Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, December 10, 2012
23 students sat in a room with gray tables at the Guangzhou English Training Center for the Handicapped (GETCH). The night before, they screened Jim Bigham’s For Once in My Life, a compelling documentary following seven disabled adults working at Goodwill Industries in Miami, Florida, who form a band.
Jim and I had left the Garden Hotel lobby at 10:20 in a cab with Esther Yang, our escort from the US Consulate in Guangzhou. The cab inched forward slowly on massive expressway arteries crammed with trucks, cars, and cabs and rimmed with endless high rise apartment complexes shooting 30 stories high into the constant umbrella of gray skies. We were in Guangzhou, China, as film envoys for the American Film Showcase, an initiative between the US State Department and the University of Southern California to foster international dialogues through film and conversation.
Then, the scale shifted abruptly. Our driver snaked through a neighborhood with three story, older buildings, the street level bustling with small shops selling roast pork and chicken, noodles, or bottled water. Shirts and skirts hung out to dry on poles from windows flapped overhead from the second floor.
We walked down a quiet street lined with small shops selling plastic buckets and brooms. A man riding an old blue bicycle with fat tires rolled by. Esther pointed out that these smaller scale areas were called “villages.” I imagined that before the development fueled by China’s rapid growth in its Reform and Opening, post-Mao period, this area—which felt much more manageable than other parts of Guangzhou-- might have been a stand-alone village. With its 25 million people and rapid industrialization in the last 30 years, Guangzhou is the second largest megacity in the world.
Crossing a concrete threshold, we walked into the open courtyard of GETCH. A student on crutches moved slowly across the open space. “Hello”, he said in English.
A two by three foot picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the US President struck by polio, hung on one wall and on another, a similarly-sized picture of Stephen Hawking, autographed for the school. GETCH trains young adults between 18 to 23 to learn English and computer skills such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other computer program so that they can join the booming Chinese economy, one of the most high growth and powerful economies in the world. Tuition is free. Students pay for meals and the dormitories.
Jim and I entered the room. It was simple: white walls, a fan, gray metal tables, a beat up wooden lectern with a computer, a white screen pulled down from the ceiling. Rae Zhuang, a professional translator, greeted us. However, the students wanted to speak English.
Jim turned on his camera, holding it at waist level. Jim Bigham has vast experience in the feature film industry, commercial television, advertising, documentary, and indiewood. I noticed he made constant eye contact with the students, only glancing through the viewfinder sporadically. He asked the students, all of whom had various disabilities, their names. They all shared their English, rather than Chinese, names: Helen, Serena, Bessie, Max, Victoria, Sophia, Ben, Cherry, Sky. Annie, from Shanghai, proclaimed that she lived in the school and “loves it here.”
“Did you see the movie?” Jim asked. “Yes” the group shouted in unison. “Have you ever wanted to play a musical instrument?” The students just smiled. They asked “What difficulties happened when you made the movie?” Jim answered “ I wanted to make a story about people with disabilities without statistics, about the hearts of the people.”
Drawing its title from a song by Stevie Wonder, who is blind, For Once is My Life deploys the structure of a Hollywood musical, with frequent breaks from the narrative to immerse in the music.
Another student queried “How did you communicate with members of the band when they speak different languages, like Spanish, Creole?” Jim pointed out that some of the band members featured in For Once in My Life could speak but not comprehend. He revealed that all band members could communicate through music.
Another young woman probed further. “Are there any companies in the United States willing to accept people with disabilities?” Goodwill Industries, Jim said. He also explained that in the United States, we have an Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities.
“For Once in My Life is a love letter from them to you,” Jim added. The students smiled, and then clapped.
At that point, the session transformed from a q and a with a film director into an interactive, engaged community. One student shared she really liked one of the band members because he was “so cute.” Another student pointed out the Goodwin, the Chinese American, played piano well. Camera running, Jim then asked the students if they would like to send a video letter to band. They all shouted “YES!”
His camera at eye-level with the seated students, Jim asked each student to send a video letter to a member of the band. He kept eye contact with the students, as though the camera was invisible. Jim had mentioned in an session the day before that his direct cinema style was directly influenced by his mentor, D.A. Pennebaker, one of the originators of direct cinema who adhered to becoming invisible as a filmmaker. I saw Jim’s style in action: the camera and his technique became invisible as he focused on his interactions with the students.
