Notes on Text of Light (an ongoing film/improvised sound project)
Background: The Text of Light project started in spring 2001, when saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, planning a visit to New York from his base in Berlin, contacted both Lee Ranaldo and myself, separately, about playing with him in an improvised concert. At the same time, drummer William Hooker inquired about doing an improv trio with Lee and me; since I was handling booking at the experimental music venue Tonic at the time I suggested we combine everything into one group and play a show there. Lee then came up with the ideas of inviting artist/turntablist Christian Marclay to perform with us as well, and screening a film by Stan Brakhage during the performance. Neither Lee or I had ever performed with Brakhage's films before, although both of us had a long-standing interest in, and knowledge of, experimental film - Lee studied with Ken Jacobs and has had a collaborative project with filmmaker Leah Singer, Drift, since 1991. I immediately suggested the hour-plus 1974 film Text of Light, which consists solely of light reflections from an ashtray. I admire the ability to generate numerous sounds or images from a very simple setup, and Text of Light is a great example of this.
We did the concert in May 2001 and thereafter adopted the title for the group/project. We went on to perform with Dog Star Man and many of Brakhage's shorter films. We usually project one or more in sequence, on one screen, although at the Rotterdam Film Festival we did a double projection and at the Kill Your Timid Notion Festival in Scottland we showed four at a time, one on each wall. We've also worked with films by Harry Smith, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Leah Singer, and Andrew Lampert. At various times, Tim Barnes has substituted for Hooker on drums, DJ Olive and Marina Rosenfeld have played turntables instead of Christian*, and often Ulrich isn't present. Trumpeter Peter Evans, bassists Doug McCombs and Roger Miller, drummer Glenn Kotche, and electric harpist Zeena Parkins have also played in the group for select concerts. Except for a few short touring situations, the lineup changes at every concert, with the one constant of Lee and/or myself. There have also been several CD and LP releases of music recorded at the concerts.
There's a certain probability that any piece of music is going to fall in sync with any film. I remember going to a screening of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance in college, and for some reason, the print didn't have a soundtrack on it. The film was totally silent - and the audience was uncomfortable with that - so at some point we threw on a random classical tape that happened to be in the projection booth, and it was amazing how well it worked with what was happening on screen. Those random, fortuitous affinities between sound and image is something Text of Light is trying to operate on, by improvising, as opposed to doing a predetermined score. Text of Light does not make or perform soundtracks to the films of Stan Brakhage, or operate under the belief that his silent films are "lacking" a sound element. We use the film as a further element for improvisation, almost as a fifth (or sixth) performer.
Any of the Text of Light performers may or may not be viewing the film as it unspools, and may or may not be reacting to what's happening on screen - just as they may or may not be reacting to the sounds of any one of the other individual performers. The improv group AMM used to loop the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" and improvise with the loop running, but they would not necessarily be "accompanying" the song, or even reacting to it. Of course the aesthetic distance, both prima facie and in terms of intent, between AMM's dense walls of sound and the Beach Boys song is significantly greater than between Brakhage's hand-painted abstractions and Text of Light's soundscapes, which can be drony, ambient, or noisy. Still, Text of Light channels such prior free improvisational experiments into an intermedia context. Another significant precedent is John Cage & Merce Cunningham's dance collaborations, in which the dances and the music are created separately, not rehearsed together, and then performed in tandem. Their process established that you don't have to choreograph things exactly to the music - or vice versa - and the similarities within the parallel actions can be astounding.
