Close Up

26 January 2010: Histories of the Avant-Garde Part III


Close-Up and The Dog Movement present one of Brakhage's most important sound films for the first time in London alongside Guy Sherwin's optical sound film Musical Stairs. Parts 1 and 2 of Histories of the Avant-Garde looked at the resolutely, intensely silent Brakhage film Riddle Of Lumen and Guy Sherwin's Short Film Series. Part 3 enters the world of sound with these two filmmakers and also looks forward to Part 4 in February, which will be examining music's manifold relationship to film with five American masters.

Passage Through: a Ritual
Stan Brakhage
1990 | 50 min | Colour | 16mm

Brakhage's relationship to sound was complex. It took an almost indirect collaboration with the composer Phillip Corner to fulfil Brakhage's desire for a way of giving equal importance to music and image whilst keeping them parallel, distinct experiences. Long passages of black with Corner's music are cut with silent flashes of colour photography culled from Brakhage's "rejected" footage. Meditative and demanding but ultimately one of Brakhage's most rewarding films.

"In his development of myriad radical cinematic languages over his long filmmaking career, Stan Brakhage frequently promoted a profound aesthetics which often positioned intense silences as ground for his complex and subtle visual compositions. In his interest in non-verbal expression, he was greatly inspired by music and his rare forays into sound filmmaking stand as some of the most unique sound/image statements in the history of cinema." – Steve Polta

"When I received the tape of Phillip Corner's Through The Mysterious Barricade, Lumen I (After F. Couperin) he included a note that thanked me for my film The Riddle Of Lumen he'd just seen and which had in some way inspired this music. I, in turn, was so moved by the tape he sent I immediately asked his permission to 'set it to film'. It required the most exacting editing process ever, and in the course of that work it occurred to me that I'd originally made The Riddle Of Lumen hoping someone would make an 'answering' film and entertain my visual riddle in the manner of the riddling poets of yore. I most expected Hollis Frampton (because of Zorn's Lemma) to pick up the challenge, but he never did. In some sense I think composer Corner has, and now we have this dance of riddles as music and film combine to make 'passage', in every sense of the word, further possible. (To be absolutely 'true to' the ritual of this passage, the two reels of the film should be shown on one projector, taking the normal amount of time, without rewinding reel 1 or showing the finish or start leaders of either – especially without changing the sound dials – between reels.)" – Stan Brakhage

Musical Stairs
Guy Sherwin
1977 | 9 min | B/W | 16mm

Sherwin's Musical Stairs has a method of production and structure that could be seen in opposition to Passage. Image is physically printed on to the optical sound track to create a seemingly absolute synthesis of sound and image.

"One of a series of films that uses soundtracks generated directly from their own imagery. I shot the images of a staircase specifically for the range of sounds they would produce. I used a fixed lens to film from a fixed position at the bottom of the stairs. Tilting the camera up increases the number of steps that are included in the frame. The more steps that are included the higher the pitch of sound. A simple procedure gave rise to a musical scale in eleven steps which is based on the laws of visual perspective. A range of volume is introduced by varying the exposure. The darker the image the louder the sound (it can be the other way round, but Musical Stairs uses a soundtrack made from the negative of the image). The fact that the staircase is neither a synthetic image, nor a particularly clean one (there happened to be leaves on the stairs when I shot the film) means that the sound is not pure, but dense with strange harmonics." – Guy Sherwin