Bessie said to the camera “I like your music. I like one boy in the band,David. He plays the horn. You are very handsome.”
Serena pronounced “ I am so moved at the moment. No matter what kind of disability we can succeed.” Jim asked her what her disability was. “ I have an artificial leg.”
“ I learned a lot from this movie,” Sky shared. “I was impressed by Javier (the able bodied band leader) because he acted like a father to everyone. Will you bring the band to China?” Jim explained that the band leader, Javier, lost his full time job. He was leading the band part-time. He is now in Memphis, Tennesse, doing the public relations for children with cancer.
“To Melissa (a young woman with Down’s Syndrome whose father deserted her and her mother), you father missed out on an opportunity,” shared Sophie.
After shooting video letters with several more students, Jim announced that he would put each of the GETCH students video letters up on Facebook. The students started to laugh. “Facebook is blocked in China!” a student noted. Jim replied he would then have to figure out another strategy to post the videos.
He then queried the students: “What would you like me to tell people? What advice would you give Americans?”
A student raised her hand. “Why don’t Americans learn Chinese?”
As the session ended, Jim asked the group if they could sing a song he could film. Encouraged by their teacher, the students inched slowly to the front of the classroom. They sang a Tiawenese pop song by Chang Yu Sheng called “My Future is Not A Dream.”
Jim filmed with his small black camera.
He moved around the group as they sang, softly at first, and then gaining volume as confidence grew. He shot in very close range, maybe 18 inches from each face.
Jim own eyes rarely looked through the viewfinder.Smiling, he always looked straight into the eyes of the students.
Monday, December 10, 2012
A red banner bedazzled with gold words in Mandarin hung beneath the white screen, announcing the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival (GZDOCS)with a little sign in English, “Director Meet and Greet.” Chinese pop music played loudly from a computer at the lectern.
About 35 students and some unidentified adults sat in the small classroom with fixed long tables and fixed metal chairs in a very large building with a huge open atrium at Sun Yat Sen University (SYS), the most prestigious university in economically booming Guangdong province in south China. Jim Bigham and I were there as part of the American Film Showcase, an initiative between the US State Department and the University of Southern California for people to people exchanges to foster greater understanding.
Jim Bigham , the voluble, charming, and open director of the feature length documentary For Once in My Life, Esther, our patient escort from the consulate, and myself finally found the screening/classroom room after our driver got lost on the vast SYS campus at night. He and Esther, who spoke Mandarin, had stopped three different groups of students strolling around campus at night to ask for directions to the building.
It took nearly 45 minutes to get from the Garden Hotel to SYS. The traffic in Gaungzhou, known as GZ, clogged the expressways no matter what time of the day or night. With the intense pollution and constantly gray skies, I resorted to daily doses of Zyrtec and shots from my Albutorol inhaler so that I could keep my voice, stay alert, and breathe.
Two “interpreters” greeted us. Emily and Leo (their English names) were students at another university volunteering for the festival. Emily studied law, Leo, economics. They were interested in the festival as a way to expand their “cultural skills” beyond their studies. We thought they needed to translate. We were wrong: they told us the people in the room, mostly students at SYS, spoke English.
Jim and I were not sure what our role was. Noone official beyond the “interpreters” guided us. Jim asked a man at the computer to do a sound check, thinking that he was technical support. Later, at the end of the post screening Q and A, we discovered, much to our embarrassment, that he was the professor of anthropology and that the assembled students were enrolled in his class.
Echoing the tradition of hand-held direct cinema that fashions characters and a narrative, For Once in My Life lovingly chronicles 28 disabled musicians who form a band. They all work at Goodwill Industries in Miami, Florida. The film focuses on seven characters in their attempts to learn the music for a big concert for a conference of U.S. mayors—and to navigate their own independence as they deal with blindness, autism, down’s syndrome, physical disabilities.
Structured like a backstage musical, with dramas and romances ensuing between characters and struggles to mount the show, For Once in My Life places the audience into the rehearsal room and in the characters apartments and homes, immersing us in a world of disability that asks us to dispose of our preconceptions about our own able bodies. The film coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). According to Jim, it was screened in Washington,D.C.
