28 February 2009

Music of the earth :
the environment as source and composition

The advent, over the last couple of decades, of a new legion of audio artists, utilizing sounds gleaned from innumerable sources, most of the time processed by means of a laptop computer or other tools, has unleashed an overwhelming amount of material on the public. Much of this work is astonishingly good – artists with a true spirit of imagination and adventure, combined with taste and judgment, have illustrated that music can come from just about anywhere. In the early stages of this movement, the sources seemed to be actual musical instruments – altered sounds from pianos, guitars, &c – but as the techniques have proliferated, along with the inspiration that is inevitably generated by practitioners of innovative techniques, the performers have reached out into the natural world for samples to be processed. Far from resulting simply in higher-resolution environmental recordings, many of these works have been stunning in their sheer musicality, shattering preconceptions held by many listeners as to what constitutes ‘music’. These two recordings apply minimalist principles to this genre – and the results are nothing short of transporting.

Isobel Clouter
Rob Mullender
Myths of origin : sonic ephemera from east Asia

Myths of origin
and/OAR, 2008 (rec. 2001)

Myths of origin is based on recordings made by Clouter at various locations in Japan (tracks 01-03 on the disc), and by Clouter and Mullender in China (tracks 04-09). The Japanese sources include sounds recorded at festivals, in temples, an uguisubari-no-roka (a ‘nightingale floor’ that makes bird-like chirping sounds when walked upon), a suikinkutsu (which makes a beautiful, natural music generated by water falling into an underground chamber, a feature of many Japanese gardens), and ‘singing sand’ on various beaches. These have been edited by the artists, but with little audio alteration beyond combining them into the three separate tracks.
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The recordings made in China were mostly captured in desert environments, featuring the phenomenon known as ‘booming sand’, whereby the dunes, triggered by the winds and other natural forces, produce sounds on their own, without interference or instigation of human actions. These sounds have been extremely hard to record over the years – most of the source material on this disc featuring them is of sounds resulting in sandslides created by the artists, or by footsteps on the dunes. Track 09, which ends the disc, was recorded in a temple, and features the sounds of prayer wheels being turned by visitors.

Clouter and Mullender – as well as other ‘musical anthropologists’ – theorize that the natural sounds of the earth have at times through history influenced music made by humans. They cite Mongolian höömi (overtone) singing as an example, which, according to local legends, has a ‘myth of origin’ that describes a relationship between environmental sounds and music. The notes state that the sounds gathered in China are unprocessed, edited only by selection. The low frequency drones produced by the sands are incredible – one can only imagine being there in person and actually feeling the sound in the air and through the dunes.

The artists offer informative notes in the booklet, as well as some nice photographs – the disc itself also includes a PDF booklet with photographs relating to the recordings, compatible with both Windows and Mac systems.

Francisco López
Wind [Patagonia]

Wind  [Patagonia]
and/OAR, 2007 (recorded 2000-03, composed and mastered 2003-05)

Wind [Patagonia] is actually the third installment in a trilogy by López – the first two were La selva (1997), which was recorded in a Costa Rican rain forest, and Buildings (2001), featuring the inner sounds generated by buildings in New York City. With Wind, López illustrates the amazing breadth of sounds produced by the wind’s interaction with the harsh landscape. The notes on the back of the digipack describe the recording as ‘an immersion into the sonic matter from micro- and macro-environments dominated by wind in Patagonia. A vast barren space shaped and inhabited by the ever-changing forces of unmated plants, rocks, sand, snow, and ice. An irregular broad-band environment of relentless strength and richness. And above all, a tour de force of profound listening.’ This might be dismissed as hype – but listening to this disc for the first time, I was completely overcome and carried away by the variety of sounds generated by the wind – it’s an immersing experience of a depth that must be heard to be understood.

