when a film and a concert elicit verbosity and a ramble...
several weeks ago i watched louis malle's 1974 film humain, trop humain... and a night later i went to see vicky ray and the eclipse quartet perform morton feldman's 1985 piece "piano and string quartet". i'd never seen malle's film before, and while i've listened to feldman's piece many times on CD (i once spent a month listening to it every night before sleep, and it might be my favorite piece of his music), i'd never had the opportunity to hear it live.
coincidence can be a strange thing. the film arrived a few days before the concert, and i watched the film without any real thoughts towards feldman's work until the following evening, when his origami-like music began folding and unfolding in on itself in front of my ears, and i couldn't stop thinking about the film... and the experience led to this lengthy ramble...
in simple terms the film and music (live) crossed paths in various places:
pacing (they both move slowly)
patience (in the works' trajectory, and the necessity of it by an audience)
precision (in movement and sound)
repetition (of seemingly mundane actions that become transcendent)
space, and or, breath (pauses or shifts, but never drama)
actual presence (as opposed to metaphor... i.e. you see what you see and you hear what you hear)
spectral particles (bigger things made of vibrating smaller things)
humans and objects in sympathy (be it an instrument or a machine)
duration (both are about the same length of time - depending on who is playing the feldman)
lilting (as in lilting moments amongst the tension)
tension (as in tension found between the lilts)
harmony (as well as dissonance)
abstraction (as an opposite to narrative)
implied space (through repetition and/or permutation)
actual sound (or image) generating ethereal space
hands (moving, lifting, rubbing, touching, working, playing)
drone (the resonance of a piano pedal, the resonance of machines)
choreography (as in the physical activities of the musicians and the factory workers)and certainly finding more things to bind these works together would be as endless as listing their differences....
humain, trop humain, was filmed mostly in a citroen factory, and consists of various shots of folks working in tandem with machines. one of the most beautiful images is of a woman on some kind of vertical elevator, dangling a large roll of steel while moving across what seems to be an endless space of similar rolls arranged in patterns on the ground. the pace of the movement is slow, focused, and filled with a tension (not a danger tension, but a tension tension...) as if the situation is so fragile it might fall apart - perhaps a better term would be architectural tension, which is very much like certain moments of feldman's music. both pieces are also both rigorous and gentle at the same time, suggesting a space of patience and surrender, rather than endurance (and this idea could be applied in both cases to the performers as well as the audience).
like feldman's piece, malle's film has no true narrative - nor does it have any kind of spoken descriptions. the visual situation, as well as its accompanying sound, is the viewer's only known reality, and with feldman, the situation is similar: you don't go forward as much as you simply immerse. both works are about being "in the moment" as opposed to a necessity of looking forward or back for "meaning". while both works seem abstract, they are, in truth, much more actual, allowing the viewer/listener to move within the space (formal, emotional or otherwise) of what they are seeing and hearing - and if one is sensitive to such an experience, both works have the potential to elicit a transcendent response.
while malle's film is listed in most in reviews as a documentary, it is actually much closer to a field recording. neither the machines nor the workers are performing for the cameras, as much as their movement and sound are artifacts of situational activities. malle is not directing the movement nor the sound as much as he is documenting it. nonetheless, the editing, the point of view and the treatment of material in sound and vision ends up closer to poetry. in feldman's case, where sound is perceived as the primary audience experience, the visual choreography of the performers' synchronicity is also hard to ignore - and while it too is simply an artifact of music making activities, it is a visually beautiful thing to behold.
somehow, while watching both of these groups of humans move in certain rhythms related to the tasks at hand, i thought of cage's words about not wanting to replicate nature but being interested in working within nature's manner of operation. if anyone was able to write music that replicated the delicately finite workings of nature in a way that also reflects its abstraction, fragility, precision, permutation, repetition, implied randomness and slippery organization (slippery as in 'hard to grasp', rather than loose and free), it would be feldman. watching malle's film, one also gets the sense that even with the mechanical repetition of the machines, the human element gives these actions a different kind of quality - as if the two, man and machine, are coming together through negotiation, lending certain qualities of themselves to each other.