I parked myself in the back of the room during the screening so I could watch the audience. I expected non-stop texting. Instead, I witnessed uninterrupted rapture. Not a screen or smartphone in sight.
Jim, who has enjoyed a high profile, three-decades-plus career in the commercial media and indie sectors, skillfully started the discussion by stating “ I need you to know, I have a disability. I can’t play music.” After that, the post-screening discussion percolated with some surprising questions and insights.
First, it was a lively discussion, with non-stop questions about the film, about disabilities in America and China, about the characters. Jim pointed out that in the US, most feature-length documentaries only focus on a maximum of three characters. He emphasized that his style of documentary is character-centric, a way to expand the audience for documentary through narrative framing techniques. But his ethics of documentary reveal a deeply humanistic and ethical grounding: Jim not only drove many of the characters to and from rehearsal, but keeps the characters in the film continually informed of the response he receives at screenings. His dream: to take the band on tour.
For Once in My Life sustains a complex weave of seven characters and a behind-the-scenes story about rehearsing for a big concert. Many in the audience expressed their interest in Goodwin, the Chinese American autistic pianist. Jim pointed out that the characters all represent the ethnic and racial mix of Miami: Cuban, Latin America, African American, Asian, caucasion. One young man wanted to know what the characters in the film thought of the film. Jim said they loved it, and were honored to have the film and their work screened in China.
Another young woman wanted to know what people in the United States knew about Chinese film. That’s where I morphed from my role as moderator to my role as screen studies professor, sharing that I taught the works of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhangke, and more emerging contemporary Chinese independent documentaries, called d-cinema or the Chinese new documentary movement.
One young woman in the audience then shared that she really liked the music, prompting enthusiastic head-shaking from most of the room.
Another young woman said that the film confused her. She thought documentaries were always boring. Instead, she found herself absorbed in For Once in My Life. Jim thanked her. He explained he seeks to blend difficult, activist content with entertainment values to reach a larger audience. One young man asked how he might make a film about disabilities in China. Jim replied with a simple statement: find a character.
Jim ended the public discussion with a moving statement: “We all need to remember that in the space of one second, any of us could move from able-bodied to disabled.”
The “interpreters” wanted their picture taken with us. A young man who identified himself as a professional photographer for GZDOCs placed us in front of the banner which was at knee level and not easy to see..
In the hallway, a different, more driven, much more intense exchange occurred. The young students swarmed around Jim, who is over six feet tall with curly reddish blond hair and an open, engaging, generous manner. I heard one question repeated: “How can I make a documentary film?” And another question: “How did he shoot these people? How did they respond to the camera?” Jim pointed out that some characters “hammed it up” while others were shy.
A group of five young women, smartphones clutched in one hand, bookbags in the other, pulled me away from the larger group. One asked “How can we be trained to make a documentary in the proper way? How can we make a documentary if we do not have good enough equipment? “
I replied there is not just one way to make a documentary. The route looks different depending on age, history, politics, place, nation. I suggested that watching as many films as possible, going to art museums, and engaging the world without preconception through questions yielded more than “training,” which might produce a standardized vision. Documentary is about learning to see the world with new eyes and to ask hard questions of that world.
I then pointed out that they had the best equipment imaginable.
I pointed to my head. They queried “your brain?” I said yes.
Then I pulled out my iPhone. Holding it in the air, I whispered: remember, we all have cameras. These small amateur cameras are powered by ideas, not specific training or electrical outlets.
With bluntly cut bangs and bright purple blouse, one young woman smiled shyly. She replied "Oh, I think I understand. It is about us, not you or copying this film."
Note: If you look at the image with this blog, you will notice that as soon as the screening ended, the GZDOC festival banner was removed.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies, Ithaca College; co-director, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
I've never been more unsettled, confused — and excited — about documentary.
Everything I have ever theorized, historicized, analyzed, criticized, programmed, and written about documentary in its linear, argumentative, analog forms needs a serious gut job. A total renovation from the attic to the kitchen.
Over the past few years, when I've gone to film festivals or scholarly symposia, it's the new media sidebars — where no one wants to be called a director anymore and everyone is a convener or a designer — that yank me away from the movie theaters.
