Do You Hear What I See?

Don't call it a soundtrack: Alan Licht, Lee Ranaldo, and William Hooker (left to right, Marina Rosenfeld and Ulrich Krieger not pictured) play music for the film 'Text of Light'
Courtesy of Walker Art Center

"[Filmmakers] have the mistaken notion that music, in 'helping' and 'explaining' the cinematic shadow-play, could be regarded under artistic considerations. It cannot be," wrote composer Igor Stravinsky in 1946. "Put music and drama together as individual entities, put them together and let them alone, without compelling one to try to 'explain' and to react to the other. Music explains nothing."

Stravinsky's words highlight the dilemma that arose when the invention of the soundtrack inextricably welded together music and image: How much meaning should these distinct art forms lend one another? It's a balancing act that modern Hollywood has mostly ignored in favor of plying viewers with doomed romances driven home by the heart-tugging sounds of John Williams. Perhaps that's why experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) largely chose to let his celluloid flicker in silence, exploring the intrinsically musical rhythm of film itself--what he once called its "silent sound sense."

Considering Brakhage's cinematic concepts, the Walker's upcoming Text of Light performance should be an experiment in artistic re-imagination. An improvisational supergroup composed of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, turntablist Marina Rosenfeld, jazz drummer William Hooker, guitarist Alan Licht, and saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, Text of Light takes its name from one of Brakhage's puristic films--a silent feature that shows the play of light reflected through an ashtray. And the ensemble's live soundtrack, a turn-on-a-dime sonic collage, may radically alter the way in which Brakhage's films are viewed--a possibility that has already drawn flak from some of his ardent fans. I caught up with Lee Ranaldo at Sonic Youth's Murray Street studio in New York (and later spoke with Alan Licht through e-mail) to ask about Text of Light's feelings regarding the controversy.


City Pages: How does the Text of Light project differ from the pure soundtrack work Sonic Youth has done for films like Oliver Assayas's Demonlover?

Lee Ranaldo: When you're doing soundtrack work, you're trying to illustrate the film or support an atmosphere. You're consciously working toward something that's going to be attached to scenes and fixed that way for the life of the film. With [Text of Light], we could play with the same film four different times and have four totally different types of performances.

CP: How has your previous work with film informed Text of Light?

Ranaldo: I was a cinema student at SUNY Binghamton. I studied with [experimental filmmaker] Ken Jacobs, and I still know him pretty well--he actually lives around the corner from me. [Binghamton] had a really intensive film department steeped in avant-garde cinema. All these heavyweight film people came through, like Tony Conrad, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas. And I've made a bunch of 16 mm and Super 8 films, some of which will hopefully be collected on a DVD sometime soon.

I've also worked for a long time with my wife [filmmaker Leah Singer], who does double projections with analytical projectors where you can stop the motion or move it forward and backward at any frame rate you want. They're the kind of projectors the military uses when they test things like, What happens if a duck hits the windshield of a jet at 500 miles per hour? Then they step back through it frame by frame, and they see where the stress fractures are. I've improvised along with her projections, doing musical atmospheres, some spoken word stuff, some live guitar, and then she improvises with the film, moving back and forward, freezing, speeding up. Kind of like what a DJ does with records.

CP: How do you respond as musicians to the shifts in color, tone, and rhythm within Brakhage's film?

Ranaldo: There's this idea that [the film and the music] are juxtaposed in space, that there's a concert going on and there's a film playing, and sometimes the players are referencing what's going on in the film. Other Brakhage films, like Ellipses, are hand-painted, psychedelic films, and much more animated and active; Text of Light is a really dark, austere film, and the music reflects that. But it's an improvised music concert, and the films are really a tablet, or a framework to draw from.

Licht: Although we'll look at the film from time to time, we don't necessarily respond to every frame any more than we would respond to every note or sound another musician in the group is making. The film becomes an additional improvisational element, but the primary interaction is between the instruments. In some ways the relationship is like the John Cage/Merce Cunningham music/dance pieces, where the dancing doesn't sync up with the music. Or the mosh pit and a hardcore band.

CP: How do you respond to the criticism that Brakhage never intended for many of his films to have a soundtrack?

Alan Licht: I cannot stress strongly enough that we do not consider these performances to be soundtracks to the film or films that are showing with it. If the events were advertised as a Stan Brakhage film screening, the criticism would be valid, but they're not--it's a performance by the Text of Light music group.

Peter Paul Rubens didn't intend for one of his paintings to be used in a Robert Rauschenberg collage, but it is, and I don't think it does Rubens a disservice. It's similar to our intention: a live action mixed media collage. That's why turntables are so important to the group. Using records out of context like that should clue the audience that we're not dealing with discrete artworks here.

Ranaldo: There was a big controversy in the avant-garde film world this past year about people playing over films that weren't specifically meant for that purpose. Sonic Youth did a benefit [at Anthology Film Archives in April 2003, shortly after Brakhage's death] to raise money for Brakhage's medical expenses, which were pretty phenomenal. But [Stan's widow] Marilyn Brakhage actually returned the money, because she felt like it endorsed musicians playing over Brakhage films. She since sent me a letter saying she appreciated the effort on our part, but she felt conflicted about it. Eventually the money was donated back to Anthology for the preservation of Brakhage films.

Brakhage was a real purist, but it's well documented that he didn't object to people using his films in other ways, as long as [the audience] was made aware that it's not a collaboration with him. The way we're using [his films], you're basically going to see a concert by this group, and the film is being played in the simultaneous space of the performance situation. We're not illustrating the film; we're not providing a real "soundtrack." We're just playing and the film is playing at the same time. It's not a purist way of viewing a Brakhage film. If you want to see a Brakhage film, you go to see it in a dark, quiet room. We're using it in a postmodern way that makes it into something else.

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