while most people would not consider malle's film in relation to the term "visual music", i do think that viewing it comes closer to that kind of experience than anything else, and i think the use of the words 'visual' and 'music' pressed together make sense in terms of how the film speaks (as opposed to the historical use of the term). although this idea was probably far from malle's concerns, i couldn't help but think about the film's repetitions - not only in obvious relation to a kind of dehumanized mechanical worker existence; but also how the mantra-like visual rhythms suggest the kind of integration of parts found in steve reich's early pieces, and perhaps even the repetitive nature of chant and prayer.
in terms of a different reading, vincent canby wrote about the film in relation to humor, irony and criticality - singling out a scene where a car-body is slowly submerged into a vat of soapy water which he suggests is a tongue in cheek reference to the film psycho. i'm thinking that canby and i have different eyes, because i lean a lot more towards transcendence and poetry than an ironic poke at car culture and the plight of factory workers. humain, trop humain is a complex film to experience, and canby's take seems too one dimensional a response. certainly the repetition of the actions of humans working in a factory is the focal point of malle's conversation; but it would be difficult to deny the work's complexity, as well as well as its potential for multiple readings, to suggest is is only about "plight".
the funny thing for me, is that the car-scene canby saw as a joke, i saw as one of the most beautiful sequences in the entire film. the slow moving image of the sinking vehicle seems much like a deep breath or pause, resembling an elephant slowly moving into a pond, to bathe with a sense of submerging and floating. to me, the scene felt more akin to the musicality of a requiem...
while many people have written about the film's lack of narration, i have yet to find a review that talks about the importance of malle's use of existing sound. his use of the factory's "natural" soundscape tends to, again, not only suggest a dehumanized work environment, but how the repetition of noise can also become lilting, musical, emotional, and at times, even beautiful. there are many moments in the film, where the sound takes over, and i was drawn away from the visual repetition, focusing suddenly more on the "film" that was coming out of the speakers than pictured on the screen.
after spending an evening with malle's factory workers, i found myself immersed in feldman's piano and string quartet, watching the musicians perform their necessary soundings, shifts and pauses. they were insanely precise. they seemed complex machines, but there was not a single second of the music that felt clinical or mechanical.
as the musicians were locked into something i would absurdly call feldman's "groove", they created not only a whole lot of delicate beauty, but a whole lot of tension as well. feldman's piece is spacious, pause-filled, and for the most part, relatively quiet; so one is not only aware of the music, but also of the sounds of one's own body and the sounds of the space. watching and listening to the musicians, it seemed that if anyone in the theatre misplaced a breath, feldman's fragile structure would cave in upon itself. this tension could also be found in certain latter sequences of malle's film, where the scenes became more about hands than spans, and the workers' activities became more intimately connected to their respective machines, where a break in one's focus might cost a finger or a hand. in both cases, the building process is always moving towards the potential precipice of collapse (although i'm not comparing the reality of a wrong note to a lost appendage...).
while the factory repetitions are truly repetitive (at least for the most part, as machines do have their own idiosyncracies), feldman's repetitions seem, at least to someone who doesn't read music, much more implied - feeling more like permutations than actual repeated sequences. while the repetition of the machines becomes more complex as they blend together into drone, feldman's implied repetitions are like watching really small waves... they all look the same at first, but over time you realize that no two are truly alike.. with feldman, everything suddenly becomes about perception and intricacies.
one of feldman's quotes in the program's notes also seemed to relate to malle's film:
"up to one hour you think about form.
after an hour and a half it's scale."
i know he was talking about his own music, but this idea would certainly be appropriate towards describing humain, trop humain as well; and in the end, as both pieces move from the building of single forms towards a scale, one is absorbed into either form's greater continuum.