Example: Helen De Michiel's Lunch Love Community Project — a lush mosaic website of short collaborative videos chronicling the movement for healthy food in Berkeley, California, public schools, produced with the teachers, cooks, kids, and parents.
Three-dimensional spheres of place-based issues and people, these transmedia projects dismantle all of my previous theories — intellectual wrecking balls, if you will. Beyond the trendy tropes of mash-ups, crowdsourcing, user-generated, "produser," and marketing engagement through double-screening, open-space documentaries invite encounters with people, ideas, places and technologies.
Example: Saving the Sierra, produced by jesikah maria ross and Catherine Stifter — a collaborative project charting the stories and voices of Californians and environmental issues in the Sierra Nevada Mountains using radio, community meetings, and innovative story mapping.
Collaborative and shape shifting, these projects open up dialogue, convenings, stories, and a new form of collaborative, grounded space. They migrate fluidly across the analog and the digital, using adaptable platforms and inviting in newly interactive communities.
Example: The Cotton Road Project, by Laura Kissel with Li Zhen, tracing the supply chain of cotton from South Carolina to Shanghai manufacturing, with short video vignettes, multiple stories, and the innovative "sourcemap" that tracks supply chains of commodities through crowd research.
Although I still love their gutsy vigor, long-form doc features loom a bit like skyscrapers from the 1960s — overbuilt and probably not sustainable. In comparison, these more modest, open-space transmedia projects, seem more agile, more adaptable, more alive, more responsive, less predictable.
If you want to dig further into open-space documentary, you can join De Michiel, ross and Kissel for conversation at the working session on "Open Space Documentary" (I will moderate) at this year's utterly alluring NAMAC Conference, Leading Creatively, in Minneapolis, September 6-8.
This conference promises one of the biggest open spaces in the new media ecology.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Blue baggy running shorts and dirt-crowned Nike running shoes with black stripes and purple socks. Gray workout pants and a matching windbreaker zipped to the chin. Hand-knitted skull cap in rainbow colors and mittens to match for running in the spine-biting cold of Ithaca. A black lycra face mask, only the eyes and nose unwrapped, vulnerable, open to the winds.
These drifting, out of focus images and shards of workout outfits mark Zillah for me on campus—and off. These clothes map the life of the body—her body, my body, her mind, my mind, and whatever resides in that space between-- in action.
These workout clothes insert our bodies into heat, cold, wind, snow, rain, those immaterial yet material spectres that surround us but also seep deep into us as we breathe, run, walk, talk.
And these gym clothes of Zillah’s, this armor for climate and hills and life beyond the computer and the classroom, mark those hard-wrought passages from inside to out, from classrooms to trails, from books, writing and lecturing to another kind of writing. The body on the hilly landscapes and cracked sidewalks of Ithaca transforms into a pen and a scalpel, writing our bodies with others, through conversation and aching muscles and heavy breathes like the rhythm of a singing bowl in a Buddhist temple.
Zillah’s black tights, gray capri pants, pink running bras, sleeveless polypro yellow workout jerseys fought the confines of the academy—a transitory, oddly lonely place fortified through physical immobilizations behind desks and lecterns. The college’s deliberate isolations of disciplines, buildings, and brutal teaching schedules imprisoned us, cordoning off the solace of others.
When I arrived at Ithaca College in 1981, I was barely 26, just popped out of grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ithaca College felt strange to me—I had never attended and did not quite comprehend a four-year private college campus. Coming from the Midwest with our love of big campuses, Big Ten football and basketball and big political interventions in the streets, I never anticipated the uneasy press of a small place and small college.
Ithaca and Ithaca College felt claustrophobic to me, a disjointed concoction of gray skies like I had never seen, hills, smallness, isolation, elitism, privilege, expensive tuition, and migrating Canadian geese whose first barking I thought was a pack of angry dogs on the loose. East Coast pretensions, unfriendly colleagues, serving students like waitresses in a cheap roadside diner rather than getting lost in big gnarly unresolved ideas yanked me into a rather undefined and unshaped despair: this mess was supposedly the glories of the academy? Oh no. No way.