An artist known for his imagination and abilities in the subtle alteration of sounds, López states that this recording is ‘non-processed, not mixed environmental sound matter from a certain “reality”. An appraisal of the richness and essential qualities of the original sonic material. A non-referential intention. An extreme phenomenological immersion led by anti-rationality and anti-purposefulness. A world devoid of human presence.’ The temptation is to pre-suppose this recording to be one of those ‘relaxing’ natural sounds experiences – but there is unimaginable power and strength at work here, producing an incredibly wide dynamic range of the purest form of ‘natural music’. These are the sounds of our planet, a living, breathing world – it’s a good way to put the presence and influence of human life in perspective.
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The booklet contains several beautiful photographs (above is one example) taken in the region where the recordings were made, which illustrate the wide range of physical features found there. There are also notes by López and a nice essay by Christopher Cox, who writes, ‘López’s Patagonian winds have a ferocious beauty and immensity. Delicate whispers combine with wild swarms and eddies undergirded by deep bass punches. And all of this produced by an invisible force that endlessly sweeps the surfaces of the globe. With this, we are no longer in the tidy world of human music, but have entered the sublime domain of natural sound.’ It makes for some pretty incredible listening.

I found both of these recordings at the label website – and/OAR is a great source for the adventurous audiophile, making available not only releases on their own label, but a wide variety of like-minded experimental, envelope-pushing, mind-stretching works from other sources as well. Click on the link below and browse their selection – it’s a rich trove.


22 February 2009

8 films de Jean Paul Civeyrac
8 films box
1991-2005 / France / black & white, color
French with English subtitles
DVD from BlaqOut / region 0 / PAL

‘…Pauvre amour, laisse que jet e touché. Sois calme. Sois docile et fais ce que je veux. Laisse-moi caresser ta joue et tes cheveux. Laisse ma main, par cœur, apprendre ton visage.’

‘…Poor love, let me touch you. Be calm. Be docile and do what I want. Let me caress your cheek and your hair. Let my hand learn your face by heart.’

– Jean Cocteau

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Jean Paul Civeyrac

Working my way through this amazingly rich set – let alone getting my head around it enough to write anything remotely coherent and inclusive about the films contained here – has been quite a daunting task…but very enjoyable and rewarding. I had never heard of Jean Paul Civeyrac prior to reading about him online one day, when I came across articles on Fantômes and Toutes ces belles promesses on the wonderful Strictly film school site (click on the titles to read the individual pieces) – after a bit of further research, I discovered that BlaqOut had compiled 8 films (6 features and 2 shorts) into a very nice book-bound package, with the addition of a DVD-ROM multi-media presentation, Jean Paul Civeyrac : interstices, by Grégory Chatonsky featuring scenes from the films. All of this makes the € 80 (+ shipping, around $125 total) price tag a good bit easier to take – and after watching these films, I’m confident that my money was well-spent.

Civeyrac’s films are filled with some of the most moving, beautiful imagery I’ve seen. Additionally, he loves available light, and utilizes movement – both by the actors and the camera – in such a way as to place the viewer intimately within the scene, creating a palpable sense of place, of inclusion. His characters are drawn large, as cinematic requirements dictate, but they are never larger than life, always remaining human – I would even describe them as ‘touchable’, both physically and emotionally (The lines from Jean Cocteau, above, are quoted on the back cover of the set – and they appropriately invoke the tactile aspects of Civeyrac’s art). They take some getting to know, just as those we encounter in everyday life – there are depths to their personalities and psyches that are only revealed with time, and the director wisely refrains from laying everything out for the viewer like cards on a table. The viewer is forced, albeit it gently, to think, to consider the reasons and emotions behind the actions played out on the screen – the result is an infinitely richer, more rewarding cinematic experience. I came away from these films feeling an intense personal connection and identification with many of these characters, warts and all – the events and feelings depicted are things with which all of us can identify.

