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.