I had never lived in a place where it was difficult to see the horizon or look into the distance. I did not like being at Ithaca College. It felt tiny.
My colleagues in cinema were all men, and at least ten years older than me. The students spewed a strange neediness and insecurity, spouting an anxious drone about jobs and internships rather than an openness about getting completely lost in the knots of complicated ideas.
I did not like Ithaca back then. It felt like a living reenactment set, a demented Disneyworld of old hippies in Birkenstocks absorbed in tofu, local bluegrass music, and baggy dresses. I liked clothes and punk rock and poetry and political documentaries. I could not find a community. I could not find blue skies, sunlight, or the horizon line.
The very first colleague I met on campus who had a conversation with me that was more than just where I was from and what I was teaching, Zillah was also the very first professor and woman academic I had ever met who wore workout clothes to campus. She taught politics and wrote books on anti-racist feminist theory. She would finish up her feminist theory classes, bolt into the bathroom, and change into her running gear or tennis clothes. She slung two bags: one bag housed her very organized lecture notes in manila folders, the other stuffed with her workout clothes and muddy running shoes.
When Ithaca College offered me a tenure line job, one of my friends at Wisconsin, Tyler Stovall, now a well-known historian researching African Americans in France, suggested that I should get in touch with his former babysitter, Zillah Eisenstein. Their parents were in the civil rights movement together. He said, she is a feminist and has politics, and at least you will know one person out East.
So in September of 1981, two weeks after I endured the new faculty orientation where I learned I should produce a “student centered” worldview, I went to Zillah’s legendary Marxist Feminist Speakers series one evening in a very uncomfortable and stark lecture hall called Textor. I can’t recall who spoke.
After a blistering, energizing lecture about some controversial and unresolved feminist debate, I walked up to Zillah and introduced myself as a friend of Tyler’s. She said we had to get together. She asked if I did sports. I did—in fact, sports and working out seemed the only way to detox my brain from the twisted labyrinths and psychic horrors of writing and teaching.
About a week later, I was really, really alienated from the East Coast snobbery and really, really lonely in my empty apartment with only a desk and a bed. I did what I always do when I don’t know anyone: I took a bucket of balls and my racket and went up the hill to the Ithaca College tennis court to serve balls, thinking maybe I could find a pick-up game.
Zillah, in blue running shorts, hit balls on another court with a colleague who was her boyfriend at the time. She remembered me. She motioned to me to join them. I was so happy to play with other people, the only social interaction I had had beyond strange colleagues and needy students in three weeks. After we volleyed, she invited me to go running with her after teaching. It turned out we had similar schedules, free after 2:35 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
After her breast cancer surgery in the last 1980s, I knew exactly what to give her: turquoise running shorts and a purple workout jersey. Defying medicalization, that outfit helped me to say to her what I could not then put into words: we will continue to sweat together.
Throughout these three decades plus of deep friendship and weekly workouts, I have always been in awe of Zillah. Like a sorceress, she converts bathrooms, gyms, cars, and offices into nodal points for change. Change of clothes. Change of attitude. Change of political strategy. Change of ideas. Change of venue. Change.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then, later, on Wednesdays, we shifted from our elaborate teaching costumes (she wore flowing dresses with many layers of jackets and vests and jewelry while I liked pants so I could carry film equipment and projectors) into clothes that spoke the secret language of movement with intimate friends. These workout clothes adapted to the seasons, shorts in the summer, lined pants to flout snow and slush. Her workout clothes performed a strange alchemy on my alienations and discomforts in Ithaca and the East. They dislodged the distances. They restored to me a new horizon line, not one you could see from a distance, but one you could sense on the ground, running with a friend, in a swirl of talk about love, life, teaching, reading, thinking, politics, art, cinema, writing.
It was—and continues to be-- a kind of necessary and urgent sisterhood, subverting the insidious architectures of the academy that wanted us docile, alone, distraught.
Through shared sweat, we pushed our legs and hearts to somewhere else, an elsewhere that is nowhere in space but somewhere in time, pounded out by foot and by arm in walking and running and doing aerobics and African dance and yoga and elliptical machines. Most of the theoretical ideas shoring up my own writing emerged from our conversations and debates motored by exercise. With Zillah, sweat and ideas, legs and arms and analysis, need each other the way a bed of irises needs weeding in April to see the flowers breaking out in May.