There are several themes running through Civeyrac’s work – and I wouldn’t for a moment claim to identify all of them. There is alienation, perhaps better described as a feeling of separation or exclusion – from society in general (La vie selon Luc and Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam), from loving relationships (Les solitaires, Le doux amour des hommes, Toutes ces belles promesses, and Tristesse beau visage), and between the living and the dead (Les solitaires, Fantômes, Toutes ces belles promesses again, and À travers la forêt). These themes are often combined, just as multiple issues in life are combined in reality. Characters often interact / communicate with departed loved ones, sometimes vividly reliving conversations and sessions of lovemaking, often to the point of deeply believing the dreams / memories are real, much to the consternation and concern of those around them. At times it’s not immediately apparent to the viewer if a character is alive, dead, or a figment of the imagination, memory or subconscious – it caused me to repeat several scenes, just to savor the experience of peeling back another layer of the cinematic onion Civeyrac has so skillfully created.

La vie selon Luc (Life according to Luke) (1991), a 14 minute short, focuses on a young bisexual hustler and his inability to feel any love or emotion for anyone around him. He stumbles headlong through life, concerned only with his own needs – amassing what seems to be a large sum of money whose purpose is never explained – lashing out at everyone who attempts to reach out to him, friends and family alike.

Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam (Neither Eve nor Adam) (1996) is similarly concerned with a young man, Gilles, whose aggressively non-conformist behavior lands him in trouble at school, at home, and with the local authorities. Thrown out by his parents, he is shown sleeping on park benches and holed up in derelict basements, scrabbling to survive however he can manage. He convinces his friend Gabrielle to run away with him – their journey is a rushed one, both in physical distance and the emotional trials of growing up too fast. It’s touching to see the bond between them develop, but sad at the same time, knowing that they are only ‘playing’ at independence (which they probably know subconsciously) on the road to a future that is uncertain at best.

Les solitaires (The lonely) (1999) is centered on Pierre, in perpetual mourning for Madeleine, unable to accept the love offered by Alice (very much alive, who would be his lover) or his brother Baptiste, who comes for a visit with plenty of issues of his own. Pierre’s psyche is so twisted by the depths of his sorrow that he swings wildly between states of deep depression and manic acting-out – one minute he and Baptiste are effecting an emotional reunion, the next they’re arguing and fighting wildly. Alice tries desperately to lift Pierre out of his emotional pit, putting herself at risk in the process – Eva, Baptiste’s estranged wife, arrives to attempt a reconciliation, adding more confusion and emotional turmoil to the mix.

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Fantômes (Spirits) (2000) blurs the live between the living and the dead even further, with the status of characters unrevealed for long stretches. Those who have lost loved ones are tortured with grief to the point of receiving physical visitations by the departed – one woman ties her reanimated dead lover to her with a phone cord while he sleeps, desperate for him to remain with her. When he awakes and realized what she has done, he pleads with her to untie him before the sun comes up – she refuses, and he says, ‘You’ll die with me!’ In an additional plot element, random people in the area seem to be instantaneously disappearing – no bodies are found, no traces of the missing remain, and a general atmosphere of fear covers the city.

Le doux amour des hommes (Man’s gentle love) (2001) deals with a young poet, Raoul, who is seemingly unable to emotionally commit to any woman he takes as a lover. Handsome, egotistical and aloof, he unexpectedly falls for Jeanne, a young woman who is a junkie. While he has found someone with whom he feels a connection, and the possibility of a longer commitment, she tells him, ‘You do act like you love me…Don’t. I’m not well and I do myself harm. I may not last the winter…Kiss me again. It’ll be a nice memory.’ Raoul has spent his adult life coldly pursuing any female who crosses his path and appeals to him – his lessons in love are hard to learn. In this film, as in others wherein Civeyrac deals with love and other deep emotions, there is no cheap sentimentality at work – the feelings are played out realistically, never veering into easy, sappy depictions. Even characters who are ‘shallow’ are fully formed to the point that one feels the ability to reach out and touch them. Despite Raoul's boorish tendencies, it's difficult not to feel some sympathy for him as events transpire.

