Last night the “main event” at PianoFight was a program entitled Electric Shadow Theater: Film Truth + Surreal Sound by Fushigi Kenkyūkai. “Fushigi Kenkyūkai” is Japanese for “paranormal research society;” and it is a collective of film and sound artists committed to creating performances structured around the projection of films. Last night’s performance was structured around Man with a Movie Camera, a 68-minute silent film by Dziga Vertov (a pseudonym that means “spinning top”) first screened at the beginning of 1929. Music was provided by a sextet consisting of Jorge Bachmann (electronics), Beth Custer (various sizes of clarinets and vocals), Tom Djll (surrealist prepared trumpet), Joe Lasqo (keyboards, objects, and computer software), David Michalak (performing as D. Skatchit on skatchbox and lap steel guitar), and Tom Nunn (who performs as T. Skatchit with Michalak and plays a panoply of invented instruments).
In the tradition of the early days of movie theaters, Man with a Movie Camera was the “feature film” of the evening. It was preceded by two shorts, for which the six musicians were divided into two trios. The program opened with Man Ray’s two-minute “Le Retour à la Raison” (the return to reason), a study of abstract shapes in motion, a few of which could be identified with “real-world” objects (such as the pattern of lights on a carousel). Music was provided by Bachmann, Djll, and Lasqo. This was followed by Maya Deren’s fifteen-minute “At Land,” which amounts to a dream-narrative, whose central character is Deren herself, also a choreographer and dancer. John Cage was involved in making this film and also puts in an appearance. The trio accompanying this film consisted of Custer, Nunn, and Michalak.
Over the course of the evening, the music involved an intriguing interplay between melodic line and rhythmic textures provided by a wide diversity of physical and electronic sound sources. The melodists of the group were Djll and Custer, the latter being the only one playing on an instrument that was not “enhanced by technology.” Custer played bass clarinet for the entirety of “At Land,” including an overture (or a warm-up, if it was a matter of waiting until the projection technology was ready). Her approach to the film was almost like an incantation, allowing the continuous line of melody to link the visual discontinuities of the film through which Deren captured the illogic of the dreamworld. Playing for Ray’s abstraction, on the other hand, Djll could take a more punctuated approach.
The other instrumentalists clearly occupied that middle ground between “musician” and “sound artist.” The group as a whole provided that same sense of continuity to Man with a Movie Camera, structured entirely as a sequence of short clips, many of which are self-referential. (The “man with a movie camera” is the central character in the film, whose “narrative” amounts to a synthesis of observing him at work and seeing his results. The word “narrative” is in scare quotes, since the film has neither plot nor characters and is basically a chronicle of observations, many of which involve observing the observer.)
As a “full-length” undertaking, the result does not quite go the distance. After a while the viewer appreciates the return of techniques, if not motifs, but without the sort of framework through which recapitulation can be distinguished from exposition and development. Thus, concepts such as climax emerged more from the interactions among the accompanying sextet, which effectively divided their attention between input from the film and awareness by each of what the others were playing. The result amounted to a well-conceived multimedia experience in which the sounds reinforced most of the images and compensated for a few of the structural lapses on the visual side.