My bond with Zillah exceeds friendship.
If one can share a DNA and become sisters through the shared rituals of body sweat and mind work, then we are related in ways that science can not identify.
Our connection centers on these nodal points where our bodies move through spaces and histories together. At these precarious and delicate transitory points, loneliness, illness, political struggles, and loss get smashed down to nothing by shared sweat and conversation.
We are costumed like warriors in our workout clothes. Here, workout clothes become something more than a way to work the body and purge it. They bring us to that place that destroys distance and hills, a node where bodies thrive despite all challenges, where words and muscles fuse, and where a sun not found in the sky pounds away the gray.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts at Ithaca College
Last night in the intimate Iger Recital Hall at Ithaca College in upstate New York, baritone Brad Hougham and pianist Deborah Martin reminded me why I love programming the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF).
Collaboration. Interdisciplinary exchange. Big, messy ideas. Problems to be resolved. Brilliant colleagues. Learning to see, think and hear in new ways. Figuring out how to get new audiences for experimental works. Music. Projected images. Risk.
After a long day of teaching in Ithaca College’s internationally recognized School of Music, Brad and Debbie arrived to do a master class with 50 FLEFF interns.
The purpose of Hougham’s and Martin’s visit to Iger last night: to explain why they are pairing The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky) with the Ruckert Lieder (Mahler)-- two pieces of modernist music at opposite ends of the musical spectrum-- for the opening night concert of the Finger Lakes Lakes Environmental Film Festival on Monday April 11 at 8:15 p.m in Hockett Recital Hall at Ithaca College.
Hougham started with a question: what’s the theme of this year’s FLEFF?
He explained that he, Debbie and Jairo Geronymo, a Brazilian Berlin-based pianist who will also be performing, developed the concept to checkpoint these different musical styles against each other--Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Gustav Mahler's Ruckert Lieder.
Both emerged out of the early years of artistic modernism that disposed of classical symmetries and representations. The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913, to riots from the audience (somewhat disputed by historians, who debate whether it was the music or the experimental ballet that ignited the crowd). Mahler died two years before, in 1911: a historical period where music jumped into new ideas, scales, tonalities, dissonances, structures.
As higher education becomes more and more corporatized with so many dulling-the-senses administrative meetings on policy and curriculum, it’s easy to lose touch with what made us all endure the grind of graduate school in the first place: a love of getting lost in complex ideas beyond the self with others.
I often marvel at how FLEFF forces me to slow down and interact with colleagues across the Ithaca College campus in their professional, more public, more national intellectual and artistic capacities—not as professors on some committee, or teachers overwhelmed by grading research papers. But, rather, as intellectuals and artists alive with risky ideas in conversation with the world. It is an incredible privelege. My music school colleagues' insights into music and their incredible concerts transport me to a place I would never have imagined without them.
Phil Wilde and Ann Michel of Insights International, who are also the FLEFF’s producers and internship coordinators, experimented with projections of ambient media of clouds in a digitally-altered red sky as the students arrived for the interns practica.
Multimedia concerts solve some very difficult outreach problems for festivals, classical music, and experimental works: all face taxing challenges of attracting audiences beyond the committed and the converted.
The alchemy of juxtaposing ambient experimental digital imaging, custom-designed screens built to be held rather than hung, and Stravinsky/Mahler performed live catapults all three into a one-time-only spectacle that pulls in curious, energized audiences. And it aggregates niche audiences into one big one: classical music fans, experimental film/new media mavens, performance art, the curious, rockers, cinephiles. Some people come just to dress up.
It’s not a film that will drop to live streaming a week later, a disposable, migrating commodity. It's not a pirated copy of a concert ready for MP3. It’s live and it lives. And it packs the concert hall.
Wilde and Michel have collaborated with FLEFF and Ithaca College for the last 8 years on the Onward Project, an initiative to explore new commissions and new ways of projecting/performing new music for silent film. Each project presents problems to be solved, new musical idioms to be learned, and new collaborations to gel.
