Revenge of the dead IndiansJohn Cage: The Revenge of the Dead Indians, 1993

“If the questions aren’t good the chance operations aren’t good either.” – John Cage

What a mess this film was. Which isn’t to say that there are wonderful bits in it but as a whole it is a total disaster.  It’d be fruitless to try to describe the whole thing but the gist of it is four separate components. First off there is a late interview with John Cage, which is as you’d expect filled with interesting material.  Then there are arty bits that initially are static camera placements with some of Cage’s music playing.  Later the arty bits are continuous movement as if shot out of a moving vehicle,  layered bits that rather look like 80s music videos and quick cut shots usually made up of previous material. Then there are interviews with various people, at first contemporaries of Cage and then people influenced by him, then = people seemingly completely unrelated to him and finally man on the street type interviews of people talking about their perception of the surrounding sound.  All of this is of course cut between at various lengths, apparently from a frame up to 4’33” (v. clever) in length. Finally there is some bits of actual performance of Cages work, but the least amount of time in the film is devoted to pure music performance.

The primary problem with “tributes” that rely on interviews (as opposed to say a musical tribute) is that in essence they aren’t really about the subject but are about the person being interviewed.  This is particularly the case in this film as along with relevant people such as Cunningham, Xenakis and so on they chose to interview people like Dennis Hopper, Matt Groening and Rutger Hauer. While I’ve enjoyed these people’s own work in varying degrees they really had nothing to offer on Cage and as readers from his work didn’t really do it much justice.  At one point, completely apropos of nothing they have Hauer read his final monologue from Blade Runner.  The cutting of the film (which apparently followed the fibonacci sequence for the lengths, though of course 4’33” being the max) renders many of the actual valuable interviews a fragmented mess.  Personally I’d like to have just had the Cage interview as a whole, then selectable interviews with the other people.

A nice dating element was the obsession with chaos. Now Cage obviously used chance throughout his career and of course in the 80s and 90s Chaos Theory became very popular and Cage of course recognized the connections.  So as this was pretty late in his life and right during the vogue of chaos he often was speaking in those terms. They took this as a liberty to go pretty far afield, with bits by Mandelbrot and Murray Gell-Mann.  At this point it really began to feel like a certain type of PBS documentary. It crammed in a wide variety of stuff that the casual yuppie PBS viewer was aware of and interested in in a superficial level and they present it. The further they’d go with this the less Cage was interviewed and the subjects made no connect to him whatsoever. This went so far as to be talking about artificial intelligence which Cage had absolutely no connection with and no (afaik) interest in. The only (very thin) connection was that Marvin Minsky knew Cage and he of course is a pioneer in AI.  But they other AI people they talked to never even mentioned Cage. Nor did they tie AI into Chaos which certain connections can be made, but not at this level of depth this film was operating at. Not to mention that the film was about an American composer!

The music in general was decent with performers such as Stephen Drury, Margaret Leng Tan and Irwin Arditti.  But there was so little of it.  The live segments were almost always overlaid pieces, which is perfectly acceptable, but in this film it  came across as a way to have more music listed then time devoted to it. During the arty bits, they’d more often then not play natural sounds, some of the layered and cut up by the documentarians, rather then Cages music.  Again this fits into the PBS vibe where instead of “forcing” the viewers into hearing, say, oscillating feedback with Cage intoning mesostics over the top, you give them vacuous statements from such baby boomer friendly wags as Frank Zappa. It should noted that in the accompanying interview the filmmakers make it pretty clear they were a lot more excited to be talking to Zappa then to or about Cage. His connection to Cage was about the most tangential making this particularly annoying.

Finally the length must be mentioned the film is two and a half hours long and as I think the above comments point out, there was huge amounts of masturbatory material.  The film came to natural endings (usual on a nice quote) about four times and then they’d pull something else, usually totally out of their ass, and go off on this tangent.  The next to final theme was interviewing shop owners in Paris where they would talk about how the surrounding noise effects them.  Sure you can make a connection to accepting outside sounds and listening to noises and so on, but it was so belabored at this point and absolutely superfluous. The final shot was a static 4’33” of rubble in a street with cars coming by and the natural sounds. A nice enough way to go out, but the film at this point had completely worn out it’s welcome.