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Toutes ces belles promesses (All the fine promises) (2003) deals with many of these same elements, but in a completely individual way. Marianne is a cellist – her lover, Etienne, a violinist, dumps her for a flautist (given the personality which is revealed in him, it could be any other woman), and she experiences an emotional collapse. She begins seeing her dead parents and others from her past – memories of her childhood, her parents’ parties, their life in a beautiful house by the sea, all come rushing back to her in incredibly tactile experiences. When she comes across her father’s will, she discovers that he had a mistress for many years, to whom he bequeathed a few items. Her mother had understandably not fulfilled his request, so Marianne sets out to find the woman, reconnecting with the days of her childhood spent in the house by the sea. She forms an almost immediate – but not always easy – bond with the woman, and begins a reassessment of her own life and outlook. When Etienne inevitably approaches her again, she is more prepared to deal with him.

Tristesse beau visage (Sadness beautiful face) (2004) is another short film, a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a modern urban French setting. Multiple layers of voice-overs are used along with spare spoken dialogue to tell the story, with characters named for the principals in the original. Once again, resistance to professed love – be it from insecurity or fear of the repetition of past experiences – directs the actions of the characters.

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À travers la forêt (Through the forest) (2005) centers around Armelle, one of three sisters whose lover, Renaud, has died – as in Les solitaires and Fantômes, the loss overwhelms the character. She claims to have experienced him spending the night with her, making love, talking, waking together – one sister, Roxane, believes her vision to be real, the other, Bérénice, declares it to be rubbish. Being pulled literally in several directions, Armelle finds it difficult to cope with her feelings – she goes to a medium one day, then makes an attempt to forget it and put it behind her. Nether path will lead her to heal her grief, however – and meeting a young man, Hypolite, who closely resembles the dead Renaud complicates things even further.

The synopses above are my own, and necessarily brief – and none of them comes close to doing justice to the films contained in this set. Civeyrac’s vision – and his incredible skill in bringing it to fruition on the screen – must be experienced to be fully appreciated. From a purely photographical standpoint, these are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful cinematic works I’ve ever experienced – add to that the philosophical and emotional depth that he manages as director and writer or co-writer on all of them, and you have a pretty stunning body of work. The camerawork and lighting, in capturing the textures of the actors’ bodies and skin – in lovemaking scenes as well as others – is visually arresting and incredibly effective in bringing the viewer in contact with the various characters. His use of music is noteworthy as well – from widely known classical composers to those one would not immediately associate with film scores (John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi, for example), his choices are a perfect fit, illuminating the film in their own way as much as any lighting that might be employed. These films are simply stunning in every aspect.
It’s sad that this set – or the individual films, for that matter – are not available in the US. I would recommend without hesitation for anyone who loves great filmmaking to take the plunge and order this from BlaqOut (link below). It’s a beautiful package of incredibly crafted works, and there’s no telling how long it’ll be available. The folks at BlaqOut have thoughtfully produced these without regional coding, so they should play on any recently-manufactured DVD player – they’re presented in PAL format, but most TVs (and all computers, as far as I’m aware) will play that with no problem. I’m glad I picked it up when I did – and I know I’ll be returning to it multiple times, and sharing it with as many friends as I can.

