Posted August 01, 2011 by jake moore


The programme Augenmusik, (music for the eye) centers on the material nature of sound and light, their inter-relationship in cinema and how their physical separation has become a meme within contemporary practices.  This dislocation of sound from film is a not-so-subtle poetics that calls us back into the experiential as it explodes the black box of the theatre with its request for the “suspension of disbelief” and suggests instead -  believe.  Augenmusik requests of us our presence as participants.

When these kinds of practices are aligned foremost with film they are often called living cinema, when part of new music, there is no name. The projectionist becomes instead one of the players and the images they create are not subordinate to the sound, and the music is not the supporting soundtrack devised to affectively further propel a narrative over linear time – image and sound are parallel and equivalent actions.  The hierarchy of the senses is thus dismantled and often creates disquiet as their fragmentation puts the onus on us. 

Augenmusik acknowledges in its title germinal film historical moments that serve as reference and highlight the connections between engineering and artistry .  I am thinking of Mary Ellen Bute’s oeuvre characterized by “seeing sound” and her early work with Norman McLaren,  (he worked for her), Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, Rudolph Pfenninger, and Oskar Fischinger,  in particular , and the German expressionist movement in general that serves as the volcanic rock below,  and then looking at what has become a mainstay of avant garde media - (if mainstay and avant garde can occupy the same linguistic moment) – performance.  That is, the sound performed outside of the image as waves of light and sound in oscillation. Vibrations.  This baseline of the wave as a trigger for the eye, the ear, the whole body, brings us to these seemingly abstract images and sounds as instead a kind of hyper real. The image is of vision itself not an approximation of something that is in the world already, and the sound is sound without narrative or rhetorical intention, more an evidence of something already there or as the the result of an action taken.

The programme consists of 4 distinct parts, two filmic, and two performative.  I am preceding the deeply responsive, expressive, physical - though still structural works of “living cinema” with a documentary film, The Delian Mode. This seemingly odd start point is in part because I am interested in the intersubjective effect of the feminist documentary serving as referent for the events to follow, but also in the eerie affect that Delia Derbyshire constructed in her manipulation of waves in the government funded radiophonic laboratory of the BBC.  Equally important is the technical nature of how Derbyshire physically constructed her sounds – her tape loops , the playback devices, the mathematical notation – that somehow links for me the expressive nature of the hand-painted and manipulated film of Karl Lemieux with the machine driven performance of Steve Bates, as well as the digital replays and layers of St-Onge and Parent.  This is not to suggest a tidy package, it is in fact discordant to insert so clear a narrative into all this noise, but it is a package that wishes to consider equivalencies between media and actions and recognizes that gender is an issue always in play. There is a thread of the affect of fear and imbalance created through these unusual amplifications that is non-unicursal yet woven fully into the programme.

The early film of Karl Lemieux, Motion of Light, has been associated by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)with the works of Norman McLaren. “McLaren’s personality and philosophy are inseparable from the direction animation took at the NFB. A tireless innovator, he perceived animation filmmakers as artisans who, much like artists in their studios, control every step of the production of their films.” In Motion of Light, Lemieux paints directly on the film, the thick paint letting only some of the projector light through and the resulting images appear like a haystack, a landscape, a finger painting simultaneously.  As we are unable to know exactly what it is, we are invited instead to participate in the pulsation of the light and our own sensorial engagement.

This switching between light and dark is more stark in the performance of Steve Bates where he manipulates the mechanics of a faulty 16 mm film projector into a flickering noise machine. The relationship of this to the genre known as flicker films also triggers the suggestion that there is some potential danger in his tinkering and proposes that there may be a scientific basis for this belief as evidenced by the warning that preceded Tony Conrad’s germinal film The Flicker:

“The producer, distributor, and exhibitors waive all liability for physical or mental injury possibly caused by the motion picture “The Flicker.” Since this film may induce epileptic seizures or produce mild symptoms of shock treatment in certain persons, you are cautioned to remain in the theatre only at your own risk. A physician should be in attendance.”

No such warning is required as we complete our evening with the trio of St-Onge, Parent, and Lemieux. Instead they invite an openness to what happens in the barn late at night with all the machines at play in the hands of those that like McLaren have taken an artisanal approach with hands fully on, and like Mary Ellen Bute, wish to see the sound.