The final analysis is of opportunity squandered. They had a great Cage interview, plenty of great musicians on hand not to mention the Mode library and excellent interviews with people who knew Cage, were contemporaries or connected in various ways, but they couldn’t display the restraint required to put together a solid piece.  If they had forgone the arty bits, using more live performance for the interstitial bits, focused more on the music and only used the relevant interviews, plus kept it to about an hour and a half, this could have been great.

The Revenge of the Dead Indians can be bought direct from Mode Records.

(initially published on ihatemusic)

Thanks to Netflix I’ve been watching some music DVDs that I’d been leery of purchasing outright. In general my wariness has been justified as most of these were things I can’t see watching more then the one time.  Not bad per se just of limited value.  I’ve got a bunch more of these on my Netflix queue so expect these reports every so often.

The most recent batch has been John Cage related material.  There are a lot of films with or about John Cage with more coming all the time. I think this is due in part to how out in public and how engaging of an interview he was but also I’d say there is some capitalizing on a popular figure. In general the ones that focus on his work, that he was involved with or that are interviews are always of value.

Cage/CunninghamCage/Cunningham, 1991

There are a number of videos (many forthcoming on DVD) featuring John Cage in the Merce Cunningham archive.  Their long collaboration yielded amazing results for both artists and this video goes over a bit of that history, their methods and some contemporary interviews.  The structure is a bit unorthodox in that it is part biography of the artists (a bit more focused on Cage) and part overview of their work. The interviews with Merce and John are contemporary to the filming of the documentary (1991) and are quite charming.  I really enjoyed this one, especially the bits the showed of Cunningham dances with live Cage/Tudor/Mumma/etc music.  Their methods of devising the music and dance separately, how they each used chance operations and the various ways that they revolutionized their individual areas are pretty common knowledge. The anecdotes from some of their contemporaries and collaborators plus the footage of the dances and the recording of the music (some unreleased) are the real gems here.

In the final analysis though this still isn’t one I’d return to very often if I owned it.  The Merce DVDs are quite expensive and I’d rather own the ones with complete pieces on it, for as I said above it is the art that really shines.

From ZeroJohn Cage: From Zero, 1995

This video is a collection of four short films about John Cage and his music by

Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver. The vary wildly in quality and in terms of content. The connecting thread is that this are all films by Scheffer who was greatly influenced by Cage and attempted to apply his methods to film making.  Culver became Cage’s first (and last) assistant and was instrumental in assisting Cage with a lot of his later works. He did a lot of work generating numbers for the later indeterminate works and create a lot of software for this.

19 Questions with John Cage
For this film 19 questions were randomly selected from a large list via Culver’s software and a duration for each. The film is Cage sitting outside and he’d read the question and state it’s duration, ie “19 Seconds on New York” and then he’d say a few words.  The filmmaking is erratic, most like due to Scheffer using chance operations for aspects of the camerawork.  The material would have been better served with a couple of fixed cameras and some nice editing between them, but it doesn’t detract too much from the content.  Tt is Cage’s warmth, wit and ability to generate a pithy, yet interesting answer to these questions that make this work.  Fairly late in Cage’s life and he does seem old and a bit frail, but his mind was a strong as ever.

Fourteen with the Ives Ensemble
This was simultaneously the highlight and most frustrating of the four short films. Fourteen is a fantastic piece, the Ives Ensemble one of the best in the world and this is a wonderful reading of the piece.  But as a film it is maddening.  Here chance operations was applied to virtually all aspects of the filming from the lighting, to the camera peoples movement, to the focal length, aperture and panning of the cameras and to the final editing of the film.  This results in huge fuzzy shots of unidentifiable elements, zooms into parts of the frame that aren’t interesting, things that you want to actually look at being panned past and so on.  I for one applaud the experimentation of applying Cage’s techniques into other areas, but I think that the same care and thought that he put into is is important.  Look at the elements of the music he’d leave to chance, examine the features that’d he’d still control and see how that would work. Leaving something 100% up to chance might be an interesting experiment but for real experiments you acknowledge failure and add that to your data.

