Friday, February 05, 2010

Music with Roots in the Aether

In the early seventies, Robert Ashley produced and directed a 14-hour television opera/documentary about the work and ideas of seven American composers, Music with Roots in the Aether, which premiered at the Festival d'Automne à Paris in 1976. It comprises seven films, each two hours long, most of which have a live performance preceded by an interview in a 'landscape':
  • Landscape with David Behrman
  • Landscape with Philip Glass
  • Landscape with Alvin Lucier
  • Landscape with Gordon Mumma
  • Landscape with Pauline Oliveros
  • Landscape with Terry Riley
  • Landscape with Robert Ashley
Robert Ashley is quite self deprecating about the interviews, saying they were "casual and desultory. They had to be, because of the manner in which they were made. They were made in front of a video camera, with the rule that there would be no video editing." But the landscapes more than compensate for this (some of them are interior landscapes) - the location and natural sounds integral to each conversation.  As I write this I'm watching Terry Riley on another part of my screen, bathed in sunlight, on a grassy slope above a pond. The camera sometimes gets distracted by the surroundings - see for example 35 minutes into Landscape with Terry Riley, where he is talking about Indian ragas whilst we watch a bird washing its feathers.

In an article about Music with Roots in the Aether, Arthur J. Sabatini notes the importance of Philip Makanna's camerawork, which 'functions to structure, comment upon, and provide an alternative take on the conversations and musical performances. He handles the camera gracefully and settles it in on telling images, settings, and moments of dialogue during the performances. With noticeable still photographic technique, he frames scenes and selects perspectives and angles that metaphorically enhance the conversations. For example, as Ashley and David Behrman stand on a hillside overlooking the San Franciso Bay remarking on music across cultures and history, Makanna leaves their voices in the background and pans the Golden Gate Bridge from shore to shore. At another point, when the discussion turns to technology, he follows the microphone wires and video cables trailing the speakers. Thus, Makanna's cinematography and camerawork underscores the musicality of each composers' voicings and their relationship to the landscape.'

Kenneth Goldsmith (the poet who runs Ubuweb) has written a short piece for The Brooklyn Rail about Robert Ashley's films.  It includes an interesting digression on aether with which I'll conclude this post, well off the topic in question but sailing into fascinating waters... "Aether, then, is a loaded word, full of dreams and secrets— a fluid, transmissive medium, ready to heap its treasures upon those who approach her with the right state of consciousness. Antiphanes told of a certain city where words congealed with the cold the moment they were spoken, and later, as they thawed out, people heard in the summer what they had said to one another in the winter. Similarly, Rabelais, writing in 1532, alludes to this phenomenon in his frozen-sounds episode of Gargantua and Pantagruel, where out at sea, with little in sight, a strange assortment of sounds are heard. The captain of the boat explains that the boat is passing by the Frozen Sea, which was the site of a bloody battle between the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates. During the battle, it was so cold that the sounds froze and the whole battle was silent. Now that it is springtime, all these sounds— long inaudible— are being released and creating a racket, although not in their original temporal sequences of action."

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