08 February 2009

El cielo gira
El cielo gira DVD cover
directed by Mercedes Álvarez
written by Mercedes Álvarez and Arturo Redin
2004 / Spain / color / 106 minutes
Spanish with optional English / French subtitles
DVD from Sherlock Home Video (Spain – region 2, PAL)
Mercedes Alvarez
Director Mercedes Álvarez was the last child born in the tiny village of Aldealseñor in northern Spain – she left there with her parents in the late 1960s, when she was only three years old. As is the case with countless, similarly isolated hamlets, which for various reasons have watched the outside world pass them by, Aldealseñor is slowly, inexorably being depopulated. At the time of the filming of El cielo gira (The sky turns), there were only 14 inhabitants remaining – and with the film depicting the passage of several months in the village, it was almost inevitable that this number be reduced by the passing of one of its citizens. Despite this, Álvarez has not created a morbid, maudlin documentary about the death of a hamlet – this is a gently beautiful film, thoroughly imbued with respect for not only the villagers themselves, but for Aldealseñor itself, the landscape and the history that has shaped it.
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Álvarez contributes narration here and there, but for the most part allows the people still living in the area to speak for themselves, oftentimes in the form of natural, un-coached conversations amongst themselves. Unfolding over the course of a year, the film is presented in parts corresponding to the seasons of the year – day-to-day activities are shown, filled with silent contemplations, views of the landscape and heartfelt, honest reflections on both the nature of the villagers own lives as well as their place in the world and the events that are unfolding around the globe. The photography is nothing short of stunning – Álvarez utilizes a skill in capturing the constant interplay between light and shadow that is simply amazing. I found myself, at several points, having to go back to read subtitles that I had missed while concentrating on the visuals.
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The director says that her inspiration for making the trip back to her birthplace was cemented by viewing a painting by the artist Pello Azketa, who is also from the area. The particular work depicts two boys at the edge of a reservoir, peering into the water as if looking for something that is about to appear, or has disappeared – an apt metaphor for the process that will eventually empty the village. She determined to go there and create a film that would preserve for posterity the personalities of the people who lived there, their way of life, and their place in history. Most of the villagers are elderly – there are a couple who work as shepherds, and they all have activities which keep them as busy as they feel they need to be, such as gardening. They are shown gathering under a tree on the village square, maintaining the church graveyard, tending their sheep, walking through the countryside together, sitting beside a gently warming hearth at night – nothing comes across as staged, which was most likely accomplished because the director had once lived among them. An outsider, no matter how well-intentioned, would probably have had a hard time gaining their trust.
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A couple of the more poignant scenes in the film involve Pello Azketa returning to Aldealseñor – the artist is suffering from an optical disorder that is slowly robbing him of his sight, just as the changes in the village are robbing it of its residents, but his memories of the place are so vivid that he knows where things are as well as the shapes they have held for centuries – the door to the church, the curve of the hills and the general lay of the land.
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Even with discussions of the inevitability of death, as well as changes in the village which they might not approve (such as the remodeling of an 800-year-old Moorish castle into a 5-star hotel), the inhabitants maintain an attitude of gentle acceptance that seems to be completely devoid of resentment or bitterness. They are comfortable with their place in the scheme of things, satisfied with the lives they have lived, and see no point in wishing things had been otherwise. Even a discussion about the difficulties of maintaining a steady supply of staples (bread and other items are delivered from outside once or twice a week) doesn’t generate into a mood of dark dissatisfaction – things are what they are, and their lot is to deal with life as it is handed to them.
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The village itself is surrounded by countryside that is absolutely beautiful – rolling hills dotted with oak and elm trees – that, through the course of the passing seasons, reveals countless panoramas that will take the viewers’ breath away. Early in the film, an elderly woman points out the tracks of dinosaurs in the stone (there are also several life-size models in the area) and comments on how many millions of years ago they lived; a tour guide leads a group through Iberceltic ruins from Roman times, narrating the staunch defense the ancient locals mounted against the invading armies; modern technology is scarce (a television is shown in one scene, delivering news of the impending US invasion of Iraq) for the most part, making a significant incursion in the form of a windmill farm built to generate electricity. The ancient dominates, but modernity will not be deterred – the locals consider it to be as natural a process of the passing of time as birth and death.
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I suppose El cielo gira has a bit of an elegiac mood to it – but it is never really mournful. Without coming across as an outsider trying to forcefully preserve a way of life that is slowly disappearing, Álvarez literally caresses her subject – with her sparse but to-the-point narration allowing the actual voices and feelings of the people to shine through, she has created a document of rare beauty that should speak to the heart and soul of every viewer. It’s an elegy of sorts, but one that will, I believe, elicit more gentle smiles than tears.