This film though was somewhat redeemed by a bonus feature on the disc that was the making of the piece. For one you got to see more the performers playing which is what I really wanted to see. There was a number of sounds that I was intensely curious about their source that the primary film denied me any view of (piano strings being bowed by running a wire under them, was one it turned out).  Furthermore I found the application of the chance operations interesting, something that you didn’t really get from the film itself. It looked more like a bunch of amateurs with video cameras trying to be arty. As I said above I fully endorse the experimentation, but I think you should acknowledge when it doesn’t work.

Paying Attention with John Cage
The third film was by far the lowlight of the whole disc. Luckily it was fairly short.  The piece was an interview with Cage that Scheffer filmed fairly straight. He then applied video effects to it while Culver independently generated a soundtrack. What Culver did was take a short segment and slow it down to the length of the film. The overall effect was just painful to watch.  Again they tried to mimic some of Cage’s methods, in this case they way that he and Cunningham would create their works separately, but it just came out as artless.

Overpopulation and Art with Ryoanji
(with John Cage, Isabelle Ganz and Michael Pugliese)

The final piece on this disc is an audio recording of Cages last lecture, Overpopulation and Art, mixed with a performance of Ryonanji. The video aspect is two locations that were both important to Cage – the woods in upstate NY near where he lived for years and a street corner in NYC near where he lived toward the end of his life.  Again chance operations are used to set up some of the camera work but in this case it works much better.  The long pans and shifts of focus work much better in these natural scenes. It’s not like a documentary not showing you what you want to see as in Fourteen, but an artful view of various scenes. The cutting between the two parts (which may also have been chance based, but I’m not sure) works well in this context and considering the difference between the two (nature and city) is a nice contrast.  Cage of course is always an engaging reader der an this is one of his more powerful essays. It being his last, it has the feel of a summing up, of a last communique a final attempt to get some of his ideas out there. The performance of Ryonanji is a nice compliment to all of this and very well done.

So overall this is an interesting if frustrating set of films. Paying Attention shouldhave just been left on the cutting room floor, but otherwise they are all worth seeing. However the artlessness of most of the films detracts from the content which is always interesting.

Cage/Cunningham can bought direct from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
From Zero can be bought direct from Mode Records.

9 Evenings Poster
“In 1966 10 New York artists worked with 30 engineers and scientists from the world renowned Bell Telephone Laboratories to create groundbreaking performances that incorporated new technology. Video projection, wireless sound transmission, and Doppler sonar – technologies that are commonplace today – had never been seen in the art of the 60’s.” – Billy Klüver

I first became aware of the 9 Evenings: Theatre & Enginnering series while searching for information on John Cage’s Variations pieces. Variations VII, which includes the use of telephone lines to bring in sounds from far away places, was only performed as part of this event and was never released.  So I was quite pleased to discover that a documentary on this performance was to be released on DVD via Microcinema. Even better was that it included audio of the complete performance as a bonus feature. I bought this DVD as soon as it was available, but in the interim I did some research into the event. It turned out to be a fascinating collaboration between technologists, artists and modern composers.

“9 Evenings was organized by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, then a research scientist at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was held at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City from October 13-23, 1966. As Billy Klüver has written: “9 Evenings was unique in the incredible richness and imagination of the performances. The Armory space allowed the artists to work on an unprecedented scale, and their involvement with technology and collaborations with the engineers added a dimension of unfamiliarity and challenge. They responded with major works.” – Billy Kluver

Each of these DVDs begins with an short intro sequence put together by Robert Rauschenberg, with quick cut video and some pretty noisy music which sets the tone pretty well. Then there is an edited version of the performance, followed by a short documentary where they talk about the specific piece. Then a set of closing credits.  All in all the performance part is usually pretty short and at least in the case of Variations VII which was something like 80 minutes long, heavily edited. Personally I’d like to have video of the whole performance there, it is quite entertaining to watch with all the activity and such plus there was usually an interesting visual component even if it was just lighting and low light camera work.  As I mentioned above they did include the complete audio of one of the performances here which is really great and something that I hope they continue for the entire series.