They wanted to test out various ambient and archival images to see what would work for the multimedia projections on traditional screens and mobile screens cut in shapes evoking the graphic angles of early modernism for the actual performance on the opening of FLEFF’s 2001 edition, Checkpoints.
Harkening back to the historical roots of The Rite of Spring as an experimental ballet, FLEFF interns will enter the stage holding these screens cut apart in odd shaped triangles and distorted squares.
The Rite of Spring is primal and violent, the Ruckert Lieder are translucent and transcendent. The Rite of Spring is propulsive disjunction, while the Ruckert Lieder elaborate a unity of feeling. The Rite of Spring is dense, while the Ruckert Lieder evoke an image of glistening transparency.
The music will be intercut, pointing and checking against each other. Dialectics pulse in both pieces. Stravinsky was a Russian living in exile in Paris; Mahler, who suffered profoundly as a Jew in Austria, an internal exile in his own homeland. The Rite of Spring was designed as a ballet but the aggressive syncopated rhythms were undanceable. The sadness and translucency of the Ruckert Lieder suggest what Brad Hougham dubs “smiling through tears.”
As Martin elaborated, contrast between works can “amplify their modalities and strategies, bringing a more dynamic and visceral understanding of musical complexities to an audience. “ The Rite of Spring’s violent energy, dissonances, and polyrhythms amplify more when paired with the Ruckert Lieder’s ethereal, wandering, probing lines.
Martin pointed out that music leading up to The Rite of Spring was inching towards “crossing over the line” to work with a whole new palette of rhythms, tonalities, forms. Stravinsky jumped completely over the line with The Rite of Spring, according to Martin. And, as a result, he wrote one of the defining compositions of 20th century music in the west.
Explaining the subtleties of the Ruckert Lieder, Hougham pointed out that if Stravinsky dove full head-on over the line into an uncharted musical domain, Mahler carefully placed one foot over the line, gentling stretching and morphing the lieder form. With its long lines, the Mahler's melancholy Ruckert Lieder “intermingle an overarching profundity with familiarity,” noted Hougham.
While Martin and Hougham explained the music and performed it, Michel and Wilde projected different images to test out what might work for FLEFF’s opening night performance. Some abstract processed images from Microcinema’s ambitious and one-of-a-kind ambient media that evoked the contours and jagged lines of early modernist art. Some archival film distorted by blurring and slow motion, in loops, of lovers walking in a forest.
Here’s what made me shift from being completely anxiety-ridden and nervous about putting together this multimedia concert that took the almost inconceivable idea of pairing Stravinsky with Mahler ‘s lieder and then making new kinds of screens for projection: Debbie and Brad performed for us in that little recital hall. They gave the interns a way into this gorgeous, complex, evocative, disturbing music.
Martin played some sections of The Rite of Spring on the Steinway in the room, demonstrating the way in which dissonant chords were mounted in complex, syncopated rhythms influenced by modernist interest in primitivism. She pounded out these chords. She played some of the more melodic parts of the score, demonstrating the contrasting elements of this music. She then played a range of ostinato sections (passages where the music idiom repeats), and showed where shifts and turns happen.
Hougham sang Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!/I breathed a gentle fragrance. His left hand waved at the piano, motioning how the piano accompaniment wafted in counterpoint to the musical line of the song.
Wilde and Michel keep experimenting with the abstract projections and slowed down archival images washing the screen behind the performers, working on the right mix. I was struck by how the interns got to see the process of collaboration, how experimentation means trying something out, discarding it, trying again, listening, thinking, brainjamming ideas with others.
Hougham and Martin reminded me that the greatest musicians are so much more than virtuosos (both Brad and Debbie are that, and more). Truly brilliant musicians possess an ability to open up a new world of complex sound and image to us. They invite us to cross that line Martin and Hougham talked about to take a risk with them.
Elegant virtuosos like Hougham and Martin go to the edge of their performances, someplace that is unknown, a bit scary, but gorgeous.
And they ask us to join them in this uncharted place of smooth melodic lines, dissonance, and abstracted projections. And to get lost in it.
* * * * * * *
THE CHECKPOINTS CONCERT FOR FLEFF 2011 is MONDAY APRIL 11 at 8:15 p.m. in Hockett Recital Hall, Ithaca College. Dress is formal, or your version of it.