While Brakhage intended for these films to be screened silently as films, framed in and of themselves in a movie theatre, in Text of Light presentations they are being juxtaposed with the music, in a kind of real-time performance, live action mixed-media collage. Especially in the double or multiple projection situations, they're part of an overall synaesthetic experience, rather than an end in themselves. Obviously, the films were not meant to be shown in this context. But Peter Paul Rubens didn't create his paintings to be used in a Robert Rauschenberg silkscreen either. I doubt that viewing Rauschenberg's Tracer or Persimmon would or should prevent anyone from seeing Rubens' Venus at Her Toilet on its own, and we encourage people to check out the Brakhage films in their original form. We contacted Brakhage about our activities, and while he was too sick at the time to respond directly, he communicated to us, through Phil Solomon, that as long as we didn't advertise the events as "a collaboration with Stan Brakhage" he recognized that the films were out there and that people would make use of them in various ways that went beyond their original presentation.
Recently I've encountered more and more works by other artists that have put new perspectives on the Text of Light experience for me. Seeing Douglas Gordon's Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake), an installation where he superimposes The Exorcist on top of a little known 40's religious drama, The Song of Bernadette at MoMA in the fall of 2006, I was skeptical at first - but went back in to take a closer look. The two films were creating unforeseen interactions and internal compositions, sometimes almost shadowing each other. It occurred to me that what Text of Light was doing was superimposing a free improvisation on top of a Brakhage film as much as juxtaposing the two, and the results were just as holistic as the Gordon piece.
Upon seeing some of Thomas Struth's photographs taken of people observing Velasquez paintings at the Prado, I realized there was a similarity there too. People going to look at paintings happen to wear certain colors in their clothing that will match colors used in the paintings (reds, for example). That's certainly not pre-meditated, or by design, but you can look at Struth's photos and see for yourself. Also, people will unintentionally arrange themselves in front of the paintings in ways that will mirror or complement the poses of the figures in the paintings themselves. So it is with Text of Light as well, where one member or another may make a movement that resembles a movement that is happening at the same moment in the film, usually without realizing it. Whatever correlation there is between the sounds we make, which we've developed ourselves without any prescribed notion about the context they're going to be used in, apart from a musical context, is coincidental; to do otherwise would be like wearing a pastel color because you knew you were going to see a Monet in a museum.
I first tried an experiment in synchronicity in 1995, when Run On recorded my song "Surprise" for our first album, Start Packing. I had the engineer, John McEntire, run a microphone out the window in another part of the studio to record whatever was going on outdoors during the 8-10 minutes it would take to play the song. Sure enough, there was a thunderstorm, and during the climactic moment in the song you can hear a thunderclap. I see the Text of Light format as a similar thing: it takes something that could, conceivably, be happening at the same time as our concert, in another part of town, or another city, or someone's home (i.e., the film screening) and brings it into the concert situation itself, to examine the correspondences. In a scene in Hal Ashby's first film, The Landlord (1970), Pearl Bailey points to Lee Grant's hand and says "That's your e-flat". On the soundtrack a piano is heard playing the note e-flat, but there's no piano in the room; a piano is being tuned in an auditorium elsewhere in the shots before and after. I think that Text of Light performances suggest this kind of conflation - it's as if the walls of the concert hall were removed and the music could be juxtaposed with anything happening anywhere in the world, but what we've chosen to show, as a director would, is a film by Brakhage.
With these boundaries eliminated (at least by implication), the next step would be (I would hope) that in Text of Light's performances notions of "music" and "film" would dissipate altogether, leaving the perfomers and audience members with an experience of motion and texture as rendered in sound, color and light. In the liner notes to our CD A Fabulous Lunch (FinalMuzik) I summed up Text of Light's aims this way:
Synchroncity, not synchonization.
Motion, not film.
Sound, not soundtrack.
Action, not concert.
* The records, like the films, are "canned" documents that have already been carefully edited and prepared. The turntablist deconstructs them in any number of ways - changing playback speed, effects processing, scratching, skipping, looping. So in any given Text of Light performance with a turntablist, there is one fixed pre-recorded element unfolding without interference or variation in real time (the film), multiple pre-recorded elements that are manipulated and re-designed on the spot by a performer (the records), and multiple live elements are creating their own sounds and structures on the spot (the instrumentalists). The records bridge the gap between the predetermination of the film and the spontaneous composition of the music.