“For his 9 Evenings piece, Variations VII, John wanted to use as sound sources “only those sounds which are in the air at the moment of performance”.  He wanted sounds from all over the city and if possible all over the world. He also wanted to pick up the sounds from outer space.” – Billy Klüver

Variations VIIAlong with ten telephone lines open to various places the piece included an electronics setup controlled by David Tudor, optical triggers that the performers, and in the second performance the audience, could trigger, contact mic’ed up household appliances, plus more contact mics on the platform itself along with “20 radio bands, 2 television bands, and 2 Geiger counters”.  There is also a giant siren that goes off at the beginning and various times throughout the piece. It is a pretty raucous affair as you can imagine, but the palette of sounds is incredible rich and there is tons to listen for.  Personally I thoroughly enjoyed the piece and as I said wish there was more video of it. I think that a real thorough documentation of this event would include the complete video of both performances as well as what is on this DVD. I suppose though that the reality of funding makes that impossible at this time, but it’d be nice if someday all the video is made available.  [Edit: As per Ken Weissman‘s comments, apparently the entirety of each set was not filmed and these present the bulk of what they have. See the comments for more details]

I’ve listened to the audio only portion of this DVD on several occasions and I think that it is a strong piece in the electronic works of Cage and Tudor. Those who appreciate Cartridge Music, Variations II-VRainforest and other pieces from this period will definitely find a lot to like here. It is chaotic, noisy and dense but filled with incredible sounds, chance overlays of great complexity and a deep structure that comes through for all of that.  It is a performance that bears repeated listens and that will reveal more each time.

Open ScoreThe first of the DVDs put out in this series, though the second one that I watched, was Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score.  This ran through the same format as Variations VII with the intro put together by Rauschenberg, excerpts from the piece, followed by a short documentary.  As I mentioned above I became interested in this event due to the Cage piece, but since that time I’ve become quite taken with Rauschenberg’s art and the events that he staged. I had read Calvin Tomkins The Bride and the Bachelors earlier this year and had become quite intrigued with Rauschnbergs work. With his death in May this year I was inspired to pick up this DVD (and also Calvin Tomkins Rauschenberg biography, Off the Wall).

The piece begins with a man and a woman playing tennis with amplified tennis rackets.  The raised floor they were on also seemed to react to sound. The game wasn’t too intense, they were focusing on long lobbies for the sound aspects. The lights dimmed throughout the tennis game (apparently controlled by the audio of the game) and as it went dark they left the stage. The next segment of the piece was completely different. It involved 500 people who  crowded the floor and did a series of predefined actions that they would change based on flashlight signals from the balcony. This was in near total darkness but it was picked up via infrared cameras and projected onto screens above the floor that only the audience could see. In the second performance Rauschenberg added a third act:

“He had the crowd leave silently in the dark. Then a single spotlight picked up the shape of a girl in a cloth sack – Simone Forti – singing a Tuscan folk song she remembered from her childhood. Rauschenberg picked her up, carried her to another place on the Armory floor and put her down. He repeated this several times as she continued
to sing.” – Billy  Klüver

The effect of these huge crowd doing these very ordinary movements (waving, shaking hands, hugging and so forth) projected in ghostly infrared was pretty impressive. It was hard to tell how edited the piece was, the video section was maybe 15-20 minutes long and you got the impression that it went on for more like 40 minutes. Again it’d have been nice to have seen the whole thing and as this one was not quite so sound oriented it doesn’t include an audio only version of it.  An interesting piece especially in how Rauschenberg used such devices as micro transmitters and infrared cameras which were pretty advanced tech in the day.

While imperfect documents this is an entirely interesting and important series, one that I hope goes on to the full ten releases they have planned. Rauschenberg was one of the motivators behind this series and with his death he obviously will be unavailable in this role. One hopes that as a tribute they complete what has to have been one of his final projects.The artists included the 9 Evenings and who are expeced to appear on the rest of this series are  Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, DeborahHay, Robert Whitman, Steve Paxton, Alex Hay, Lucinda Childs and Öyvind Fahlström. I’m curious about the whole series, but am especially interested in David Tudor’s Bandoneon! which is one of his major compositions that as far as I’m aware is not available in any form. Hopefully that DVD will again include the complete audio (if not the complete performance). You can expect more reports in this series as further releases are made.

The films were produced by Billy  Klüver and Julie Martin of E.A.T. and directed by Barbro Schultz Lundestam and are distributed exclusively through Microcinema.

9 Evenings of Theatre & Engineering
Experiments in Art and Technology
E.A.T. Publications
John Cage Database
John Cage’s WikiPedia page
Robert Rauschenberg’s WikiPedia page
Billy Kluver’s WikiPedia page

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