves…Significantly, the camera movements point to a deceivingly quasi-documentary recording and understanding of the characters and their precarious ties to their 'habitat'; more precisely they are used to indicate the problematic psychic states of the individual in the contemporary environment. Ultimately, a sort of subjective, psychological realism seems to surface.

I think one of the reasons films like L'Avventura (and Persona in the case of Bergman) appeal to me so readily instead of having to “grow on me” as many others have commented, is that I really feel I am a modernist in the sense that people used the term in the 1960s. I absolutely love the architecture, art and ideals of this period, the complete detachment and coolness of it all. And the settings and characters of these films fully integrate into that world.

In contrast to the more abstract and wonderfully perplexing character of L'Avventura, La Notte seemed very down-to-earth, with an easy-to-understand story. We spend 24 hours will a couple who seem to be on the verge of falling apart yet not quite managing to do so.

I have to say, I am happy that the Clintons did not choose to remake the finale from La Notte, as suggested by Glenn Kenny and discussed on this site back in June. In general, I did not get quite the same sense from this film as I did from L'Avventura It was more of the classic anti-love story, but one that was very well done, again with that clean, modern style in both its people and settings. And I do have to acknowledge the seemingly unrelated opening credits as brilliant: a rising elevator in a construction site (or that's what it appeared like to me, at least) with a very experimental piece by Giorgio Gaslini. La Notte is probably the most “musical” of the films in the trilogy (or tetrology), with Gaslini's score. But even here, the music is sparing. There are lots of silent moments, and this is something I appreciate as a musician with a deep interest in silence and soundscapes without deliberate music.

In part 2, which I hope to present in the near future (i.e., sooner than another two weeks), we will move on to L'Eclisse and perhaps beyond…